Unlike the other seasons, only spring, with its green comeliness, can be called new. It creates the new earth. Leaving behind the snowfields of winter, spring does not make a mere statement. It issues a declaration. It is the voice of life, a timbre of growth seeable in the new shoots of seedlings and hearable in the singing of children moving through a meadow one to one with nature.
For the past 10 years, I and about 100 other lovers of spring have come on a Sunday morning in March to the rural roads that roll and rise a few miles north of Olney. If you want spring to come to you, stay in the city. If the opposite -- you bursting forward to the forward bursts of spring -- come to a rural place like the back roads of Olney. My companions and I gather to run a half-marathon, a 13-mile lope that is as much a seasonal release for the soul as a revival of winter-dead legs.
Thirteen miles is too far to walk but the distance, in the odd mathematics of excess, is about right for a run. Fastpokes need only 70 minutes to cover 13 miles, the rest of us nearer to two hours. Every minute is needed to catch the enlargements of nature as seen through the magnifying glass of spring.
The race begins at the local high school, with a spin around the track before filing out to the countryside. Within the first mile, the full character of spring could be seen. A plant sprig, with a flat bud the size of a fingernail, was pushing up through a slab of fresh macadam. A road crew had been by to fill potholes. But a seedling had claimed territorial rights. A rain had supplied moisture, the sun warmth. Up through the blackness, like wrestling a shroud, the pod found an air pocket, then a sky-opening. A seedbed overruled the roadbed.
Why shouldn't it? Millions of seeds will germinate wildly in the fields around Olney this spring, but few will produce as independent a life as this. House plants -- mulched, potted, sunned and dusted -- won't thrive as well as this roadside mystery. People respect "the force of nature" when it is exerted in hurricanes or earthquakes. The flex of that power is minor compared with the unmeasurable strength of dormant vegetation sprouting through a road. Earthquakes buck the land, not the odds.
If survival had logic, this macadamized seed would have quit while it was behind, well behind. We forget its history of adaptation: a development of fertility going back beyond the Carboniferous age, 300 million years ago. Since then, no environment has been too severe. A car will likely come along -- if not some Nike sole behind me -- and flatten this seedling. Rubber will appear to have defeated chlorophyll. If so, it will be a transient victory. The green world, which is the world of prodigality, has the power of permanency. It has survived glaciers, floods and fires, and it can outlast mere roads. Man, with a chlorophyll-based diet, needs plants more than he needs cars.
What about plants -- have they a need for us? An answer comes from philosopher Paul Taylor, who wrote in "The Ethics of Respect for Nature": "Every last man, woman and child could disappear from the face of the earth without any significant detrimental consequence for the good of wild animals and plants. On the contrary, many of them would be greatly benefited . . . If then, the total, final, absolute extermination of our species (by our own hands?) should take place and if we should not carry all the others with us into oblivion, not only would the earth's community of life continue to exist, but in all probability its well being would be enhanced. Our presence, in short, is not needed. If we were to take the standpoint of the community and give voice to its true interest, the ending of our epoch would most likely be greeted with a healthy 'Good riddance.' "
This is the Homo sapiens disease theory, that humans carry the germ of violence and spread it like a plague. I'm no believer in it, and if plants could articulate their instincts the way that man tries to, I doubt that their judgment would be harsh. Springtime is the moment for a soft message, for nature announcing that it is again in the mood for cooperation.
The survival of the cooperative, not the fittest, keeps species of plants and animals alive. This cooperation has little to do with man's economies. Aldo Leopold, the land ethician, wrote that "of 22,000 higher plants and animals native to my Wisconsin, it is doubtful whether more than five percent can be sold, fed, eaten or otherwise put to commercial use."
The footrace wended over an out-and-back course. On the way back, I looked for the plant. No car or runner had harmed it. Now, some two hours later, it looked stronger. And spring seemed greener.