The first step comes on New Year’s Day. I am very strict about this: There will be no belated Christmas trappings like hungover guests who collapsed in the coatroom. The ornaments come off, and the tree comes out of its stand and gets hoisted to the lawn. The sawn-off branches mulch the garden, the bare trunk gets pitched on the brush pile. Time also to take down the colored metal balls I hung on the potted pines by the front door, unless crows and jays have beat me to it, spiriting them away to their hordes of shiny objects.
The boughs we lay on the mantel, having no definite holiday significance, stay through the cold weeks, until time sucks all moisture out of them and a touch sends showers of needles to the floor. Taking them down is hand-prickling business. We once found, among the twigs, a mouse who had crept up, eaten juniper berries, and was no longer stirring. I stack the boughs in the fireplace and touch a match. A grate full of pine needles offers myriad surface areas; they blaze, and actually roar, like the last judgment. The orange afterglow lingers for minutes.
One step we used to take about this time was an addition, not a subtraction — hanging out two or four buckets to collect sap. When the sun is higher but the ground is still covered with snow, that is the time to rap spiles into the maple trunks and let the sap flow. It comes in drops, but it does not stop, like the ticking of a no-wind tree clock. The tink-tink sound is both pert and primal. Even the pure sap has a slight sweet tang, and the syrup, when you finally boil it down, is rich and wonderful. But the process of collecting and reducing is unrelenting; the ratio of sap to syrup is 40 to one. I am glad we did it for a couple of late winters; our friend Doug even made a custom label for our — one jug, or was it two? Now I am content to get my syrup from the retired prison guard who boils and bottles it professionally down the road.
Chipmunks appear. Squirrels we have always with us, their smaller striped neighbors hibernate. There comes a day though when the chipmunks are back, with their scraggly tails and their big babies’ eyes. They make squirrels look staid and slow-footed. I have not seen them yet this year. Have they caught some disease? Is there a cycle of which I am unaware? Did red squirrels, of which I have seen several, move in on their niche? I have 22 acres; something that weighs a couple of ounces can find its own niche. About the same time, or a little later, the colors in or on certain tree branches change. Willows brighten, the high-up tips of maples blush. The red of the maples is caused by a haze of tiny flowers, which precede the leaves. Look at them, they will soon be gone.
Next you take down the bird feeders. In the worst weather you were never without the company of the winter flock. There is food intelligence, if not safety, in numbers, and so they come together, making, I imagine, the rounds of other feeders in the neighborhood, in addition to mine. When I top up with a load of sunflower seeds, chickadees announce, the café car is open. Then come the juncos, bellies seemingly whitened from the snow they stick to, no-longer-gold finches, upside-down nuthatches, titmouses, sparrows, maybe some exotic that sends you to guidebooks — wait, did it have a spot on its breast? The male cardinal hangs back, as if traveling incognito. Why are you the color of a firetruck then? If they come before dawn, their footprints are their visitors’ cards. Bird was so unlucky as to find you still asleep. Thanks for the chow. But now there are bugs out, in the air, crawling on bark. The birds become simultaneously louder and elusive. They don’t need us anymore. Time to stack the suet logs on top of the cabinet over the washing machine, hose down the feeders, and store them in the shed.
Orion puts himself away. Ice melt and snow shovels go to the carport (but remember there is always an April storm). The rain barrels were drained last fall and covered with copper tops, to prevent freezing water from splitting their sides. Over the years weather and wet have turned the copper the many colors of the inside of a seashell. They now get picked up and stored away. If there is a charred fragment from the last cooking fire of this winter, I leave it in the fireplace to kindle the first fire of next winter.
All this time my wife, in addition to routine chores, has been doing actual planning and work, reading seed catalogues, placing orders, arranging the packets that arrive in the mail according to when we will place our bet on a harvest.
The last step, the real step, is one we do not take, that comes to us: the afternoon moment, when you hear from the marsh across the road, and every other low wet place, the sound of peepers. It is a shock, like static electricity. If you are in a car, it shouts through the windows. If you walk out and listen (and let their alarm at your appearance subside), it sounds like the Caribbean. It is crowds, copulation, come here come here, riotous but constructive, ancient and brand new. It is the earthly resurrection.
Now is the moment when we put on the pants and the T-shirts impregnated with tick repellant, put on the gloves, the neck cloths, and the On Golden Pond bush hats. No paparazzi, please, this is a different kind of opening. We will now work the soil, with fingers and trowels, for the next seven months.