When I was a boy, growing up in Northern Vermont, arguably in either the end of the Appalachian Chain or beginning of the Laurentian Range, winter was as much hell for me as it ever was for Persephone. In fact, there were times when I would gladly have traded my cloudy, north-wind-blown, packed-snow landscape for whatever she viewed in Hades because it undoubtedly would have been warmer. To a boy whom my father frequently referred to as “all boy and a yard wide,” meaning I suppose that if it was breakable I’d smash it, if I could throw it I’d heave it, and if there was mischief of any sort to be found I’d land smack in the middle of it, the confines of winter were all but unendurable.
I remember the sadness I felt as November’s first flakes sailed out of a steely sky, coating a brown world in shades of white and light blue that would persist until mid-April. It was a time of bulky snow boots, single-piece, polyester-filled snow suits with wide zippers designed to thwart every young boy’s attempt at independence and dressing himself, colorful, knit mittens that left hands stained for days when they grew damp, and awful hats pulled tight over my bowl-cut hair to protect my ears from frostbite and make sure my bangs poked squarely into my eyes. In the moments I was allowed outdoors, times when the world seemed always close to sunset, I would kick furiously at the snow along the leeward side of our old farmhouse in hopes of exposing a tuft of dry grass. Just to make sure it was still down there. To convince myself the days of summer, with hands sticky from melting popsicles, the hum of evening insects, and the scent of fresh-cut hay all around, had been more than some cruel dream.
Now, nearly half a century later, I remember the sounds of those winters at least as much as the sights. The constant exhale of wind under the eves outside my bedroom. The suck of air in the middle of the night as my father opened our heavy front door to start our car and let it run for half an hour so that it might do the same at daybreak. The wail of the town fire siren signaling a dreaded chimney fire. The perfect silence of pre-dawn when the world seemed devoid of all things living.
I remember, too, the first little signs of spring, so slow to come and yet so quickly spotted.
“Making her through,” we’d say proudly when the first pussy willow buds could be pried apart between our finger nails in early February to reveal tiny, soft nubs of catkins weeks before they’d open on their own. Or how we’d gather in wonder as a family around a window sometime in March and watch the year’s first rain fall, cold and sleety. Then would come a day when my father would yell to me, “Jacob Bennett, come listen to this!” I’d run outside to a world where geese were calling, sometimes in the dark when I couldn’t see them, desperately hoping the notes wouldn’t fade, so afraid that when they did we would plunge directly back into winter. We didn’t of course, not for very long at least, and as if some variation of Newton’s Third Law bounded my emotions, the only thing equaling my despair during winter was my joy at these small signs of spring.
That hasn’t changed. Not one tiny, premature-pussy-willow-bud bit. So, as the equinox approaches, that date when day and night span the same and we can say in the North Country that spring is officially here and present, I spent an hour with Nikon’s 200mm Micro Nikkor lens seeing what minuscule signs of spring I could root up in Billings, Montana.
I followed a mile of the Yellowstone River on foot where the calls of male redwings blended with I-90 truck traffic, the barking of dogs, and the roar of jets on final approach to the airport. It’s not the environment I prefer for photographs (or much of anything else for that matter), but spring does not discriminate and will infiltrate the urban as well as the rural.
My first discovery was that spring already had more than a toe-hold on this stretch of river. If what I wanted was to search high and low for hard-to-find signs of winter’s demise, I was two weeks too late. I realized this with mixed emotions, as happy as ever to find evidence of turning seasons, sad that my perception of both winter and time has changed so much with age. They both seem to course along now at least as fast as the Yellowstone, which ran tinted with the first hint of snowmelt, the large flocks of geese that had wintered over now broken into pairs that were claiming nesting sites along its banks.
Against a gray backdrop of mature cottonwoods, I spotted a honeysuckle-like shrub whose buds looked obviously swollen. A few steps across a well-worn walking path brought me closer where I realized they weren’t buds but actual flowers forming in clusters no larger than a pencil’s eraser. I set up my tripod, focused on one manually, and used the self-timer option to remotely trigger my shutter. The 200mm Nikon micro is a fine lens, and like all true macros reproduces images at 1:1. Depth of field shrinks to millimeters but fine details are revealed. Here, at larger than life, was the pale-yellow face of spring. And I was happy.
As I collapsed the legs of my tripod, a yellow lab collie mix bounded up and without an ounce of restraint thrust muddy paws onto my thighs, lolled its head, and waited for me to scratch its ears. Its owner, a woman in multi-colored spandex, came jogging along a few moments later, shrugged an apology when she saw my jeans, then continued upstream while I wiped dirt from my pants and the smell of dog from my hands.
