Creative Nonfiction Contest 2013: A New Week, a New Post!

Jicama, without Expectation: an Essay by Maxine Kumin

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Creative Nonfiction Contest 2013: A New Week, A New Essay!

By Alie Kloefkorn

Just a reminder that May 2 marks the opening of the submission period for Prairie Schooner’s Creative Nonfiction Contest! Last week, we posted Alberto Alvaro Ríos’ essay, “Translating the Translation: Finding the Beginning.” This week, we are posting “Jicama, without Expectation” by Maxine Kumin, published in the Spring 1994 issue, in which Kumin explores the significance of cultivating a garden.

Jicama, without Expectation
By Maxine Kumin

There never blows so red the rose,
So sound the round tomato
As March’s catalogs disclose
And yearly I fall prey to.

This, my first published poem, appeared on the Home Forum Page of the Christian Science Monitor in March of 1953. Forty years ago, in a handkerchief-size suburban backyard dominated by a huge maple tree that admitted very little sunlight, I raised half a dozen spindly tomato plants and first made the acquaintance of the fearsome zucchini. Burpee’s was my catalog of choice back then; indeed, I doubt that I knew any others existed. The prolixity and seductive lure of today’s catalogs almost exceed my desire to leaf through them. It is not roses I seek; I am in search of the perfect vegetable. Open-pollinated, disease-free, all-season producer, easy to harvest, fun to cook, and heaven to eat. What cultivar is this, as yet unborn?

I have lived long enough to see the sugar snap pea survive its trials and move into the glossy pages of Harris, Stokes, Shepherds et al I have seen the great viney winter squashes shrink into manageable bush types. A white eggplant has swum into my ken, as have seed potatoes, and giant onions that spring up from seed in a single season. The red brussels sprout has arrived. There is an ongoing revolution in the pepper world: orange, red, yellow, chocolate, and now white peppers are all said to be possible.

Lettuces of every hue and configuration have all but obliterated the boring iceberg head, and Japanese vegetables are so numerous that they now command their own category in the catalog. Central and South American varieties are not far behind, although I have only this winter tried to jump-start jicama, a delightfully crunchy root I first met on an hors d’oeuvres platter in Texas ten years ago. To my surprise, it has a vining habit and will want something comforting to twine itself on.

Climbers of the leguminous persuasion, from heirloom shelling-out beans to a strain of leafless peas, all do well in our soil. Frankly, I am deficient in the pepper department. Capsicum’s pod- like fruit mostly just sit and sulk in my central New Hampshire garden, although the long green Buddhas, which I haven’t deliberately planted in a decade, continue to volunteer in all the wrong places. As do Oriental poppies, broadcast by unseen birds. These refuse to be transplanted into some other location but dot them- selves among the carrots and beets at will.

For just shy of twenty years now I have been gardening in the same spot abutting the forest out of which emerge such menacing outlaws as raccoons and woodchucks, skunk, deer, and black bear. I long to have my garden closer to the house where it would be less subject to depredations. The dogs could keep an eye on it there. But our hilly farm yields only this distant tabletop for garden a hundred yards above the house and barn, and it must serve. The earth dries out slowly there, backed by our pond. But it stands open to full sun and yields eight hundred pounds of pro- duce in a decent season.

Substantial credit for this prodigious yield goes to the New York Times, which arrives Monday through Saturday in the mailbox at the foot of the hill, courtesy of the mailperson and her jeep. On Mondays or Tuesdays the New York Times Book Review comes via the same route. I don’t subscribe to the Sunday edition, partly because it weighs too much to carry half a mile north, and partly because I fear it would usurp every Monday to work my way through it.

It makes no difference that the news is a day late when I carry it up the hill, usually on a horse, sometimes on foot. For breadth and depth of coverage, the Times has no peer. Certainly no other newspaper can match, inch for inch, its thick accretion of words, stacked and ready at all seasons in the mud room.

In March, when I start seedlings in flats on top of the refrigerator and dryer, little cutouts of wet newspaper line the trays and help hold in the moisture. New York City’s ten best Szechuan restaurants underlie Johnny’s new hybrid pepper seeds, which seem to take forever to wake up and grow. My almost-antique celery seeds that have not failed in four years lie atop Charles Schwab’s ad for how to open an IRA account. Germination rates may exceed interest again this year.

A little later in the growing season such directly sown vegetables as beets and green beans are also mulched with “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Once the individual plants are well organized with their second set of true leaves showing, I enclose them, tearing slits in three or four thicknesses of paper to fit around the whole plant.

