Cruel April

Sally Bennett's poignant essay accentuates that not everyone feels elated at the first signs of spring.

Here on Martha’s Vineyard, the weather seems close, the clouds lower in the sky, the rain and the wind more immediately present. Seasonal rhythms are less diluted by human manipulations; it is harder to keep the weather beyond the window. When I go outside in late winter, I feel my nostrils widening, taking in the new smells of earth and emerging life. Yes, skunk is often there, and welcome as long as he keeps a respectable distance.

Then, after the slothful cold, April appears with its demands to get cracking: Sweep out the garage, rake the lawn, be happy. But, perversely, it also brings feelings of savage misery – not the vague feelings of restlessness and discontent that afflict most of us sometime during the cold of winter, but a profound suspicion that once again I am about to be had. I mope about, unable to join the frenetic excitement being generated by new life: the birds singing and young squirrels tumbling maniacally about. The part of me that is holding back seems to be saying, I’ve seen it all before: the thrill of the new, its sweet vulnerability. All that effort and then, just when you have risen to the bait, it disappears.

When T.S. Eliot said that April is the cruelest month, I believe he had this in mind. It is not just the variability of the weather: hot one day, then cold and wind, followed by rain, and again, sun. The cruelty he ascribes to the month describes the unpredictable doses of phantom pain these conditions can deliver. But why should we react in this seemingly perverse and even ungrateful manner? The sun is out – today anyway – the snow has melted, the pinkletinks are beginning their evening racket. And why does this not happen in autumn when nature is winding down for the long sleep? Death surrounds us in the falling leaves, departure of the birds, the increasing chill. But no, we look forward to long evenings in front of the fire, free of any responsibility to the earth beyond self-preservation. We will rouse ourselves to shovel the walk if necessary and sprinkle salt on the icy steps. Perhaps we feel some relief as we relinquish the excitement of summer for the oblivion, the giving in to winter. It’s over – at least for now.

When April disappears into May, my misery lifts. I am out with my spade and watering can, laughing at the squirrels and cursing the ants that try to take over the hummingbird feeder. Will those dark feelings return? I think they will, probably next spring, as predictable as the froggy chorus. But they dissipate as the sun strengthens and the pace of new life sweeps me along for another summer. As I drive past the magnificent copper beech casting its canopy over State Road in West Tisbury, I think of the beech that grew in my front yard in another life in another part of the country. As I pass under it now, I feel none of the grief that afflicted me a month ago. The sun is once again burnishing the leaves to bronze, as it always has.