It comes in first on the short-wave: a few tentative peeps from the spring peepers, a Morse code meaning, Here, I’m here.
It comes on a day when ice hasn’t even left the shadow side of the mill-pond, and hairline cracks run through it like fossils of last year’s current.
By tomorrow, though, the pond’s clear, and an osprey just returned from Venezuela has already baptized himself in that frigid water, pulling out a huge fish that he brings to a low branch and beheads. He makes a short, hoarse, barking cry, relaying the same message in dots and dashes: Here, I’m here.
The spring is something like a radio. To get music out of it, you have to tune it to one station or another: to bat-squeak, or owl-whinny, or sluice-rush where the snowmelt is dredging a stream-bed; to the pickerel frogs snoring out their song, wide awake; to the pileated woodpecker throwing himself headfirst against the hollow oak, fifteen times a second. (Faster than that, the human ear can no longer pick out the individual taps.)
Every sound has its dimensions: height and breadth and depth, mashing up the air in almost visible patterns. And each seems to run on closed circuits, closed systems: the frogs sing as if this were only a frog-world. And yet, listening to each individual frequency, trying to sort them, you realize how many are playing at the same time: not only the bat and the owl and the pickerel frog, but, just barely audible, the hermit thrush scuffling old leaves underfoot in the deep shade of hemlocks, and in between the leaves, the thin stalks of red trillium grinding up toward the patchwork light. Spring’s the radio that syncs up every bit of news at once.
Cacophony, chaos! Unsorted spring tumbles around the inner ear like a load of mismatched buttons in a washing machine.
Or, maybe it’s the sound of grass inside the jaw of a porcupine. Two of them have come out of their deep-woods lair to this open clearing, man and wife, or mother and child: two burly, neckless pin-cushions, grazing. They take little notice of the man who’s come to listen to them snuffle and chew—one bristles a moment, turning herself spherical, but promptly returns to her green salad.
Being one of the few mammals for whom flight is not a first defense, the porcupine has a strange, calm demeanor—not like a tame cat, but like one who is too wise to be wary of this two-legged thing with his scissory walk, his pale, naked nose and protruding ears. Looking at their long nails and piebald buzz-cut, their sluggish, pigeon-toed waddle, the man finds them equally foolish. Only now and then, three or four white quills on the back of the nearest one rise and fall in a breathing rhythm, and a dark eye looks out from deep in her face. There’s nothing but the sound of grass compacting behind her curved, orange teeth. Like antennae, the white quills rise and fall.
Your spring is here is how the broadcast goes, over and over, faster and faster, fifteen times a second, muddled up in all its million languages and yet as clear as day.
All photographs taken by the author and used with permission.
Henry Walters is a naturalist, a teacher, and a falconer. He lives and writes in a cabin in southern New Hampshire on a 1,700-acre tract of conservation land, of which he acts as steward. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of print publications, including The Old Farmer's Almanac. He is the co-founder of the Harriers, a club for young birders throughout New Hampshire (nhyoungbirders.org), and as a seasonal naturalist for the New Hampshire Audubon during the fall hawk migration, his writing appears on the blog (www.hawkcount.org) for Pack Monadnock Raptor Migration Observatory.