You cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall.
I used to experience spring as a violent upheaval. The arrival of pollen was hard on my eyes, sinuses, and nasal passages and I would feel miserable for weeks. The rolling waves of bloom washed over me joylessly; I felt an alien in my body. T.S. Eliot said “April is the cruelest month,” making it the first Eliot verse I ever understood.
I preferred winter, the way it granted me permission to cover my body from exposure to the sun and others’ eyes. I was ashamed of the way my hair would frizz out in the returned humidity, brought north in a manner rudely premature by the Gulf Stream and then blanketing central Maryland for at least half the year. Spring deprived me of the bracing temperatures I craved, that frigid cold I associated with clear nights, cleaner skies, a profusion of stars, and greater mobility for my spirit. Blinded by pollen’s blear, I longed for some brisk in spring.
The season’s ugliness presented itself to me not only as allergens but in the arrival of seventeen-year cicadas to my community when I was eight. In May of 1987, the red-eyed, black-bodied and segmented forms of literally billions of those prehistoric arthropods, known as Brood X, emerged from the Earth with a loud pop and overtook practically every inch of available surface in my neighbourhood. For a full month, the land crawled with dinning forms whose focal purpose was to climb trees, breed and die. Seventeen years of incubation finished in four weeks of braving hungry birds and dogs and of course humans, who treated their presence as a plague.
I personally did not mind the cicadas, in fact, I found them fascinating. The wonder of seeing something that I would not see again for seventeen years provided me with a different time perspective and I tried to imagine my twenty-five-year-old self witnessing the next “invasion.” Frankly, I did not find the cicadas ugly. What was ugly was the way in which kids I knew would kick and punt them like soccer balls or how people would choose to run them down with their cars. I recall going around and trying to remove the cicadas from places where I thought they were vulnerable to assault. Of course, I had no power to protect something so prolific and I quickly learned this. Somehow the effort to save cicadas made me forget my physical discomfort, my spring-as-allergen annual ritual.
Six years later, a second spring experience occurred that further changed my perception. I was fourteen and attending a retreat in the southern Pennsylvania mountains. It was May again and the land was a rolling new green, a tender and callow water colour shade. You could practically peer inside every leaf no matter the tree it came from. I recall thinking that the heat of summer deepened leaf pigmentation, that somewhere in July the summer swelter would end the adolescent of the foliage with leaves becoming hard-bitten in their almost bitter dark green. It was a fancy I had.
The bright yellow school bus I was in climbed and clutched its way through the low ancient hills of Appalachia and the higher up we went, the tinier each leaf became. It amazed me the power of those stumpy hills, how they could stagger a leafing out, a bloom’s appearance. Pennsylvania is a place where the mountains move across the state in a series of rippling ridges which, seen from a satellite or airplane, look like ripples across a pond from a dropped stone. Down on the ground it is easy to feel nearly swallowed up by the torque of those ridges; the mountains conceal countless valleys, secreted corners known as “hollers.”
While listening to the cacophony of conversation and bawdy jokes that makes a trip among fourteen year old boys distinct, I found myself increasingly drawn to the trees I was seeing. I kept gazing at them, only half listening to the Creedence Clearwater Revival cassette tape in my hornet coloured Sony Walkman. The further up we went, the more reassuring I found the presence of the trees. They felt like friends, relations perhaps who were welcoming me to a weekend sojourn with them. I felt welcome, recognizing in myself a budding warmth that I would be in a place where they were so present. And present they were; when I emerged from the bus it wasn’t the dorms, the playing fields, or the dining hall that drew my attention; it wasn’t even the arrival of attractive girls. The trees encroached upon everything in a way they did not back down below, seventy-miles or so southward, in the leafy suburb where I lived.
I felt only half with my friends and those other kids; the other half of me knew I was somehow with the trees.
It was a funny feeling. I could not have told you the difference between a hickory and beech at that time. I could not much have differentiated between the lobes of any trees beyond maples and oaks. What I did sense, in my state of inchoate knowing was the trees had indicated the presence of intrigue. There was a whisper of mystery and there was the unknown in the retreating dark of the encircling woods. I knew both and was very happy.
A year before, a short phrase of a Hebrew prayer had been lodged in my rote memory during my Bar Mitzvah studies. It is a verse included in the afternoon prayer of the Amidah and reads: Mashiv HaRuach U’Morid HaGeshem or, in English, “You cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall.” In Judaism, in the spring, it is customary to stop chanting that phrase after the Passover holiday has ended. The reason being that in Israel, spring concludes the winter rains and announces the coming of the dry season, a long period of desert heat. In Maryland, spring brings with it plenty of rain and wind, often through thunderstorms. I found this practice of omission curious as it did not reflect my reality, an embodied awareness of season my allergies had taught.
On that day in mid-May, up in the low mountains, waking to the fact that the trees could seemingly take an interest in me, I thought about that little prayer and whether I might write my own version. If the words would be different, its spirit would remain the same.