All This Juice and All This Joy


Havre de Grace. -- All last week we waited patiently for Bill Clinton's visit here, which was bound to be exciting. He would bring us publicity, and glamour, and maybe a federal grant. But ** what we really needed was rain.

A dry April's like a loveless wedding. It can be pretty enough to look at, but at the same time, at least to those who view it less as a coherent event than as part of a vital ongoing process, it's unnatural and ominous and more than a little sad.

This month has been like that, although not obviously. In many respects it has been deceptively normal. The young wheat this year is every April's brilliant green, a pastel haze of new leaves is filling the woods on schedule, and the daffodils and tulips bursting out of flower beds are as showy as ever. Calves kick up their heels and play in the sunshine.

But the ground is summer-hard. In the woods places that should be swampy are damp at best, and everywhere springs which ought to be flowing copiously are reduced to dribbles. The Susquehanna is at normal levels, so it must be raining somewhere to the north, but our local streams are very low.

My daughter Sarah and I were walking along Mill Creek the other evening, looking for coon tracks in the mud, when I realized we were stepping on rocks that ought to be under water at this time of year. The water itself was clear and fresh, but there wasn't as much of it as there should be.

This strange April is following a strange winter in which each month was much drier than the average. We should have had at least 12 or 13 inches of rainfall so far this calendar year, but we've only had about seven. A rainy May would help bring the average up, but by May most of our rains seem to come in sharp thunderstorms, and when the ground is hard a lot of that water runs off.

There's no point getting too sour about the weather, though. Experience suggests that eventually it will rain, probably too much. Or perhaps it won't. Whatever happens we'll do our best to deal with it. If the springs on the farm stop flowing entirely I guess we can sell the cows, haul our bathwater from the Susquehanna, and drink more beer.

Meanwhile, wet or dry, it's still fascinating to watch the season progress. A week ago I was down in tidewater Virginia, where it felt to me like early May.

Dogwood was in bloom, which it wasn't yet here, and the water in the tidal rivers there was 10 degrees warmer.

Arithmetic has never been one of my strengths, but if the season 200 miles farther south is 10 days more advanced, it would suggest that spring is moving north at a deliberate pace, one a middle-aged man could easily walk, about 20 miles a day.

So why is it, then, that in spring nothing seems to happen at a walking pace? Everything comes in a rush and a gush. One day it's too early to plant anything in the garden, and the next it's almost too late. One day it's winter, the next it's summer. If spring travels at such a measured pace, then where did it go all of a sudden?

With time at this season suddenly speeded up like a fast-forwarding tape, not only is there too much to do, but there is too much to see, too much to wonder at, too much to absorb. We clutch at spring, but like a cut wildflower it doesn't keep. It wilts in our hand and is suddenly gone.

Gerard Manley Hopkins had a sense of this springtime urgency, and captured it as well as anyone:

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring -- / . . . the glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush/ The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush/ With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling./ What is all this juice and all this joy?/ A strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning/ In Eden garden. -- Have, get, before it cloy . . .

But it isn't as easy as all that. On Thursday evening, trying to

take Mr. Hopkins' advice, I sat by the pond for a while and watched a pair of geese watch me. They plan to nest there, found my presence intrusive and honked rudely. A kingfisher rattled testily at me, and a snapping turtle put its ugly head out of the water, looked at me and submerged. I felt unwelcome and irritable. And there was still no sign of rain.

On Friday, Presidential Visit Day, I went to the office in the morning after doing the barn work. I half expected to be turned away from the town by impassive security people wearing sunglasses, and there was a considerable chip on my shoulder. If I'd had a Perot button I would have put it on my cap as a gesture of belligerence.

But when I got to Havre de Grace, a couple of hours before the president, all was serene. The high-security area was down by the park, away from downtown. And best of all, a steady, gentle RTC rain was falling. I hope the presidential staffer who made the arrangements gets a promotion.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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