This is tedious and time-consuming, but pays off mightily in shutting out weeds and preserving the soil temperature that suits each variety. Green beans, for example, like warm soil, but want to be mulched before summer’s full heat strikes. While kneeling to put paper around them, I can catch up on an enormous range of topics that eluded me when they were current events. If it’s windy, though, I have to hurry and weight down the papers with mulch.

A vegetable garden just below a pond, just inside a field bordered by hundreds of acres of forests, clearly needs to be fenced and refenced. To keep down weeds that take tenacious hold in, around, and through the original buried chicken wire fence and the later additions of hardware cloth, screening, and other exotica thrown into the breach when emergencies arise, fat sections of the Times are stuffed into the gaps and pleats, then mulched for appearances’ sake.

All around the outer perimeter, whole sections of the newspaper lie flat, weighted and stained with handy rocks. Before I climb over a stile of poplar chunks and into my garden, I sometimes stop to marvel at the Roche Bobois furniture ads, the gorgeous lofts in Chelsea, the halogen lights and sunken marble baths of the back pages. Here where tomatoes overgrow their cages and Kentucky Wonders climb chaotic tepees of sumac branches, I admire engineered closets and beds that fold up into walls.

My corn is not sown here, but in an inviolate space facing south in the uppermost and hottest pasture. A year’s worth of book reviews, exactly the correct width when opened out, serves as carpet between the rows. And an opened-out page folded into thirds slips between individual plants, once they’re six inches high. It’s an Augean labor, but only needs to be performed once. Hay and /or sawdust mulch covers the paper, and nothing further is required except to eat the ears when they’re of a size. No, I misspoke. Just before the corn really sets ears, I need to energize the two strands of electric fence that keep raccoons at bay.

Next April, when a general thaw makes it possible to turn the garden once again, nothing much is left of the New York Times. A few tatters with mysterious pieces of words on them are in evidence, but, thanks to thousands of literate earthworms, not enough remains to construct even a minimalist story.

Cultivating a garden satisfies at least some of my deep yearnings for order. Everything else has a ragged sort of shape to it. In an old farmhouse, cobwebs cling to exposed beams. Pawprints muddy the floor. Doors have to be propped open with stones, the stair risers constructed two hundred years ago are amateurishly uneven. Wisps of hay ride indoors on our sweaters. It’s a comfort- ably down-at-the-heels atmosphere. Sometimes, guiltily, I think of my mother, who would never have tolerated this welter. But the garden is composed of orderly rows and blocks of raised beds. Weeds do not penetrate the deep mulch. Serenely, plants grow, blossom, set fruit. All is as workable as Latin grammar: Amo, amas, amai among the brassicas; hie haec, hoc in a raised bed lively with parsnip foliage.

You cannot justify a garden to non-believers. You cannot ex- plain to the unconverted the desire, the ravishing need, to get your hands into the soil again, to plant, thin, train up on stakes, trellis onto pea fence, hill up to blanch, just plain admonish to grow. From Pliny to Voltaire, from Thomas Jefferson to St. Exupery, gardening has been an emblem of integrity in an increasingly incomprehensible world.

There is an intimacy to the act of planting as tantalizing as possessing a secret. Every seed you sow has passed through your fingers on its way from dormancy to hoped-for fruition. “Trailing clouds of glory do we come,” Wordsworth wrote. Thus come the little cobbles of beet seeds that separate when rolled between your fingers, the flat, feathery parsnip ones that want to drift on air en route to the furrow, the round black dots that will be Kelsae onions, fat and sweet by September, the exasperatingly tiny lettuce flecks that descend in a cluster and the even harder-to-channel carrot seeds.

Some of my seed packets are a decade old, but they’ve lost little vigor. Stored out of season in an unheated closet, they have amazing keeping qualities. But consider the lotus seeds found under an ancient lake bed in Manchuria. Carbon-dated at eight hundred years old, they grew into lotus plants of a sort that had never been seen in that particular area. Such extravagant longevity makes me hopeful that we humans too will ever so gradually advance into new forms, a higher level of lotus, as it were.

A few years ago, early in May, while upending a wheelbarrow load of horse manure onto the pile, I noticed some splayed green leaves emerging along the midriff of this sizeable mountain. They were not poke or burdock. They had a cultivated look. By tacit agreement my husband and I began to deposit our barrow loads on the north face of the pile.

By mid-June the south slope was covered with a dense network of what were now, clearly, squash leaves. Male blossoms, visible on their skinny-necked stems, were popping up and a few bees were already working the territory. Let this not be zucchini, I prayed to Mother Nature.

