Hope for me, I hope for you
we’re snowdrops/falling through the night
                                    -Scott Walker

In the early spring, the land and the water open wide where I live. In past years, before climate change began to thin the lake ice, the last weeks of March were like a great barbaric yawp in which the breath of Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and the steel grey sky let out a great whoop and the land became stirred.

Spring used to come like a hammer to break up the ice, a shovel to clear the mounds of snow away. At the beginning of March, in deep cold, you would see a male cardinal perched atop a maple calling out to another cardinal somewhere in the bush. There would be little black insects that would appear on top of the deep snow and you would know something hidden was afoot. It was like a great switch was being thrown and how within some weeks the robins would come, the freshets would bloom, and people would sit in pancake houses to taste the sweet syrup taken from the taps.

That was March in southwestern Ontario. Spring was an awaited friend whose arrival would change everything, sometimes all at once. Now Spring starts showing signs of making landfall as early as January; I have seen snowdrops appear not far beyond Valentine’s Day and the lakes seldom freeze. The snow, too, comes with diminishing returns. Spring is insistent, not waiting for its designated place on the calendar, driven perhaps by a Summer that is taking over more and more of its territory while extending its suzerainty into October (sometimes even later).

This year, on the heels of a mild winter with little snow and few icy ponds, I find myself looking at Spring in a still different light. As everyone knows, Ontario is on lockdown like the rest of the world. My visitors now are primarily birds, chipmunks, skunks, and squirrels. The flowers that are peeking through the mud are beings not requiring that I maintain a safe distance. I look out my window and wait on the orioles, their black and orange streaks, that watery warble of their voices; I have suspended an orange slice on a feeder designed to attract them. On one side is the citrus, the other half contains a small bowl devoted to jelly. How long before the ants are roused by this sugar to climb the tall pole holding this contraption? I know that I will find out since I now have time to devote to these pursuits.

Of course, this is the stuff of the writing life: I am called to fill my life with beautiful minutiae, so many diffuse details that, like a pointillist portrait, will amount to a grand mural. I know they will.

And I am reminded of my great-grandmother, a woman who lived in small northwest Missouri towns almost her entire life. She used to wait for Spring; she counted the Purple Martins among her friends; she told my mom that the birds were excited to see her whenever she returned from a trip. I think of her and her husband, my great-grandfather who loved his cantaloupes and musk melons. He gardened, cultivating with gusto those round balls of flavour. Like his wife and life partner, he watched the seasons closely; he spent time up in his trees trimming branches. He knew about the thickest of the soil, the difference between sod and loam, of clay and the good black earth of the glaciated plains near the great Missouri River. The way the weather moved the subterranean fixtures of his working life, all of this was present in his consciousness.

Neither one of them was a writer, but they were people who used their hands. They found trends foolish. They were content to work with the land to make it bountiful. They were not enamoured of tv, radio, and of far off locations. They rose with the sun.

I knew them, caught glimpses of their character, their mētis, that practical knowledge the Greeks understood resides in the body, reposing in the limbs and digits. It is a knowledge the Canadian historian W.L. Morton spoke of when he recalled growing up on a Manitoba farm and spending planting time walking behind a horse-driven plow carving furrows into the turned over prairie. He spoke of how even as a grown man living in a distant city he could recreate the feeling his body felt walking with both hands-on wooden handles and timing his gait and balance to match a horse’s. I suspect Mr. Morton and my great-grandparents would have found common ground. Morton, historian and farm boy understood how the history of his country was the story of seasonal labour, of work.

I count myself kin to my late great-grandparents. My process, my source, my font as a writer resides in the soil, the vegetation, in the movements of animals and water, reposes in the seasonal meteorological processes. Right now as I, too, work to keep a safe distance from others to help humanity overcome this terrifying virus, I turn again to the land, water, and sky, to its fauna, to my wife and children, and to the memory of my ancestors. These rhythms, taken together, provide vitality.

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  1. I knew them and saw their land both in reality and in the combined images within my mind. It is the spirit that you capture in your words and it is that spirit that serves as the soil that supports resurgent life and new beginnings

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