April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
–T.S. Eliot

April isn’t over yet, but I’ve felt her cruelty for long enough. Spring bliss has yet to arrive at Northern Bliss, our Wisconsin retreat. There were signs of spring that first week after we arrived: stalks of iris and tulips had pushed through the mulch, allium had grown to three inches, and most of the snow had melted. “It just may be an early spring this year,” I crowed.

During that week, Gunter and I saw the lake ice gradually disappear, forming a convenient shelf for the pair of eagles who nest in a tall evergreen on White Ash Lake. I’d watched them fish during the summers, swooping down from the sky. While gardening near the lake bank, I’d watched one of them steal a fish from the beak of a heron. But we’d never been here in April to see eagles fishing from the ledge of the retreating ice. Every day, the ice pack grew smaller until the majestic couple was reduced to two specs at the middle of the lake.

Eagle at White Ash Lake

Eagle nesting at White Ash Lake
Photo credit: Lynn Bystrom

With the lake opening, a pair of trumpeter swans flew across the lake to check it out. The next day, they swam by, making a racket as if they owned the place. An otter swam close to shore. We heard the familiar, plaintive cry of a loon. And then a raft of wood ducks swam around our “natural” area, as if looking for the duck house in which they may have been hatched. I called Mike, my son-in-law, who came over and re-installed the house in the shallow water. As if by unanimous consent, one pair stayed around while the others moved on.  About a week later, Gunter saw the female fly into the house. Her mate hangs around the house faithfully every day now, waiting patiently for those ducklings to hatch and jump from the house.

On shore, red-headed and ladder-back woodpeckers, blue jays, and goldfinch flocked to our red feeder full of sunflower seeds. But we wanted to attract the huge pileated woodpeckers we’d had here every summer. Mike built and installed a T-shaped pole structure with ropes to pull and hoist suet and a platform for the pileateds. One came right away, but since then, nothing. The tree that was their home was downed by the last July’s tornado. Perhaps their new home is not close by—even though I heard their call and the staccato sounds of their drumming from my yard. We did, however, enjoy the birdsongs of redwing blackbirds who perched on the new feeder.

Red wing blackbirds at T feeder

Red wing blackbirds at T feeder

All was well, but I yearned for warmer weather for gardening; every night brought freezing temperatures. “April showers bring May flowers,” I repeated each day. But that was not to be. All that spring passion was just a setup to break my heart. Instead, it snowed…and snowed…and snowed once more. That first snow was beautiful, even though I wondered how those brave flower shoots would survive. Snow drifted down in big chunky flakes, cloaking the gray trees and dull ground with white perfection. “It won’t stay,” the locals told me. “It’s April.” But I recalled their stories about last spring, when April brought 17 inches of snow and it stayed for a while. After a few days, white perfection turned to mushy gray and I was tired of it all. When will we have spring? “It’s coming,” they said. But when the ground was bare, the snow returned and this time, it was not nice or beautiful. It was Easter weekend, and even though we were sheltering in place, we wanted some semblance of normalcy. This was nasty, with hail and ice turning to snow. Even if we could, we wouldn’t have wanted to go out in it. We hunkered down and never ventured outdoors. I spent my time flipping through nursery catalogs and dreaming of glorious flower gardens in bloom. That snow gradually disappeared and then a third snowstorm arrived. I spent that day down in the dumps with S.A.D. (seasonal affective disorder). Thank God, this storm fizzled out quickly and my mood improved.

Today, I sense the end of this cruelest of months. And not just because the calendar shows one week until the end of April. I can feel it in the air. This morning there was no frost and the sun is out. The thermometer reads 60 degrees F. Backyard birds are chirping with glee. And the crocuses are blooming—a sure sign that spring is truly on its way.

Update: On April 27th, the young pileated woodpecker appeared at the T-feeder to enjoy the suet. Yay!

Pileated Woodpecker at feeder

Pileated Woodpecker at T feeder.

Pileated Woodpecker close up

Pileated Woodpecker Close-up

 

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page.


Happy Passover and Easter! This holiday weekend, I’m in a happy, yet contemplative mood. I look back on my New Year’s resolutions and while I’ve completed some, I’m still working on others. The promise of spring is that it’s still early enough in the year to make my resolutions and dreams come true. Or I can change my mind, push the reset button, and start anew.

What is spring to you?

To Emily Dickinson, spring was madness, and so she wrote this:

A little madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown —
Who ponders this tremendous scene —
This whole Experiment of Green —
As if it were his own! 

T.S. Eliot, in The Waste Land wrote:

“April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.” 

To those living in America’s northeast or Europe’s north, this month must be especially cruel. One day keeps the promise of spring and the next brings winter back again. But nature is forever optimistic. Crocus buds shoot through the snow to toward the light. Bluebirds find a new (or old) home to birth their young. And pileated woodpeckers, squared off in a shouting match, call and drum, then listen for the other to respond.

10447874_10152272367081843_321612176003547025_n bluebird outside bird house from timeline

One cannot help but feel joyful in the spring. Even Hemingway, who was never the consummate optimist, said in A Moveable Feast:

“When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.” 

I know it’s spring when I have this innate urge to dig in the dirt. This week, I’m busy planting pots full of succulents, in keeping with California’s fourth year of drought. Getting down to earth, I close with Margaret Atwood in Bluebeard’s Egg:

“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”