Around the 4th of July, green swellings could be seen at the bases of the female blossoms. The solo plant had overrun the manure pile and was now racing along our dirt road, uphill and down. Every few days I policed the road’s edge and nipped back each of the brash tendrils that thought, like turtles, to cross the right-of-way. Thwarted in this direction, the heroic squash began to loop upward, mounting a huge stand of jewelweed in its eager- ness to get at a telephone pole.

Well before Labor Day we knew what we had: Sweet Mamas of an especially vigorous persuasion. About ten of these pumpkin- shaped winter squashes were visible from the mountaintop. Several looked tableready.

We watched and waited, despite several frost warnings, secure in the knowledge that the warmth of the pile would protect this crop from an early demise. A two-day downpour flattened some of the luxuriant foliage; we could see that the plant was still setting fruit, heedless of the calendar. After several sunny days when things had dried out a bit, I poked around a few of the giants at the top of the mountain. They had orange streaks and some of the stems were cracking.

Harvest time was at hand. I began yanking the vines hand over hand, as if coiling the ropes of a seagoing vessel. In all we garnered thirty-five beauteous volunteers. Not a single squash bug anywhere. No chipmunk toothmarks, no tiny gnawings of mice or voles. It seems that even the lowliest creature disdains a manure pile.

We compost all our garden and table scraps, from elderly broccoli plants to orange peels to onion skins. The simplest method is just to dig a hole anywhere in the brown mountain, deposit the leavings, and backfill with a few shovelfuls of the usual. Leftovers disintegrate in a few days; sometimes I catch a glimpse of grape- fruit rind or eggshell not fully digested. I re-inter them without a backward glance.

Late November is manure pile demolition time on the farm. As much of the mountain as can be moved manually or by machine is returned to the gardens, pastures, and riding ring. In the course of upending and hauling, some ancient Sweet Mama cotyledon must have been stirred to germinate. I like to think of the seed lying there through several seasons before the right combination of sun and warmth, moon and rain awakened it.

Early in October, in Geese Go South Moon, leaves rain down with a muffled sideslipping sound. Dust motes spin in sunlight like flour sifting in puffs onto the beginnings of batter. For the horses this season is heavenly. We haven’t had a killing frost yet. All of our fields are open to them, and they wander like sleep- walkers from one area to another grazing intermittently, some- times standing for long thoughtful moments silhouetted against the backdrop of forest or granite outcropping.

This is the season when tails at last become superfluous. The biting insects have fled, migrated, died off, or entered hibernation. Except for the usual small ectoplasms of gnats that still hover in quiet air, all is benign and salving in the ether. Gone the vicious little trapezoidal deerflies that draw blood from animal and human. Vanished too the horn and face flies, bots and horse flies. The ubiquitous black flies, that penance of the north country, never quite disappear but they are greatly diminished. And this summer’s long tenure of mosquitoes appears to be over.

We are in the briefest and most beautiful moment of stasis. Along the perimeter of the pastures, fall flowering asters, tiny blue florets with yellow centers, flourish. A few late blackberries go on ripening, daintily pursued by the greedy broodmare, who rolls back her lips in order to nip them off, one or two at a time, without getting pricked by thorns. The Jerusalem artichokes, harbingers of frost, are in bud and threaten to open in today’s sun- light. Toads in the vegetable garden, deprived of their prey now, have begun retreating to the woods after a long and profitable summer. Mushrooms appear everywhere – two brain puffballs in the dressage ring, little pear-shaped lycoperdons dotting the pine duff like misplaced miniature golf balls, smoky hygrophorus clustering in the dark corners of the pine grove, and in the rocky acre allotted the ewes, brickies – hypholoma sublateritium – spring up, breaking their gray cobwebby films. The chanterelles we prized and ate all summer are gone, but clusters of honey mushrooms at the base of decaying oaks are now ready. Sometimes, traversing the woods on horseback, we spot a full bloom of oyster mush- rooms swelling on the trunk of a dying tree. Foraging for mush- rooms has its own visceral pleasures: we reap where we did not sow, paper, mulch, or water.

The war against the thistles continues. Day three of eradication, extirpation, elimination, waged by me with a large serrated bread knife and by my helper with a presharpened posthole shovel. I bobble along on my knees, repositioning the kneeling pad that was a birthday present, scraping my knuckles against the inside of these thistle-proof deerhide gloves. I infer from what I see that the thistle is a biennial plant. The great green overlapping swords I am digging up – though seldom does the entire taproot come with the plant – will be the stalk and flower of next summer. The dried vicious pickets we can pull out, thereby scattering ten thou- sand new seeds for the future, are no threat for the immediate season. While we’re about it, we yank any surviving nettle plants, which ovines will eat if desperate.

