17 September 2008

Le Sacre du Printemps

Dear Heavenly Father, it’s spring.

We made it all through the winter, we haven’t frozen to death, killed each other, or otherwise suffered the consequences of seven people living in a snow-bound and increasingly smelly house, afflicted by cabin fever. I know it’s over, because an hour ago I witnessed the Resurrection, just below our hayfield, next to the ruins of the old Lampville Schoolhouse. It was the arrival of the Cross-Bearers. I listened to them sing.

Now to other people in other places, spring arrives on other cues, on symbols that I know nothing about. Perhaps it’s the day the sun rises at exactly the right point on the horizon, at exactly the right time. Perhaps it’s the first flower of a certain species, or the first appearance of a certain bird. Perhaps it’s a cultural benchmark, an annual theatrical production, a television program, maybe, for people who own television sets. For me, spring is heralded by the mating songs of the newly resurrected Cross-Bearers, the Pseudacris crucifer in the slough to the south of our warehouse.

I’d been expecting it. All the amphibians have been dormant all winter, hidden under stones, under the bark of the rotting trees, buried in the mud or the humus. But the temperature has been rising slowly with the increasing day length. Just three days ago, there was still a rim of snow around the dead-out beehives stacked by the warehouse. The frost on the market van yesterday was so thick it came off the windshield in clumps when I scraped it off to drive back from the transmission shop early in the morning (another story). But the wind blew all day yesterday, hard, and from the south. It was cool, but warmed gradually. And today it blew again, still from the south, and warmer than before. The first short-horned grasshopper nymph was out two days ago, and I saw the first mosquito this morning.

I knew they would come tonight, and at sunset I stepped out onto the kitchen porch, listened, and they were there. I could hear them from the house, just faintly, a mile off, so I started up the backup van and rolled it down to the slough, rattling over the broken limestone road. They hushed when I arrived, but I cut the lights and the engine, and sat in the growing darkness with the car window down. And after a few moments, one tentative peep floated up, followed by another. And then thick and fast they came at last, until after a minute the little valley rang with the songs and their echoes from the hillsides. It was finally spring.

They’re tiny little things, as tree frogs go. I’ve seen big tree frogs in the Oklahoma swamps, and bigger ones still in the high mountain streams of Arizona. These are about the size of a quarter, and have a single, high-pitched peep, repeated over and over. Not very impressive until they get together. After the first warm rains in the spring, though, they seek each other out by the hundreds in shallow ponds and temporary sloughs. From a mile away, they sound like distant teams of horses in harness bells. Up close, their united voice is thunderous, and you have to shout to be heard by someone standing close enough to reach out and touch. The song is an ode to joy, to new life, and a celebration of the cycle of Creation. On their backs is a dark brown “X,” the cross that gives them their name—crucifer—the Cross-Bearers.

Easter was just last Sunday. As a Quaker, I don’t pay much attention to traditional holy days, whether they’re Christian or not. Coincidentally, though, Ishtar this year fell within a day or two of the Vernal Equinox, the North American astronomical definition of spring. So this year the equinox coincided with the resurrection of the lesser Cross-Bearers, and also with Christendom’s celebration of the resurrection of the Greater Cross Bearer. All three at once. A blessed set of days.

This was just the first night. Tomorrow there will be more, and in a week the celebration will spread to the other amphibians in our neighborhood. Already tonight I heard the chuckling of the first Rana clamitans among the crucifers. Just a few, but they all know it’s about time.

And thank you, God, it is.

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