Spring Comes Under the Snow
[as published in Peter Gzowski's Spring Tonic, ed. Peter Gzowski (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1979, 167-168), and reprinted in The Keswick Exchange, No. 1 (May 1981), pp. 6-7).
It occurred to me, as I stood on the crest of a frozen tidal wave of drifted snow across the mouth of my driveway, that I used to wonder how the Eskimos were able to build those igloos out of snow. Snowmen I understood, but the snow I grew up with had virtually no tensile strength. Wet, it made clumps or balls, but not bridges; dry it made nothing at all. It was an entirely different substance from the stuff my neighbour's snowblower was presently gnawing at, foamy, rigid whiteness about halfway between expanded polystyrene and concrete. As I fed the machine with my shovel, my neighbour urged the blower forward. When it found loose chunks of the stuff, plumes of white spurted out and were instantly ripped into nothingness by the post-blizzard, nor'west gale we were working in. We paused for a moment, backs to the wind, to let our faces thaw.
"Nice spring day," I said.
"Yes, it is," he agreed. "Some different from a month ago, when it was winter."
I chuckled, but watching his face I realized he was serious. "Miles," I said, "you mean to tell me this isn't winter?" I gestured toward the northwest, where the land fell away from the top of Keswick Ridge toward the Mactaquac Headpond. In the field below the house, twists of blowing snow danced frantically and the slate grey spruce forests stretched toward a vague, chill horizon. I had moved to the Ridge the previous fall. It was my fourth central New Brunswick winter, but only the first in the sort of location where winter is a palpable presence. In town, where the buildings break the wind and the city clears the streets, you can ignore winter much of the time. Not so at the head of the Ridge.
"Oh, sure, it's spring all right. You can smell it.”
At the time, Miles was about seventy, a tough veteran of the climate we were discussing. He was born a matter of eight or ten miles from where we stood. A master gardener and a journeyman woodsman, he still works full-time as a carpenter, and can erect a scaffold and be up on it quicker than I can carry the wood to him. He looked out across the garden, invisible under two feet of snow, with only the handle of a horse-hoe protruding from a drift.
"Thing about New Brunswick is, spring comes under the snow."
That was five or six years ago. Since then, I've come to understand what Miles meant. To the untrained eye, a central New Brunswick winter continues through March and well into April. To the eye raised in a markedly less Arctic climate -- an Englishman, say -- something that looks a lot like winter often continues into June. But to someone who has learned how to perceive it, spring starts here just about the same time it starts anywhere else in North America.
In the woods, for instance, the snow gets "rotten" in March. It's still at mid-winter depth, but it develops pockets below the surface that won't support your weight, even if you're walking on downed boughs. Cutting maples, you notice that when you're working low on the stump the sawdust spurting back out of the chainsaw's snarl is wet and glues itself to your pantleg; the sap is starting to run. Around the base of the tree, under the snow, is a hollow place; uncover it and you find the palest of green beginning to assert itself through the brown cushion of needles, leaves and dead grass.
Skiing down through the woods, you stop along what would, in early summer, be a stream. You can hear a faint gurgle from under the crust. Out of the woods and across the bottom of the field, you find that the snow has disappeared and clear water is flowing over the green leaves of timothy and wild strawberry. Out in the middle of the field, the tops of last year's burdock and hawkweed have appeared through the imperceptibly settling snow, as though in some dry, brown parody of growth.
And there are other signs to tell you that, though New Brunswick still looks like an Arctic waste from the air, the juice table is rising. In the afternoon, long-dormant houseflies waken and stumble and buzz confusedly around the window sashes, their hangovers apparently monumental. On the university campus in Fredericton, the students, classes and exams over, pack their skis, snowshoes, stereos, and guitars into the gaping trunks of parental Buicks. The first evidences of spring are the departure of the students and the startled green of the grass over the heating tunnels, scribing lines through the white blankness.
Miles is right about the smell, too. The sun, in its slow and apparently irrelevant northward trek, reaches, along about the middle of March, some sort of critical point whereby it releases from the spruce and fir forests the perfume of midsummer. Standing on a snowdrift in the aftermath of a blizzard, you sometimes get a sudden whiff of August -- as surprising as the smell of the ocean you occasionally get inland after a hurricane has come from the coast.
But you have to know what you're looking for, and you have to look closely. I have a friend who was raised in England. During his second summer in New Brunswick, he says, he suddenly perceived what was so strange about the place. Six months' worth of growing time is crammed into about six weeks, and spring just doesn't seem to occur at all. The corn, he says, pops right out of the snowdrifts, and all summer long you can hear it grunting with the effort of thrusting itself skyward before the frost descends again. I now tell him that's the result of his leisurely English eye: those of us who have learned how, can usually find some spring to sustain us, to start our own juices running again, to clean out the icebound sluices of our winter depressions.
I jab my snow shovel into the crystalline Styrofoam under foot and walk along the top of the drift, my feet sinking into the snow as the drift settles, occasionally breaking through so that I drop knee-deep into the slush underneath. My foot slips in mud at the edge of the garden where the reddish tips of the asparagus and burdock are just showing, where the blackened remains of drifts are receding to expose the red leaves of last year's strawberry plants and the dark, funereal hulks of the unharvested cabbages and Brussels sprouts. I move slowly out into the ankle-high hawkweed in the meadow below the house. Shaking my head, I notice that the buzz of the snowblower has become the whirr of cicadas, and Miles waves at me from the back of his red Farmall with the cultivator tines underneath. The distant hills shimmer in the heat from the tractor's exhaust; there is a smell of hot spruce on the breeze out of the northwest.