Nothing on this farm ever reaches the desperation stage. The several ewes who summer here, leaving their home pasture to the newly weaned lambs, make little single-file trails, over to the pond, behind the pond to the woodlot, thence along the fence line back to the rockpile, and in the heat of the day, into the run-in shed where they lie on green pine sawdust in a flaccid heap like dirty laundry. We are their sabbatical. They arrive sheared and anxious in May and go home in October woolly, plump, and totally at ease, to be bred once again.

In the garden broccoli continues to bud, the Kentucky Wonders still put up beans, and the cauliflower plants left unpulled have, to my wonderment, made multiple tiny new heads. We’ve pulled and dried and braided our onions. Carrots too cannot stay in the ground, as voles and mice begin to nibble them. Two years ago I left parsnips in their bed to winter over and found not a trace of them by spring; last winter I pulled and scrubbed them, dried them off, and froze them, on the theory that they sweeten in the frozen earth if undisturbed. My theory proved itself, for we ate them with relish all last winter in soups and stews.

Kale, brussels sprouts, leeks, celery root, and three purple cabbages remain. Two five-gallon pails of tomatoes, last of the line, are ripening on the porch. A small group of gargantuan zucchini, somehow overlooked, have already been converted into zucchini bread and /or grated, salted, squeezed dry, and frozen to be sneaked into next winter’s recipes a little at a time. They blend unnoticed in winter soups and are barely discernible when spread on pizza dough before the sauce and toppings are added. The freezer is packed with the summer’s haul of strawberries, rasp- berries, peas, corn, green beans, and aye the rest. Part of me – the weary part – longs for frost. The other, frugal self is happy to receive each day’s reduced provender.

November 15. Now I am removed by a thousand miles from my farm and garden. A wet snow is falling in central Illinois, locus day and night of mournful diesel whistles at grade crossings. Here, the campus grounds are littered with crabapples and I find myself mourning that no one cared enough to gather the harvest and make jelly. I think of my own shelves full of blue- berry, strawberry, elderberry, and grape jams, and the fifteen gallons of blackberries waiting in the freezer for a January nor’easter so they can be cooked into “that tar-thick boil love cannot stir down.”

There are still brussels sprouts to be picked and half a dozen daikons to be pulled, but otherwise the garden is done for. And with it the unremitting labor. Dilled green beans and bread-and- butter pickles crowd the storage shelves, abutting bottles of decorative purple-pink chive blossom vinegar. Mint, tarragon, and dill plants are drying in paper bags hung from the porch rafters.

Visitors to the farm fall into two categories: the urban admirers, nostalgists who long, but only in their imaginations, for gardens to tend, and The Others, who see this as madness. It’s not cost- effective, they remind you. Look at the money you spend for seed, blood meal, Dipel, whatever. Look at the fencing (which is now deplorable and needs to be redone). On the other hand, nothing we eat has been drenched with pesticides or fertilized with chemicals. There’s also the deeply Calvinist satisfaction of knowing you have earned by the sweat of your brow this delicious feast of fresh asparagus, new spinach, sweet corn, either harvested in situ or now, at this season, brought up from the capacious freezer in the cellar.

“The poet,” Thoreau wrote in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “is he that hath fat enough, like bears and mar- mots, to suck his claws all winter. He hibernates in this world, and feeds on his own marrow.”

December. Home again, to bountiful snow. Such good cover we can open the fields again, as soon as hunting season passes, to the horses to wander at will. This is the Moon That Parts Her Hair Right Square in the Middle, so styled because of the shortest day of the year and the welcome beginning of longer days. December and the arctic months that follow belong to the writer in a leisure- ly way, to read, think, scribble, declaim aloud, and develop a dozen fantasies of fulfillment. In January’s Help Eat Moon – stay inside; too cold to do anything else, so eat more – and February’s Moon of the Eagle and Hatching Time of the Owl I will suck my claws.

Ruminating in February, I read through a stack of old Smithsonian and Natural History magazines, my favorite provender. When I lift my eyes to the hills that surround us, all visible activity is suspended. This could be a glacial prehistoric era but for the two woodstoves radiating a hospitable warmth indoors and the two domesticated wolves several times removed dozing on the hearth. As I muse on the tenacity of the life force – the mice and voles unseen, running along their narrow tunnels under the snow, deer bedded in a hemlock grove far from any road – 1 come upon an article about suspended animation. The technical term is cryptobiosis. Brine shrimp, which flourish in brackish water that other plankton cannot tolerate, manage to survive even after the ponds dry up. They stop consuming any oxygen at all and simply encyst their embryos until conditions improve. Researchers have carbon-dated some cysts they retrieved from sediment found to be ten thousand years old. Amazingly, several of these hatched when placed back in water. I am comforted, and it is not a cold comfort; it cheers me to learn that certain kinds of brine shrimp reproduce by parthenogenesis and have persisted without male assistance for millions of years. This is less a feminist statement than an affirmation of reproductive forces.

