Monday, March 3, 2014

Journeys Around the Sun: Hal Borland

In my previous post, I talked about a favorite “essay-a-day” natural history book, Edwin Way Teale’s A Walk Through the Year. Today, I’m continuing on the topic of almanac-format nature books.

A similar book, in a similar vintage, is Hal Borland’s Twelve Moons of the Year (New York: Knopf, 1979).

Borland wrote a weekly natural history or “outdoors” editorial in the Sunday edition of the New York Times for 35 years. This book, which he was finishing when he died, is a collection of those brief editorials—so well written . . . so well written.

I’ve been dipping into this book especially, since he writes so eloquently of our desire in late winter to look for signs of impending spring. Wasps waking and flying groggily about on a prematurely warm day. The courtship of owls and squirrels. The lengthening days. Rising sap. The hope encapsulated in the buds of trees. And the first tentative, brief bird songs.

“There are things to be heard if one is at all attentive. At noontime on a sunny day the dooryard sparrows begin to test a few phrases of remembered song. The chickadees, which will lisp a greeting any winter day, now extend their songs, simple though they are. The nuthatches still say nothing but yank, but they say it more often and with a new intonation. From the woodland the male cardinal whistles as though he really means it.

“. . . Spring is not yet at hand, but there is change, and there are subtle stirrings here and there, if we forget the calendar and listen.” (“Subtle Signs of Spring,” February 15, pp. 46-47.)

He notes a softening of the blue jay’s raucous voice:

“But when February comes and daylight begins to linger, the jays begin to feel, perhaps down in their hollow bones, that life is good and soon will be even better. They whisper this, at first, to themselves. Then they say it aloud, but softly. It is a wholly new note, actually a two-note salute to the season. It is almost musical. It really is the blue jay’s prelude to a love song, a sentimental secret the secretive jay can no longer keep to himself.” (“The Secret,” February 8, p. 41.)

It’s not going to make spring come any sooner, but reading this helps me remember that I’m not alone in looking for “signs,” and that people have always yearned for spring this way.

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