I wrote this essay five years ago, an exercise in writing about the seasons with a tight word count (each section is 250 words exactly.) Sent it off to a bunch of magazines, never got anywhere with it. I remembered it again today, and figured I'd dust it off and post it here, in quiet celebration of May Day. Happy May Day, all!
May in western Massachusetts is always cold. This is what I can't bear to remember all winter. Even in April I pretend that May will be warm, but it never is. May's saving grace is the change in color palette. From March's delicate trellis of ice on snow and April's raw grey sky to the absurd chartreuse the trees display when they first wave their fragile handkerchiefs.
One of the first heralds of spring on our land is the garlic mustard. Its spindly shoots are already a foot high by May Day. Its scalloped leaves burst forth gleaming. Outside my window, a garlic mustard thicket sprouts beside a large rock, fronds waving their tiny white flowers.
Last year at this season a friend, a botanist's son, took us on a guided ramble across our hillside. We chewed obediently on a birch twig, and noted which wild raspberry canes would and would not bear fruit. Garlic mustard, we learned, is not native to the Berkshires; it is a pest, an invasive interloper which outcompetes what would otherwise fill that niche.
We should tear it out, our friend advised, bending down to rip stalks free as we walked. For a while, I followed suit. But I find now, as spring takes hold of our winter woods, that I am not expunging the garlic mustard. I'm not local, either; I don't know what should be, only what is. I'm soft-hearted. I can’t bear to lose the first leaves, balm to my color-starved eyes.
Once, stepping off a plane in Lubbock in late June, I was flattened by the heat. Hundred-ten, hundred-fifteen: the shimmering waves felt like a bread oven. I realized then that I'd lost my Texas skin, rubbed it off against a sugar maple some itchy morning in the New England woods.
This afternoon it hits a hundred in North Adams. Shops and offices are a riot of flimsy tank-tops and unshaven underarms. I tease my friends when they wilt at a mere eighty degrees, but even I have to concede that triple-digits qualify as hot. We move around rooms subtly to stay in range of the oscillating fans, an unplanned minuet.
By the time I get off work, nab a towel and pack a picnic, and drive to Margaret Lindley pond, evening's long shadows are beginning to cool the air. Still, I feel sweaty and gritty. My car is dark with road dust and grass clippings. The corn salad is already warm, my Fresca already beaded and dripping in the cup-holder.
The pond feels Biblical, a miracle although our hilltown is no desert. I wade slowly without stopping, past the children with buckets and plastic shovels, past the elderly ladies in bathing caps, until the murky green water takes my breath away, chilling my belly and breasts. Swimming is like singing.
Afterwards, we eat butterfly pasta smeared with pesto, corn salad dotted with cilantro, and sheaves of red pepper slices at a cedar picnic table, hair dripping, and wait for fireflies.
It is surprisingly warm the day we cross the bridge to the far field for our allotment of pumpkins. The sky is clearest eggshell, and crickets buzz everywhere in the grass. We dodge bees, looking for the last raspberries. Already the tomato plants have been pulled, their dry skeletons stacked for burning. Plastic baggies of pulped tomato sleep in the chest freezer, waiting to make me cry in February because they are so red and so real.
The first trees always go in August. First there's a faint yellow tinge to everything, summer relinquishing its hold beneath the visible spectrum; then a branch pops crimson, too early, while everything else is green and vibrant. Northern summer comes with a hint of melancholy, because we know it will end too soon, and then one day it does.
Most trees wear orange. Orange like the fruits; orange like tulips; orange like crayons. Some choose yellow, some purple. Over time, brown. One day the gardeners have planted ornamental cabbages and mums, russet and gold, the hardy kind which will hold until stick season. If we're lucky, or smart, we've picked shopping bags full of basil before the rows turn black and spotted.
It's exciting to unpack the sweaters and flannels from the attic, the forgotten winter wardrobe like a trunk of Christmas presents. And then we don't need them for days, maybe weeks, and we become convinced that the weather is proof of our virtue, that God is smiling on us. Then frost.
This year I will snowshoe under the full moon. This year when we batten down the hatches, I'll stack old wood in front of new to facilitate the burning. This year I will lie abed, watching snow fall soundless across the valley.
If I leave my gym bag in the car, my Nalgene bottle bulges. Sometimes a frozen Dr. Pepper will remain liquid as long as it is motionless, crystallizing in a fountain of frost as soon as it agitates to reach my lips. The garage becomes a walk-in freezer for trays of cookie dough, Tupperwares of chili and stuffed cabbage. If we’re not careful, beer bottles will explode in spumes of solid froth.
Icicles ripple from the eaves. After warm spells they litter the snowbanks, glittering like glass. I tromp circles around the lawn trying to unearth the cap to the propane tank. The airlock at the Dunkin Donuts clouds with steam, then with ice, wild paisley swoops of Jack Frost’s brush skittering the light.
We invite friends to watch a lunar eclipse. It is the kind of night where your breath almost falls in tinkling shards to the ground. Our living room is a riot of Afropop, our kitchen hot with puttanesca. We take turns standing on the deck, wrapped in blankets, watching the orange crescent devour the moon. Then we run inside to stand on the hearth, feet tingling.
We can't tell when we're all the way there, and when the pendulum starts swinging the other way.