Now we have arrived at Groundhog Day, an increasingly trivialized ceremony in this epoch of electric lights and central heating. Once, it was an event that pledged the faith of human beings in the approach of the vernal equinox. Early Slavic peoples celebrated a holiday that translates as “butter week,” when, as an act of sun-worship, they devoured mountains of the pancakes we know as blini or blintzes, slathered with melted butter. Preparing, chewing, and swallowing were meant to ensure halcyon days to come with abundant crops, golden marriages, and sturdy off- spring to till the fields. I like this story much better than Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney Phil, dragged out of hibernation and paraded before the television cameras to make the feature page of every newspaper in the east.

We have forgotten that we celebrate the coming of the growing season. Most of us are so far removed from the acts of cultivation that we would be unable to recognize a tepee of horticultural beans at twenty paces. But we are evolved from East African hominids that once subsisted on a totally vegetarian diet. This line of herbivorous pre-humans possessed incredibly powerful chewing teeth about five million years ago, but the species did not last. Our molars and pre-molars have shrunk, our craniums have enlarged, and we are less-robust omnivores, and what has it profited us?

It’s fascinating to realize that the formal notion of agriculture, of actually sowing, weeding, and reaping plants from the soil for human uses, is only about ten thousand years old, a mere blip on the screen of human/pre-human history. We seem to have evolved in response to varying temperatures, “successive cooling plunges,” anthropologist Elisabeth Vrba calls them. Wet forests gradually shrank into dry grasslands and then climatic upheavals probably reversed this action several times. Rainfall amounts and geo- graphical boundaries tend to isolate animal populations, limiting the exchange of gene pools. These smaller groups may then di- verge to permit the development of new species or they may simply die out – more’s the pity – as did our very early vegetarian ancestors. I read that the biosphere is “a living layer, stretched thinly over the globe, responding rhythmically to the beat of the earth” and I think of the holes we are poking in this thin curtain that sustains us. What new species will evolve once we have destroyed the atmosphere we require in order to breathe? What new brine shrimp will we become?

This past winter I’ve had a sleigh at my disposal, a little twoseater built by the Excelsior Sleigh Co. of Watertown, New York, around the turn of the century. At some time in the past hundred years an importunate horse’s hoof has kicked a crescent-shaped hole in one side of it, but this in no way limits its serviceability. With new shafts and a few mended braces, it’s sturdy enough to drive across the fields and, before the plow arrives, down the road as well. Twice we sojourned with it to Vermont to attend festive sleigh rallies that looked like events recorded by Currier and Ives.

When conditions are optimal – about six inches of snow over hard-pack – going sleighing is as exhilarating as the daredevil belly flopping runs of my childhood. Down the steep of our backyard that connected with the Kellys’ driveway, around Devil’s Elbow and out onto Pelham Road we flew, perilously side by side, in Germantown, Pennsylvania, long ago.

My half- Arab, half-Standardbred gelding loves to pull. Once he overcomes inertia and the sleigh begins to glide, he finds it all but effortless to keep it skimming. I have to hang on tight; I drive him with the reins on the lowest (most severe) slot of his Liverpool bit. In summer with the two-wheel phaeton, I can trust him with just a snaffle. The term mercurial accurately reflects changes in equine temperament according to the vagaries of weather. When the mercury plunges, their exuberance rises proportionately, and vice- versa. In winter our horses are very shaggy, volatile, round-bellied from free-choice good hay. By midsummer, freed of those heavy coats and in regular work, they are sleek, supple, almost obedient.

There’s a place we love to go, on horseback or by phaeton and now by sleigh; it’s a protected stretch of wetlands under federal jurisdiction, crisscrossed by a network of driveable trails. Week- days we are usually the only travelers. The dogs go with us, sprinting into the woods to follow some elusive scent, bounding back to catch up with us around the next bend. In winter we cross- country ski here, too, along paths that weave through managed stands of red and white pine, hemlock and some few larches. Only an occasional patch of sunlight makes its way here. The prevailing northerly wind is deflected by the abundant growth. The stillness is so palpable I would risk calling it holy.

Rhythmic hoofbeats and arrhythmic sneeze-snorts echo like gunshot in these vasty rooms. Although I have never seen the taiga, I think it must look like this, with a three-abreast hitch of caribou flying over the tundra, outstripping their wolves. We seldom raise any wild creatures here as there is very little under- story for browsing, but once, around a bend in the trail, we came upon a magnificent coyote, well-nourished, tall at the shoulder. There was barely enough time to admire him before he was gone. Oddly, our dogs never picked up his scent but continued their dilettantish feints around the bases of trees up which a few sparse squirrels had scampered.

