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Slayton: End of Spring

Memorial Day, a day set aside for remembering those who have died in the service of their country is also, more prosaically, the unofficial beginning of Vermont’s shortest season: summer. And the thought that summer is unofficially underway is exciting.

However, I always feel a twinge of sadness when the end of May approaches, because Memorial Day inevitably heralds the end of what for me is the most beautiful time of the year – early spring. And no matter how I try, the last weeks of May arrive and I sadly realize that my favorite season has slipped by me again. We won’t see hepaticas and flowering shads for another year.

But that’s just the way the season is: elusive, ethereal, fleeting and therefore impossible to capture. I am always frustrated when I feel it slipping through my fingers. And I always want more.

More of the early wildflowers, the bloodroot, hepaticas, trout lilies and dutchman’s breeches.

Though these wildflowers are technically members of several different families of plants, they share a common ecological strategy – pop up early, blossom and reproduce, all before the leaves of the deciduous forest trees fill in the forest canopy.

After that, their blossoms quickly wither and disappear. April and May are the months to get to know them and appreciate their tenuous beauty.

They are termed “spring ephemerals,” and sadly enough the chilly, hopeful weeks in which they blossom are ephemeral too.

The first green-gold leaves of April, “no bigger than a mouse’s ear,” are so delicate they look like a fine mist, scattered through the tree branches. Then they leaf out in a dozen different shades of green, fresh and new and exhilarating.

A friend’s grandmother used to call that early foliage “green lace,” and it inspired Robert Frost to write the sadly sweet poem that begins, “Nature’s first green is gold/ Her hardest hue to hold/ Her early leaf’s a flower./But only so an hour…”

The poem’s title is “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and that does seem to be the case. Our only solace, once the leaves have filled out, is that the bright fresh shades of green will come back again – after another winter!

More than 150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau wrote eloquently in his journal of the fragile beauty of these early spring days, adding in one entry: “I do not know that the woods are ever more beautiful, or affect me more.”

My favorite flowering tree, the impossibly delicate shads, have pretty much faded for this year, back into forest anonymity. Farmers called them shads because their blooming was keyed to the return of that anadromous fish up the Connecticut River. They are, to me, the emblem of the passing spring.

I suspect the season’s very elusiveness, its ethereal, ungraspable quality, is part of what attracts me. Perhaps the best we can do is see it, appreciate it, let it go – and, now that Memorial Day has past, turn to the equally impermanent but more robust pleasures of summer.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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