In Minnesota, April never has been the cruelest month. Far from it. Ice is fast disappearing, the ground is warming and mallards, some paired since December, have winged their way north to set up shop and hatch their young.
Greeted by a higher angle of sun, purple martins also are arriving, along with yellow-rumped warblers and ruby-crowned kinglets. Accompanying these, woodcock peent and grouse drum, and with them civilization’s nooks and crannies come alive, and sing.
Even the homebound take notice. My grandmother did. In her last years she stared intently out her window as blue jays, cardinals and woodpeckers bellied up to her bird feeder, their flutterings spellbinding in ways that portended the coming allure of TV.
Being attuned this way to the world around us, and amused by it, is the way we’re wired. And luckiest of all are those who, in this, the fairest of seasons, alert instinctively whenever sandhill cranes bugle from among the clouds, sap drips from willing maples or northern pike crowd into tepid prairie creeks to spawn.
Such is as it always has been.
Now, in this time of pandemic, for those who appreciate the natural world not as entertainment or distraction but as a sort-of parallel universe in which they live, as in truly live, the world has tilted akimbo.
Reasons are many. But primary are two: The frustration of anticipation, that sweet solace of many a night leading up to April. And the forfeiture of mobility.
It’s true that Minnesotans’ modern springtime entertainment traditions include rooting for the Twins, shopping at a mall or taking in a play at the Guthrie, among other options.
But that’s not who they are.
Who they are is the guy who puts a dock in at his cabin, feeling the chill of frigid water against his waders; the woman who marvels through binoculars at the first loon returning to a lake; the camper who pitches a tent in a state park when nighttime temperatures still dip below freezing; and the kid who floats a stick boat in a rainy gutter and watches it take off downstream.
Compared to these immersions in natural settings, ballgames and shopping trips are mere distractions of convenience; opiates, as it were, of the masses whose adherents understandably now suffer withdrawal because games have been canceled and malls shuttered.
Yet the government’s stay-at-home directive, as well-reasoned as it is, is arguably still more painful for those who at this time of year get their kicks watching turkeys strut and feeling crappies bite, and marvel at falcons stooping fast and furious, 150 miles an hour and counting.
Each of these, and many more, have been on April activities lists of Minnesotans since long before statehood.
Native Americans broke their winter camps as snows melted, with women and children departing for the sugar bush and men leaving to hunt deer and rabbits.
Similarly in spring, the state’s earliest settlers shot ducks as the birds returned north. And everyone, as they had planned to for months in palpable anticipation, prepared their fields for planting.
In some form or fashion, the pull of these ancient rhythms is felt yet today by you, me and everyone. And aborting them, regardless of the reason’s validity, is more akin to losing a friend or even a relative than simply rearranging a calendar.
Steelheading, for example, never has been and never will be a popular fishing pastime in Minnesota. April weather along the North Shore is too torturous. The fish are finnicky. And even when hooked, steelhead are challenging to land.
Yet as streams entering Lake Superior warm to 40 degrees, then 41 and 42, these fish inexorably swim up-current in waters familiar to them since birth.
Drawn by these same conditions, and the river’s recurring cadences, anglers gather on stream banks with 9-foot rods to cast yarn flies into water that can be impossibly turbid.
About the same time, in southeast Minnesota, turkey hunters in more normal years would fill motels and gather in restaurants, rising at 4 a.m, and earlier to position themselves beneath red or white pines or other statuesque perches to hope at daybreak a big tom might descend, its flapping wings a true wake-up call.
Also in more typical Aprils, throughout Minnesota, women, men and their dogs would scour the hinterlands for shed antlers. Still others would freshen the beddings in their distant wood duck houses, and more still would seek assurances that the long winter and the mice invasions it invited haven’t collapsed their deer shacks.
These are the awakenings we have known in April for all time, and nothing has prepared us to forgo them — to be kept in check, at home, or near home, quarantined indoors or essentially so.
“April is the cruelest month,” T.S. Eliot wrote in 1922 …
“breeding lilacs out of the dead land,
Mixing memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.”
I never thought it so.
January, yes. Or February.
But never April.