In this part of the world we don’t have spring. One day we’re getting desperate over the severity of the winter and a day or so later we’re dumped into early summer. Or sometimes people say that winter is when the really bad days outnumber the good days and summer is when the balance tips over so the really good days outnumber the bad ones. Because tongues of Arctic air lick us and blasts of Mexican air wash over us, all the while waves of wet Pacific air drench us -- left-to-right on your weather map -- we have “seasons.” They’re just more mixed than in other places.
Nevertheless, at the post office yesterday the little lady (she’s very short but always impeccably groomed) who occasionally comes to the door to convert me to Jehovah’s Witnesses (a hopeless task, but it’s nice to see her) told me that the apple tree in her yard had hung on to its withered fruit and is hosting robins at last. Others are saying that the gophers are up and the rangers say the grizzlies are moving around, scowling over whatever they were dreaming. The geese are reconnoitering and the kids are having to be sent back to their rooms to put on long pants and proper shoes instead of flipflops which they will actually wear in the snow while they sprint to the warm car. Their systems are attuned to spring break in Florida before they even get out of eighth grade. The forecast for today is forty-five degrees which means that the mountains of snow in town will be converting the streets into trout streams. Night before last the temp was below zero. It snows every month. NO flip-flops yet!
A big fat book has accompanied me through the winter: “The Education of the Senses” by Peter Gay, a reflection on the relationships between the genders and their arrangements through the “bourgeois century” that still haunts us. Now I’m switching over to a different big fat book: “Landscape and Memory” by Simon Schama. My thoughts are going out of the house and into the terrain.
I subscribe to a number of listservs, academic exchanges of information, and rarely say anything on them, though often I end up laughing at their absurdity (most of the people are very young and urban) and -- less often -- very much intrigued or informed. Recently someone wanted to know how the practice of Native American religion had been changed by the forced relocation of tribes. I think they may have been thinking about African religions being changed by being brought to a whole new continent, but it’s an interesting concept and probably pretty enlightening. I suggested that even Christianity had been radically changed over the centuries by its relocation: moving it from indigenous villages along the Mediterranean into the court of the Roman Empire and then north across Europe made deep changes in assumptions and practices. All denied, of course.
Some religious practices are so deeply human that they persist, coming up again as green as grass through the old snow of winter. It’s Ash Wednesday. If I were in the pulpit on Sunday, I would talk about the natural fasting of spring, reinforced by social rules to keep people from eating the seeds they must plant soon or the newborn domestic animals or even the milk that feeds them. A liberal pulpit would find satisfaction in the congruence of nature and ceremony.
But the listserv did not post my remark. One literary association and one historical association have begun to ignore me. They don’t want to hear anything about nature unless it agrees with their assumptions, which are curiously distant from actual nature or any other kind of reality. They are almost hypnotized by rules, not the nature-based rules of the past but near sci-fi or magic realism of an imagined or possibly computerized future. The future is not spring, but spring break, derived from the academic calendar. Academics control one’s future success, they think, so one must conform to it, go in debt to it, nearly worship it. (Churches are passé.)
Part of this strange world-view might be an overdose of “cute” nature -- all those baby bunnies and kittens, fawns and lambs. Soon enough that preoccupation with sweetness goes to commodification. (Easter bonnets.) And that is joined by rather acid cleverness, so that the University of Chicago student body indulges in competition among “Peeps” tableaus -- tiny marshmallow baby chicks arranged as social commentary.
Ash Wednesday means that people in Valier will wear marks on their foreheads. No one will have to ask what the ashes mean. It was a winter that encouraged contrition, humility, and a consciousness of vulnerability. We are perhaps too little prepared to push back against the bureaucracy that caused the Crucifixion at Easter, too admiring of centurions, but we have our renegades. There were a lot of deaths this winter, not just humans but also domestic animal herds that died of starvation. The grizzlies, of course, will be grinning at the amount of ungulate winter kill from the deep crusted snow. And spring has brought media images of deaths in riots of people craving release from tyrants.
Simon Schama begins his book by locating and describing cemeteries in Europe, often mass graves from WWII but also tumuli from ancient times. We have them in North America, but he hasn’t gotten to this continent yet. He speaks of going to a burial ground connected to his family and discovering that the marker stones themselves were being buried in a sea of crowded dandelions, lichen, and accumulating soil. He says it was becoming a geological layer. And he says this memorable thing: “the heart of one of our most powerful yearnings: the craving to find in nature a consolation for our mortality.”
So many youngsters find their consolation in denial. People in media do not die. They are a tape loop. One can still watch childhood worlds if you grew up watching television with your feet sticking straight out in front of you, your blankie in your hand. There is another stage when young people trek the mountains seeing only glorious vistas, never parsing the ecology into its mesh of life and death. The occasional urgent person, often female, will decide to war against all death, all immorality, all suffering, all meat eating, all use of nasty words. Everything must be beautiful. God must be love.
I think I will use what I learn from this book to identify and reflect upon the burial grounds of this place. But I’ll wait until summer. Spring is when people die, just when the green grass comes, and there will be people standing in clusters among the stones -- the living among the dead. Not all of them will want to be converted into media.