I am a westerner through and through. I am proud to be the granddaughter of a homesteader and a cattle rancher, I run a tree farm, I am married to the great-grandson of a man who came west alone at age 14 with a wagon train. I’ve been shot at, spent days walking out of the mountains ahead of a forest fire, and can kill and gut a mountain trout before cooking it over an open fire. I am so devoted a westerner that I barely recognize that the East exists, despite the fact that our country is run from there and even the Supreme Court has become a haute-nerd version of the Harvard-Yale game. I was in New York a couple of times as a child, loathed it, and have never been east of Denver since.
As such, one of my personal heroines has long been Mary Walker, one of the first three white women to cross the Rockies. She was a diarist so we have a vivid picture of her time on the trail and her early years in the Oregon country. She was the wife of a missionary, but also had a mind of her own, was a devoted student of natural history and possessed tremendous courage. Perhaps death loses its ability to terrify if one is confident that subsequently one will be sitting at the right hand of God, but there were a lot of Christian women of the era who never forsook everything familiar in their lives to follow their husbands to the ends of the continent. My favorite quote from her was uttered when she was in labor with her first child (she went on to have six) and said that she “almost wished that I had never been married”. I have always loved that “almost”, that little bit of tempered rebellion in her heart against the constraints of her era, faith and gender. At any rate, after a long and eventful life Mary started to decline cognitively. To soothe her her children set up her old side-saddle , the one she had ridden on the trail (let us stop for a moment to think of riding to Oregon, on a SIDE-SADDLE), and there she spent hours, wrapped in her old travel cloak. She spoke of her time on the trail, and seemed to return to that time in her own mind, when she was young, newly married, and facing the complete unknown.
I have no such adventures to recall if my mind ever starts to weaken and fail, and I certainly don’t want to spend my declining years in a side-saddle, but I have always hoped that, in such an eventuality, I would still retain the ability to read, and that my more child-like state would enable me to return to the enchanted world of children’s literature. I read obsessively as a child, more than 200 books in first grade alone. I read a lot now, and whenever I feel myself starting to implode a few hours alone with a book is always the best way for me to re-boot, but I have never been able to read as wholeheartedly as I did when I was young. Then, the world inside the book was the only one that existed. Now, like an alert dog, I always have one ear cocked for trouble or dissension, one lobe of my brain still ruminating on problems, finances and schedules. I don’t want my mind to fail, but if it does I hope I can find consolation in the very same books that provided so much when I was young.
In this eventuality one of the very first books I would read is Mary Poppins. This is a book of magic and enchantment, with improbable events presented with such complete conviction that they are rendered utterly plausible. The world of Mary Poppins is the world of upper-middle class Edwardian London, but in many of the stories the urban world disappears almost completely. In real life people were dying in droves breathing London’s foul air and drinking its foul water. But in the books the stars come alive, the animals talk, and Spring is carved and painted into existence by a woman and her uncle. Assisted by Mary Poppins they then install Spring in the park, turning it overnight from a snowy expanse to a meadow dappled with flowers and inhabited by gamboling lambs. Nellie-Rubina is a direct descendant of Noah (of the Ark), Uncle Dodger is her hapless flunky (and only related on the other side), and Mary Poppins in their honored guest.
I was exceedingly fortunate to have Nellie-Rubina and Uncle Dodger visit me this year. I don’t recall them ever coming here before, and I am sure I would have remembered. Nellie-Rubina brings spring overnight, and that is certainly what has happened here. It was so unexpected and unfamiliar that it took me a couple of days to recognize it First, one evening in the twilight, weeks before they should have been here, I heard the familiar, slightly hysterical calling of the robins, then I saw them scrambling around the tops of the alder trees. Next, walking around very early in the morning when it was barely light I kept smelling a sweet, rich fragrance that surely must be exactly how hope should smell. It took me quite a while to recognize it, addled as I still am by the winter, but it was Sarcococca humilis, the clump which I took from my mother-in-law’s garden years ago and which is now three feet across and in full bloom.
Then, while digging, I straightened up to find a witch-hazel which I had planted in the late fall studded with just a few sulfur-yellow blossoms.
Still recovering from the trauma of being moved, these weren’t enough to be fragrant but they were enough to send me on a treasure hunt through the garden for all the other witch hazels. All of the yellow ‘Arnold’s Promise’ were in bloom, and smelled heavenly, rich and acidic at the same time.
At this point I started really looking and discovered that all the hellebores were also blooming.
And the filberts, so common, and uninteresting most of the year, have the most beautiful catkins I can ever remember seeing.
And, just one more, here are the soft, gray, furry buds on the Magnolia stellata.
Everywhere I looked there were the tips, shoots and snouts of plants emerging from the soil, and from heretofore bare, lifeless branches. The birds are singing more, and there were even four fat, fluffed-up mourning doves in the bird feeder the other morning. Back home from wherever they spend the harsh depth of winter, they didn’t actually feed, just sat up high and enjoyed the view. And so, after all the months of waiting and anticipation, it was just that quick and Spring is here. Thank you, Nellie-Rubina.