January, the month of reckoning. Whatever we have managed to skate by in November and December, the little indulgences that we have taken lightly, entertained, excused…all of those come home, like angry bantam cocks, to roost in our lives. With the calendar change, I brace for the onslaught of car repairs, fuel bills, doctor’s visits, appliance replacements, college book ransom payments (there is no appropriate word for the extortion of one loose-leaf workbook rented for $182.00), and the expected collapse of our bank account. It happens. January, while not the cruelest month, reigns as the month that teaches us the meaning of consequences. Then she drops a foot of snow on us, rains a little, and blows arctic kisses down our backs.
We begin to dream of spring.
Our acre-plus-a-little is carved out of the 20th-century woodland, which 300 years ago was part of the real forest, full of thick hemlocks, oaks, and chestnuts. The trees here are spindly, as you would expect, mostly baby-boomers clustered around sturdier depression-era oaks. Under the canopy, the thick leaf mold cushions every step. If you scrape it away, the decayed mulch barely covers the first layer of rock. Soil is scarce; rocks are plentiful. When the builders excavated the basement, the stones were strewn in a line up the property border, much to the benefit of chipmunks. We call it the rock wall, but it has more architectural affinity with a cairn or a hedgerow. The expanse of land logged for the septic mounds, and the scarce lawn, simply had the trees removed, with no attempts made to improve the top layer. Every year, rocks break through to the surface, through the non-grass cover of ferns, mosses, scrabbly wild strawberries, and clover. Topsoil? None. Pavers? Everywhere.
Nothing grows here, except that which belongs, or those interlopers no one wants. When we bought the house, the previous owners had planted nothing around it. We pried a ton or so of rock out of the perimeter and tried shrubbery. The rhododendron thrived (a pampered cousin to the wild ones populating our gully land), and two mountain laurels would be succeeding if we could just keep the deer from munching their tender bits. But the pretty cypress failed, as did the evergreens, the Andromeda, and various shade-friendly ground covers. Invasive Japanese bayberry and stiltgrass apparently need no topsoil; they grow rampantly anywhere there is a bit of room. The jury is still out on the most recent plantings of hostas and ferns. If we can keep the deer from them, then they might take hold. But again, even with buckets of good earth dumped around them, this place seems fundamentally averse to tender roots or any plants transplanted from a garden center.
Yet, when I dream of spring, I dream of seed catalogs. I begin to covet the black trays from Lowes and Home Depot, the entire systems of grow lights and plastic humidity shields, the peat pots and bags of seed starter mixes, the vermiculite. I want to check my growing zone against a Rodale Institute map, and I pull out my ancient copy of a Mother Jones published planting guide. I look at the deer-proof, raised garden plans that should require a building permit from any town council, and with them the equally wonderful chicken coops that anyone (except my husband) must find charming. I think about corn growing tall and thick enough to hide multitudes of scary creatures, I imagine squashes and cucumbers vining around cedar teepees, and I breathe in the reek of imaginary tomato plants and basil, growing into one another with abandon. My seed dreams are Eden come to fruition again.
However I live on this shadowy, rocky land with rules of its own. The reality will be, again, sturdy plantings in pots of tolerant species that demand little sun. The pots will be on the deck where, if we are lucky, six hours of sunlight might be captured, or the front porch where the morning sun falls for only three hours. I will spray Deer Off almost daily on the hostas and astilbe, the day lilies and the coneflowers – all were heavily pruned by the deer last year, so I may lose this particular war. I will start no seedlings, though I will probably buy a packet or two of basil and cilantro. They will languish, unopened, in the garage waiting for enough warmth, and I will forget that I have them. Sometime in August, I will happen upon the dusty envelopes while looking for something else, perhaps the elusive jug of evergreen fertilizer, and I will plant the seeds too late to amount to much more than the first true leaves. I will buy a Thai pepper plant, and nurse it obsessively until it fades due to the fact that nothing is less like Thailand than our back deck.
Oh, the rhododendron will put out new foliage, and perhaps the mountain laurels will slowly regain their leaves as well, if we keep them caged in boxes of deer netting. Rich will pull up the newly born stones from the weedy lawn, and still miss a few, which will dent the lawnmower blade anew. The mosses will suddenly brighten the dark places, and Rufus will nose and nibble on tiny, red strawberries. It will be spring, come whatever January and the rest of winter throws at us. There will be spring peepers singing love songs from the damp hollows, and brown bats will slip in and out of the crack by our chimney to flit among the oak and hemlock limbs. The world around us, these difficult woodlands, will be as full of life as can be imagined, though little of it will have anything to do with me or my labors. For that is what I have learned living here: much of life is simply a gift, unearned, unplanned. The farmer inside me yearns to make my imprint on this land, and yet I am over-ruled. I can only appreciate and protect, and take time to wonder at things beyond my ability to control.
January settles deeply about us. Tomorrow another half of a foot or more of snow will cover the glacier forming in our back yard. We are not through this, not even halfway. The woods sleep; the trees groan and complain in dreams. I wonder about the trickles of melted ice that slip between the rocks and freeze far below the surface, and the things that will be moved about by the simple cycle of thaw and frost. I ponder the sleeping world beneath the ice, the grubs and hibernating creatures, the realm that has been stopped, almost, and the amphibian hearts caught between beats. Everything waits, in this pause of winter, but in that rests all the stored energy of spring. Waiting.
Spring cannot arrive fast enough for me.