These are the best of days. At noon when the temperature peaks in the twenties the fresh powder of last night’s little snow squalls squeaks under our skis or runners. My horse is shod with borium caulks on all four feet. In front he wears snowball poppers, pads designed to keep the snow from balling up in the concavity of his hoof known as the frog. He is surefooted and a little too eager! We fly along in an extended trot until he wears down the edge of his enthusiasm and will come back into my hand.

Is it dangerous? Of course. A spill in cart or sleigh is far more fraught with peril than an unceremonious dumping from the saddle. The horse’s life, too, is at risk when he’s in the traces and upsets. But I mind the trail, squint in a sudden stretch of sunlight, settle into a long easy trot on the flat, and ask him to walk the last mile back so he can cool out without chilling.

In March the lambs – singles, twins, and triplets – begin to be born to various small-farm and hobby-farm breeders. The professionals who raise lamb in quantity for the market breed early, risking losing some newborns in order to have table-lamb, as they call it, in time for the Easter trade. It’s baby chick and rabbit time, too, most of them destined for oblivion in eight to ten weeks. Goat farmers are happy to have infant bucks on hand for the Greek Orthodox Easter market in Boston, where roast kid is considered a delicacy.

I can’t blink these facts, but I’m grateful I don’t have to participate in them. By and large, the small breeders raise their animals for slaughter in a far more humane fashion than the animal factories of agribusiness. Around here, veal calves are not confined in slatted cages in the dark, chickens scratch in capacious barnyards and are not debeaked, sows farrow in full-size pens or in the open. Does it matter how they live, since they are all going to die to feed us? I think it matters mightily, not only because these uncrowded creatures need not be shot full of antibiotics to survive to marketable size, but because how we treat the animals in our keeping defines us as human beings.

April is punctuated by the geese going over, baying like beagles in the dawn sky. Our hundred maple taps run grudgingly around midday, then seal up tight until the next day’s warmth releases them again for a few hours. Traditionally, George Washington’s birthday is the first acceptable date to go out with brace and bit and bore holes in pre-selected trees. This year, blizzards and relentless cold delayed the start a good three or four weeks. Sugaring-of f time depends on the freeze-thaw cycle of March and early April. This hasn’t been a good run compared to last year, but the deep snow cover is prolonging it clear to the end of the month, which is unusual. Things have a way of balancing out, a fact it has taken us thirty years here to accept. Drought one season, monsoon the next.

For the first time in our long tenure here, the spring peepers have been all but inaudible. True, we’ve had a slow, cold spring, but except for a few tentative pipings, no evidence of hyla crucifer, whose high, shrill whistle ordinarily raises a deafening chorus every night during mating season. Some nights I’ve even closed the bedroom window on the lower-pond side to reduce the noise pollution. Now I find myself straining to hear that high-pitched stridulation.

Reflecting back on last summer, the population of bullfrogs in our upper pond, normally abundant enough to keep our dogs busy startling them off their sunbathing perches, seemed to have diminished. There were sporadic late-afternoon jug-a-rums announcing the locations of various kings, but the usual clumps of tadpoles in the shallows sprouting forelegs and gradually absorbing their tails were greatly reduced.

The salamander density seemed undisturbed, especially in the red stage on dry land when they are known as efts, a useful Scrabble word. The salamander is voiceless, so far as I know, but consider this lyrical outburst from my sobersides bible, the Complete Field Guide to American Wildlife, East, Central and North, by Henry Hill Collins, Jr.: “The cries of the ancient frogs may well have been the first voices in the springtime of the Age of Land Vertebrates. For millions of years before the coming of the song- birds, the calls of various frogs and toads must have been the most musical sounds on earth.”

Another mystery is the absence of great blue herons from the rookery in our secret beaver pond a few miles away. For years we’ve gone on horseback every few days beginning at the end of April to keep tabs on this enormous nursery, where a dozen or more nests decorate the tops of dead pine trees still rising from their flooded bases. So far this year, no activity is evident. No crying and flapping, no ack-ack-ack of hungry fledglings, not even any tardy parent brooding over her eggs. Are we simply in a new cycle of birth and decay, have the herons relocated to a better, even more remote pond, or is the culprit man-made: acid rain?

Still, the geese go over barking in formation, the rusty-hinge sound of the red-winged blackbirds announces that insects are once again abroad. Tongues of snow retreat in the woods, the ubiquitous mud ebbs, pastures begin to green around the mar- gins, fiddlehead ferns poke their spokes up through the wood- land wet, and the first harbingers of spring, wake-robin trilliums, which will send up their distinctive burgundy blooms, announce the tidings with their earliest leaves.

