The Benefit of Violets

| April/May 1997

  • Illustrations by Gayle Ford

Some of the skills I learned as a small child on my grandparents’ farm are lost to me now. One of them is mending socks with the aid of a darning egg—the art of filling in a hole. Another is the skill of finding spring, which I learned from the hired hand named Mingo.

Every year, on a morning in late March or early April, Mingo took me with him to find spring. He dragged old burlap feed bags from the barn and spread them out on the muddy ground in the grove where the tall sugar maples stood interspersed with thinning ­patches of crystallized, lace-edged snow.

Following his lead, I lay down on my burlap, turned on my side, and pressed my ear to the earth. There was little noise in the country air then, hardly more than an occasional moo or oink or cluck to distract us. In the quiet, we listened with our buried ears for sap running through the maple roots and for trickling underground streams.

Even as a small girl ground level on burlap, I knew that there was more to finding spring than hearing the sap run. While I listened, I dug with the fingers of my outstretched hand into a nearby patch of crystallized snow and saw, surrounding it, the purple blur of sweet violets rising from the dark brown mud.

With the availability of cheap socks and the advent of weather cams for up-to-the-minute news on spring’s arrival, I am far removed from these childhood skills. They seem primitive and silly in today’s technical world. Perhaps I’ve become too sophisticated to be bothered with darning eggs and with filling in what is missing, too worldly to listen for subterranean streams. After all, what would the neighbors think if, one day in the cold of March, they looked out their windows and saw me in the yard sprawled out on a burlap bag with my ear in the mud? What might they say if I told them I was trying to find spring?

Listening for spring with an ear in the mud is not enough anymore. The old skills are obsolete. But while technological progress may be precise and refined, it lacks association. We wear fine socks that have no personality and slip into spring without the benefit of violets.

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