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On The Mark: 'April is the cruelest month'


April 30, 2021

T. S. Eliot begins his "The Burial of the Dead," the first section of his poem, "The Waste Land," with this:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

I'll always remember these lines which I first read in college. And especially so this April, with its occasional warm teases followed by below-freezing temperatures and mixes of heavy, wet snow and rain. When I moved back to Minnesota in 1999, my brother warned me the worst months are November, March and April, meant for us outdoors lovers.

We watch wistfully as the snows evaporate or sink into the earth. The precocious daffodils survive, looking shocked that they have to bear their icy bonnets. One day weeks ago, it was balmy enough for a bike ride from 210 to Highway 6 on South Finn Road. Since then, lonely cross-country skis still lean against our front siding, it's been too mushy to ski and too cold to bike.

It's spring when we yearn for warmth and opportunities to dig compost into the garden. To wash our windows. To put away winter outerwear for the final time, because we mistakenly mothballed it too soon. And it's hard on the birds. Yesterday, I watched a hairy woodpecker, trying to navigate the feeders, with a tail that appeared to have been partially eaten by some raptor. Perhaps she's just molting. For a while, she sat on our front railing, looking at me pathetically, as if asking for help. I hope her tail feathers grow back.

We've traversed our land a lot these past few months. We live on the spine of an east-west running esker left by the last glacier. On our low, south border, the Tamarack River runs west to the Prairie River before joining the Mississippi on the far side of Big Sandy Lake. In the winter, I ski it often, over the beaver dam just west of our land, east to the Tamarack and, turning south, down toward Wright. Its snowy cover sparkles, belly markings of beavers in the snow.

Ten days ago, on a balmy day, Rod and I paddled the Tamarack from Cromwell down to Rosicky Road, flushing pairs of swans and Canada geese out of the reeds. On emerging from the canoe, my boot slipped on a steep bank, dousing me in icy water up to my ribs. Fortunately, we'd left our van there, popped the canoe on top, and drove home to a warm bathtub.

I love birding, cruising the gravel roads on early spring weekend mornings, spotting the returnees and an occasional porcupine. On April 17, I spotted a redheaded duck, buffleheads, and goldeneyes, as well as mallards and swans around the lakes. Along the wood margins, a killdeer, flickers, tree sparrows, crows and vultures.

May is warbler month, a fabulous opportunity to observe these tiny creatures who have flown - flown! - thousands of miles to return to us. We've already welcomed yellow-rumped warblers, a yellow-bellied sapsucker, and white-throated and fox sparrows around our home, and heard a barred owl a few weeks ago.

April is indeed a cruel month, especially this year with Covid isolation and reliance on electronics to visit with family.

But May is going to pop and bring us to warm, long sunny days reminiscent of that gorgeous chorus from "Carousel," "June is Bustin' Out All Over":

March went out like a lion

Awakin' up the water in the bay;

Then April cried and stepped aside,

And along came pretty little May!

May was full of promises

But she didn't keep 'em quickly enough for some

And the crowd of doubtin' Thomases

Was predictin' that the summer'd never come...

But it's comin' by dawn,

We can feel it come,

You can feel it in your heart

You can see it in the ground

You can see it in the trees

You can smell it in the breeze

Look around! Look around! Look around!

June is bustin' out all over

All over the meadow and the hill!

Buds're bustin' outa bushes

And the rompin' river pushes

Ev'ry little wheel that wheels beside the mill!'s June, June, June!

Columnist Ann Markusen is an economist and professor emerita at University of Minnesota. A Pine Knot board member, she lives in Red Clover Township north of Cromwell with her husband, Rod Walli.


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