Everything resurrects in May. Nettles first, followed by wild mustard, then dandelions and clover and tender grasses. The hardwoods flush faintly red with new buds, prelude to leaves. The willows sprout catkins, then laces of yellow strings. Wake robin is followed by bloodlilies, violets, lady’s slipper, and the whole procession of miniature blossoms that dot the grudgingly greening pastures.

In the bird department, phoebes are the first to return after the blackbirds; I worry what they will find to eat before the air fills with insects. Robins next, then all smothered in a brief snow- storm. (I put out raisins and hope for the best.) Finches, both purple and gold, hung around all winter, as did the evening grosbeaks, but here come the song sparrows with their old-john- peabody, peabody, pea refrain, and finally the rosebreasted grosbeaks, spectacularly jousting at the feeders.

How joyous the first light is now, with all this territorial music! How lucky I feel to come awake to the overlapping trills and calls, a symphony of screes, caws, and warbles, many of them distinctive and recognizable, some tantalizingly elusive, even unknown. It is deliriously noisy at 5 a.m. Everyone is staking a claim. But what falls so happily on human ears actually reflects a tense struggle to survive and procreate. Life is not harmonious for the insectivores, it seems to me, who must sieve the air from dawn to full-dark for enough protein to sustain a clutch of nestlings. Prodi- gal nature dictates their stern routine: two, even three batches of babies in a season to guarantee the future of the race. In much the same way, nature sends down a deluge of volunteer dill into my vegetable garden, along with torrents of sprouting jewelweed, duckweed, lamb’s quarters, and half a dozen extra-prolific others to bedevil the deliberately-planted cultivars.

It’s a penance of sorts to rise extra early and get the horses out on grass for a few hours before the wings of midges and black flies have dried. By 9 a.m. you cannot inhale outside without ingesting black flies. Even with face masks in place, the horses are driven wild by them and prefer to be in their stalls. We will endure black flies until the mosquitoes overtake them, but even this plague is self-limiting. In a few weeks, once the richest flush of growth has passed and with it the danger of founder from too much grazing, the horses will be out on grass all night. The cruelest pests – deerflies, horseflies, bots – are diurnal. Admittedly, mosquitoes raise welts on equines as well as humans, but they are more easily deterred with repellents and oily lotions.

One dawn’s reward: a pair of loons crying their thrillingly demented cry overhead. That same week, wood ducks overnighting on the lower pond. The next morning a great showy splashing on the big upper pond. Two pairs of mallards, and later, one hooded merganser. What can you do with these treats? Like the winter’s wild turkeys parading across the back lawn, the daily visitations by pileated woodpeckers, the late summer fawn still speckled with camouflage who bounded out of the tall grass like an enormous rabbit, these are honoraria to share with like-minded friends. We commingle our passions with a small band of other beast-bird-and-flower fanatics, like a secret cell of communists. Some of them have snapshots of moose, blurry because the photographer’s hand was shaking with excitement, some have up-close black bear sightings, one has even come into the presence of a bobcat. Such events make us celebrities of a sort.

A Montana visitor in May, however, complained that the world of New England was far too verdant for her eyes. She could not differentiate the variations; all was a huge humid sea of green vegetation in her parched sight. Her retina longed to record the yellow and brown vistas of her native heath, the open plains and craggy mountains, canyons, and draws that comforted her.

Especially you know what not to rhapsodize about. Nothing rhapsodic about the enormous male raccoon who seems to have taken up permanent lodgings in the grain room of the barn. He sprawls over the cats’ feeding shelf while they wait respectfully on the back sill, and it takes a snap of the lunge whip to drive him off. I am a bit leery, given the recent rash of reports of rabies in New Hampshire. All our animals have been vaccinated, but we humans are certainly vulnerable. Now I remove the cat dishes every evening, hoping to deprive our adoptee of the easy pickings he seems to have come to expect. Bad enough to feed a flock of forty aggressive evening grosbeaks year-round. Am I destined to deliver cat kibble to the multitudes of masked bandits?

One afternoon our raccoon arrived just as I was feeding the cats. Abra growled, a sound I have never heard her utter before, and instantly decamped. I looked up into the coon’s handsome feral face; he paid no attention to my shouts. I snapped the lunge whip at him but he stood his ground. The next crack caught him across the shoulders but hardly dislodged him. He retreated twenty paces into the broodmare’s stall where she totally ignored his presence and went on eating. A raccoon that bold by daylight? We called the town’s animal officer who offered us the loan of a Havahart trap.

