Red maple sap boils down in a jam kettle on a friend's stove. Shoes sink into the mud to the ankle. Skunk cabbage pokes out young shoots by the stream banks.
This is the quick-change time of year, snow showers on sunny days, and the weather has an invigorating sting. Robert Frost runs in my head: "You know how it is with an April day."
Half May and half March, he says, warm when the wind drops, cold when a cloud blocks the sun. In "Two Tramps in Mud Time," standing water in the hoof prints is rimed with ice in the mornings.
He reminds me that April is still the slight beginning of spring. It is dampness to nurse young shoots, salamander weather, frost at night and mild by day to work the suction pump of the maple trees. He and Hal Borland, describing New England spring, tell me that when they were alive -- when I was born -- April was at the snow line, the first softening time when the weather got above freezing during the day and stayed there.
As recently as 1975, a Berkshire winter stayed freezing from November to March. Nights fell below zero, days tended to single digits, and a sunny 30-degree afternoon was warm.
And when April takes the edge off the frost, when the frogs stir and creatures of the vernal pools migrate across the forest floor to mate, I feel the contrast.
I feel like Frost, reminded how much he enjoys splitting beech logs:
"you'd think I had never felt before / the weight of an axhead poised aloft, / the grip on the earth of outspread feet, / the life of muscles rocking soft / and smooth and moist in vernal heat."
I want to get out into the woods and breathe, and listen.
The scents and sounds are coming back: a bird call in the morning, rain on the roof at night, a purple crocus blooming by the library. Are two of them crocuses or croci? Merriam Webster suggests that the word comes from Greek, krokos, and the Greeks may have taken it from the Arabic, kurkanu, saffron.
Saffron? Yes, they're related. The yolk-yellow spice of Persian dye, Sumarian medicines, Cornish sweet bread and Cleopatra's bath water is the dried, powdered stigma (pollen receptor) of a kind of crocus. Fields of it grew at Knossos, on the island of Crete. And its wild cousins are blooming here as the ground thaws.
April is always like that. The ground softens, the hills seem a gently uniform silver-grey, and ridges of snow linger in the shady places. But I look closely anywhere, and I find possiblities.