Opinion Column

Community Editorial Board: An ode to spring rituals

Daily Observer editorial board columnist

By Alfred Villeneuve

Spring Run off in Algonquin Park.

Spring Run off in Algonquin Park.

April is more than half over, although this year the weather may not have been as sunny as our expectations.

Spring started off like a house on fire, but then, cooled right back to March temperatures; climate change has been collared as the usual suspect for the unpredictable cycle of weather.

Despite this, spring still contains that one special feeling for all, more than any other, it is the season of hope.

Getting out early in the morning here in the Valley, particularly at dawn, there is a cornucopia of delightful experiences.

The deer, still in their heavy winter coats, are out and about foraging in farmers' fields and at the edge of roadsides on exposed grasses from last year and this year's nascent green tips, emerging from spring-thawed ground.

It's good to see that many deer have survived, not that it was a particularly bitter winter, but with the inconsistency of freeze, thaw, rain and snow, the ground cover had become hard and impenetrable.

The truest sign of spring, at least for me, arrived amidst a snow storm, days ago.

I spotted a robin, perched upon an upturned clump of earth in a field, lifting his head in song, while the late winter snows swirled around him.

Regardless of circumstance, the robin remains the harbinger of hope and renewal in the Valley.

The geese too have returned en mass to the river, passing low, circling over our house like planes in a holding pattern, making their final approaches to the newly opened waters. The river itself, swollen with runoff, is nearly clear of ice save for the bits and slabs finding their way from lakes to the west, down the narrows, jamming and grinding against their own and the marshy shoreline.

Around the Valley you can still see maples, bejewelled with spigots and pails, collecting the sweet water, on its way up from deep roots to the awaiting canopy's buds, eager to get this growing season under weigh.

Although the maple syrup season has suffered in recent years from drought, inconsistent temperatures and the like, folk in the country still brave the fickle spring weather in order to relive the ritual that has been going on since First Nations gathered sap in birch bark buckets, preparing for the 'Sweet Water Ceremony" which at it's core hails both the joy of growth and surviving another winter.

Another ritual that plays out is the spring 'burn.' Be it in the bush, on the farm or in the small towns and villages, this act draws on the ancient connection between fire and purification.

Although frowned upon by some, and placed outside the law in some locales, it still is practised by those who remember what it was like to be close to the land rather than a video screen or cell phone.

Out at the cabin, after harvesting balsam for posts this past winter, we were left with a large pile of tops and branches. So before the snow would finally leave, we decided to burn the pile. It was hard igniting it, because of the snow and ice stuck to its branches.

Splitting dry poplar into fine kindling, placed upon a handful of birch bark, I soon had it going, from smoulder to a raging pyre.

Great plumes of white, wood smoke billowed, rising through the trees to the blue sky above, while the inferno at its center, spat crackling sparks and cinders, like an angry Phoenix, rising from the ashes.

Sitting a respectable distance from the fire, it was pleasant to take in the scene, bathed in sunlight, sipping a hot cup of tea. It's times like this one feels an active hand in welcoming the season, and rejoicing in our release from winter's bony grip, and into the warm bosom of spring.

While sitting and tending the fire, surveying the land, it gives one pause to think about what this new season of life will hold; a time to assess garden spots, and perhaps some project that eluded us last year.

Along the way home, I stopped at several creeks, watching the waters, like dark wriggling snakes, winding their way through thicket and marsh, the air punctuated by the hoarse calls of ravens and crows.

Resting on a bare patch of dry grasses, I watched the ebb and flow of emerging life, soothed by the bubbling song of running water over rocks and deadfall.

It instilled a flush of good feelings, not the kind that overcomes one viewing a stunning vista, but rather the deep satisfaction in just being.

As Walt Whitman once wrote, "If no other in the world be aware I sit content.."

With this in mind, I was out and about in the field a few years ago. I sat by such a stream and composed in situ, a poem in response to those feelings.

I offer it to you here, wishing all an energetic and rewarding spring.

Renfrew County Spring- Hwy 512 near Brudenell

Hovering, over my first gold of spring,

Unfurling Hosannas,

In forest thicket, Welcomes,

Exultant thrumming,

Of Partridge drumming,

His ancient call to love,

And all it's attending glories,

Even Crow caws accent,

Rather than distract,

Interspersed by tiny song birds,

And the assurance,

Of a Red Winged Blackbird,

Perched atop an arcing Cattail,

By creek side,

Riffles offer up,

Orchestral murmurings,

To scent laden wind whisperings,

Carrying life,

On it's very breath.

(April 2012- Composed for exhibit: Alfred Villeneuve-In My Mother's Time)