The riverbank was steep here, and while I doubted I’d find much in the way of spring between it and the water, for a hundred yards or so that was alright with me. I slid off on some approximation of a path, accelerating rapidly the ten feet to the washed rocks that formed a three-foot-wide section of shore. Out of sight from dogs and joggers, I watched an old beaver cutting swing toward me in an eddy. I reached for it, leaning out over the river, and just as my fingertips touched one chewed end it was pulled back, the magnetism of a rising current too strong.
Fifteen minutes later, after watching a bald eagle cover a quarter mile of river in no more than six wing beats, I came to where the water had washed a pocket out from under the roots of a massive cottonwood. It was sandy under the tree, and an ancient buffalo tooth lay freshly exposed.
I can’t say precisely what I found spring-like about a centuries-old tooth, but as I positioned my camera and focused on enamel turning to something closer to opal, I was struck by the passage of time in general and the whirling of many seasons. I remembered riding a giant cake of ice down an irrigation ditch that bisected a muddy, Vermont cornfield one afternoon in March when I was ten. Then, in nearly equal clarity, I pictured bison crossing the Yellowstone at this very place much earlier. A lot has changed since both I decided as I pocketed the tooth. Springs and summers and winters have come and gone, a cycle that’s repeated since well before there were bison or anyone around to find their teeth. As soon as my shutter clicked, I climbed back up the riverbank, a part of me hopeful there would be another dog and owner nearby.
There was no one there, but under the cottonwoods a much smaller aspen had taken hold, its catkins fluffy and dark, moving just enough in the wind to make focusing on one with a macro lens a real challenge. As I waited for the breeze to still and the catkin to cease fluttering, I wondered where this little tree came from. I’ve looked for elk high above the Yellowstone’s tributaries in both Montana and Wyoming ,where aspens are thick and turn unique shades of orange in September. I wondered if perhaps I’d walked among this lone tree’s ancestors, a bow in my hand, trying to decide if the bull elk I’d heard bugle was moving closer or further away. Again, the passage of time and some connectedness to it and the seasons washed over me. Again, part of me wanted to see someone else out and about on this spring day. No one showed, and as soon as I took my picture I started back upstream.
A slab of concrete fifty feet inside the timber caught my eye, borne down in the great flood of 2011 from some failed bridge. It was wedged against a cottonwood which it had come up against hard enough to slice open three or four inches. The gash had healed, leaving a dull-brown scar, and in a fissure near it in the concrete – its own scar - I saw movement.
The wolf spider was not as active as he’ll be in a month, I thought as I carefully positioned my camera for the shot. I focused slowly, smiling to myself over how glad I was to see him. I have no aversion to spiders, but it occurred to me that come summer when they no longer act as ambassadors of spring I would not be as eager to see a 1:1 image of his many eyes. Here, on this March afternoon, I greeted him with joy, feeling a little better about where time was going and my place in it all. My shutter opened, the spider retreated, deeper into his concrete house, and I took a direct, cross-country route toward my truck, convinced that spring was all around.
In five minutes, I was deep in the cottonwoods, as far as I’d get from walking paths - in a place where that wasn’t all that far – and as I stepped over a rotting log I stopped midstride. Three purple crocuses stood in full bloom, a splash of brilliant color on a sea of dead leaves. I sat down on the log and stared at them for a long time, at first believing that like the concrete they’d washed down five years ago. Then I realized that my short walk had taken me uphill, above any evidence of flooding.
With a vision as clear as the one I’d had of fording bison, I saw someone planting bulbs and then returning, year after year, to sit exactly where I sat and watch as their flowers welcomed spring. Maybe they’d come early sometimes, as thrilled as I’d been when I was young and found stubby, green spears jutting from the semi-frozen ground of my mother’s flower bed.
I switched lenses for this shot, wanting all flowers in the frame, then spent a little more time after I’d taken the picture raking leaves in deep around them. It was supposed to be cold that night, a tendril of winter trying its best to hang on a bit longer. Crocuses are tough I thought, but still….
Later that night, when it did turn cold and I heard the gas heater kick on in my house, I looked at the photos I’d taken and thought about the blur of time. The New England poet, Robert Frost, wrote of spring that nothing gold can stay. If I may be as presumptuous to disagree, I do. And I think if Frost had lived 100 miles further north – in the land both Appalachian and Laurentian – he’d see my point. What endures, at least in the North Country where people still celebrate “making it through,” is hope. Life in latitudes where a north wind sings and smoke rises high and straight from chimneys would be impossible without it. It lives everlasting in the boy who looks skyward long before the first geese return, the woman who hang-dries laundry one or two days during the winter when there’s sun, and whoever plants crocuses in the middle of a forest.