Many happy returns

Russell Wangersky
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If you live near a maple tree, this is the time of year when you realize how tenacious nature really is. When the helicoptered maple seeds have taken root in just about any conceivable spot — flowerpots, cracks in sidewalks or seams at the edge of the asphalt, along foundations and through patches of yard — they’re like an army of double-leaved and blind dicots, unrolling and reaching up and questing to be the tree they’ll never be.

Because (don’t tell them just yet) the mower’s coming, that first-time sweep through that decapitates the bright dandelions and reminds you, once again, how rich and reviving the smell of newly cut grass actually is.


New beginning

It’s a time of firsts: the first army of tiny spiders has arrived, bursting out of their eggs and building a legion of tiny webs for the smallest of prey.

The first metal-bright smell of spring rain rolling back at you from warm pavement, the first of the many tones of green that you can’t help but forget during our winters, winters that specialize in greys and off-whites and tones of brown and beige and sedge.

It’s the first few days when you can open windows and let the outdoors in, and also when you can go up to bed after leaving a window or two open and have that transporting experience of the smell of the outdoors and the muted, suddenly-inside-with-you sounds of the city at night.

I’m surprised about how much we can forget — not that we forget things, for example, like the existence of leaves and rain and wet wood, but that we can forget the sheer intensity of their smells, or the wonder of a soft, humid evening wind across the side of your face.

Surely, things as simply rapturous as that should be with us always, should be exactly the kind of thing that carries us constant and trusting through long and hard winters, when we are hoping desperately for an end to those late winter nights of sleet and fat wet snow.

But it’s like birdsong, or more to the point, what birdsong is like if it is reduced to mere notes on a page.

I woke up a week or so ago outside of the city, and it was like the world was full of birds again: the wet warble of the robins, the chickadees, and at last, on Sunday night near a river, the winnowing sound that mating snipe make with their tailfeathers, a haunting soft and almost eerie sound that seems as far divorced from birds as it could be.

They put you in a place, snipe do, near water in nighttime, soundmakers you can’t ever even see and can’t help but feel.

Yes, birds and birdsong, and many: the woods, the spruce full of them, as if every tree had its own personal attendant bird.

I know all of those songs, know them to the core of me the minute I hear them, and yet I also know, the instant I hear them first in spring, that the memory of them is a vastly incomplete thing. Not even half the story, and the dry half at that.


So much there

Imagine how much easier the late drab weeks of winter would be if you could actually hold the complete memory of that first warm day of spring in your head.

It’s right there now, hard to forget when you’re carrying your jacket in your hand instead of on your back. When you can walk down a woods path with a perceptive teenager who catches that high note of damp and noble wood rot and says, “That’s the smell I always think of as mushrooms.”

As mushrooms, the way the sea is captured in the iodine sharp of rotting kelp; as mushrooms, the way green pitch on your hands is trees.

There are 10,000 maple trees questing upwards through my yard, and until they came back, as they do every single year, I had forgotten about every single last one of them.

Welcome back.

So glad you could make it.


Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

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