“Take him at least ten miles from here, or you’ll have him back next morning,” he said. “Course, last time I did this, I got a skunk in the trap. If you catch a skunk instead, throw an old blanket over the cage before you pick it up so he won’t spray.” (Do I believe this will work? Not for one moment.) “Try peanut butter and if that don’t get him, tuna fish.”

Peanut butter didn’t work, but the trap was sprung. We continue to reset it with various baits, but this fellow is apparently a graduate of Havaharts. He gets the goods and goes free. The cats and he seem to have agreed on a non-aggression pact. The dogs, too, have grown quite used to him; the horses treat him with total indifference. His hideout lies between the double walls that separate the broodmare’s stall from the sawdust bin. He materializes and fades away as soundlessly as the Cheshire Cat. Often now I find him resting comfortably on the top ledge of that divider, eyeing the general proceedings. He is extremely handsome with his narrow feline face and foxy ears. I count five rings on his great tail.

Now I look over my shoulder before I open the grain bin, expecting the marauder to leap in unannounced. And as if raccoons weren’t enough, Rilke, our mostly-German shepherd, came home from a trail ride today with ten porcupine quills in his face. Luckily, we were able to yank them out with needle-nose pliers while distracting him with dog biscuits. Dozens of other times with our other dogs, particularly with the handsome but ineducable Dalmatians we used to raise, we had to make emergency runs to the expensive open-all-night city-vet to have forty or fifty quills removed under total anesthesia. “The reason we don’t learn from history,” my poet friend Howard Nemerov once said, “is because we are not the same people who learned last time.” Dogs, it seems, are never the same dogs who learned last time. Every porcupine, every skunk is newly imprinted on the brain pan, which then reverts to tabula rasa.

After a week of imprisoning one barn cat after the other in the Havahart – each seemed perfectly content there, having polished off a plate of tuna fish – our raccoon took the original bait of peanut butter. He slept most of the way to Mt. Sunapçe State Park, lulled into slumber by the gentle motion of the automobile, leading me to suspect that he has made this journey before, but came awake at once when the trap door was opened. He snarled, leapt out, and shot up a tree. We hope we are permanently delivered of raccoon.

In mid-June we take our first delivery of next winter’s hay, a hundred bales of first-cut timothy, insurance in case the second cutting, which we prefer for its better keeping properties, comes late or, heaven forfend, not at all. (There is always Canadian hay in an emergency, but the bales are wire-tied and the contents are coarser.) The farmer who supplies us is an old friend by now. He takes a proprietary interest in the well-being of our horses, especially my driving horse who took him for a few fast passes in the cart one day, and he is a source of rich anecdotes about the past in this corner of New England. His family has been here since, as he puts it, the back of the beyond. Steer are his specialty, but he also raises up a fine crop of local boys who hire on with him for summer jobs as soon as they are tall enough and strong enough. His work ethic is stringent but kind. Graduates of his school go on with better biceps and enlarged self-respect.

And so we grope our way into high summer again, into the time of strawberry-picking, followed by the first peas. If rain is bountiful there will be hundreds of coprinus mushrooms, our first available fungus, to make into soup. The green beans will ripen all at once, there will be too much broccoli, and when the yellow squash and zucchini begin to set fruit, there will be no sane way to cope with their overabundance. We will wait on the cusp of August for our first vine-ripened tomato. Turn around twice and they will be too many.

Just as we ate asparagus every night for three weeks when the crop gushed magically forth in May, so will we devour corn on the cob every night for those few weeks – if we’re lucky! – at the end of August and into early September. A little melancholy will creep in when the corn is done. I know I will grieve as I stand there feeding the succulent shucks to the horses, as one does when a wonderful novel draws to its close. “What do I want of my life?” Stanley Kunitz asked in a poem. “More!”

Another year, please. Another year of the same. Hay in the barn, heavy snows, ten cords of dry firewood, split and stacked. Send in the black flies, let a new crop of nettles emerge, may the broodmare bring forth a healthy foal. Next year I promise to plant a smaller and thriftier garden. If I get another summer like this one, I vow to spend an hour every afternoon sitting by the pond or swimming in it. I will cultivate leisure as tenderly as jicama, which, by the way, made splendid vines and never cared to develop edible roots. I will grow jicama again, without expectation, simply to cherish it, along with the dogs and horses, the cats, even the raccoon, if he returns to raise a family, a not unlikely prospect.

For I too plan to stay.

Maxine Kumin is the author of sixteen collections of poetry and has received numerous awards for her work, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. She served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1981-82. Her essay, “Jicama, without Expectation,” appeared in the Spring 1994 issue of Prairie Schooner.