Why is it that everyone has favorite harbingers of spring, but no one has them of summer, fall or winter? And why is it that everyone still welcomes these harbingers of spring even when they've again and again proven themselves false?
I lost faith in the first robin, the first fox sparrow and the first red-winged blackbird in 1957, when all three arrived in February and by mid-March had been joined by multitudes of colleagues. Spring was here, and it was certain to be long and glorious. Then on March 27, two feet of snow fell and knocked out our power for 10 days. Loss of power far beyond the suburbs means not only no light, no heat, no refrigerator and no stove -- these we could manage to substitute for -- but it also means no water, with a baby still in diapers. After two days we invited ourselves in with city friends, commuting out daily to feed the livestock, and, indeed, the feathered friends whose prescience had been so harshly shown wanting.
Worse than crocuses, those wanton bloomers whose eagerness to herald the change of seasons is often suicidal. Yet, as with the crocuses, I welcome these birds on their arrival, even though I have no faith in them.
Now, more than 25 years after my loss of innocence, I keep up the lists of annual equinoctial timetables. This past Monday, for instance, geese in a huge flock, far overhead, advertised their passing like 76 trombones all out of tune. They went on the list, and I couldn't resist checking with their past dates. Sure enough, the earliest ever! Uplifting, even though I know that the phrase "silly goose" didn't get into the language without foundation.
I note that the blush of the swamp maples was early this year, too; yet the green fuzz on the willows is late. And the fox sparrow hasn't appeared, but then it hasn't appeared at all the past three years.
The lists work just as erratically on the other end, I've discovered in checking back. Logic would have it that when the late arrivers are extra late -- as the wood thrush delaying his appearance until May rather than late April, or the indigo bunting late May rather than early -- we're not in for a June heat wave. Hah! Remember the sweltering June of 1973? The indigo didn't show until May 27 that year.
I guess it's a matter of great expectations: You see and hear what you want to see and hear. Whenever the first night comes that we can go out and do the late chores with only a jacket on, my wife hears peepers. I know that this multi-specied family of tree frogs doesn't come to voice until it's much warmer, so I don't hear them. Nor does anyone else in the household. But she does. And, as she points out, everyone knows that women's hearing is much more acute than men's . . .
So peepers go on the lists, the precious record of springs past. They may be useless as indicators of what kind of spring this will be, but they are signs of spring. Whether the great rebirth be sooner or later, it's going to be -- a fact you weren't all that sure of in January.