Overnight, it’s Spring. You can smell the grass, the peepers are cheerfully deafening, and we finally have something green and feral to sell. Yay, fiddleheads! (And ramps, and scallions.)
My mother used to read Come Spring by Ben Ames Williams every year. It’s a great book for a lot of reasons–it’s set in Maine, it’s well-written, and does an amazing job of capturing the joys and the brutal hardship of homesteading in Colonial days–but there’s one image that has always stayed with me. Early in the book our heroine is told shortly after moving to Maine that the ‘Indians’ come every year when the poplar leaves are the size of your thumbnail. From the moment when you first notice the poplar leaves’ size, there’s about a week or two before they burst out and unfurl into real leaves. Within those days and weeks, the Indians would come through every year, following the season, trading with the colonists, tracing their migrations in tandem with the woodland critters on which they depended.
Williams uses this heartbreakingly later in the book when the encroaching colonists prompt the First Nation people to change their seasonal patterns. One year she sees the leaves of the poplars, thumbnail sized, but they’re nowhere to be found. He writes brilliantly of how she breathlessly watches the leaves, day to day, until that year, the window passes and they never come.
When I was a day-dreaming, voraciously-reading preteen, every spring I used to roam around our land up North, tromping through soggy fields, searching for the first signs of my annual wild May Day bouquet for my mother. We were far enough north that it was the same bouquet every year, picked from the same places (God bless my mother, she never minded). But ever since reading Come Spring, I’d watch those first poplar leaves, picking a few in astonishment that they were literally the size of my thumbnail. One of the first instances of seeing something I’d only read be true, of course I then waited to see if maybe I’d see strange people crossing our land.
These days I think of this another way. Spring is the hunger gap. When I was in the Peace Corps, we’d do a seasonal calendar with our community members to highlight where the hunger gaps were between the end of the last storage crops and the first of the new harvest. Obviously our community members knew all this already, so it undoubtably helped the Volunteers more than our neighbors, but it became a useful tool when overlaid with school schedules and cash flow calendars.
(In short, the kids’ school schedule starts back up when the hard work does as well, so not only are there less hands to do the work, but there are also school and uniform fees, etc. It also coincides with the dry season, so the school has no rainwater stored in the tanks when the 200 kids show up for class.)
The calendars become a tool for looking at where the gaps are in both food security and income generation. A little strategy goes a long way, both for the person hustling their butt to make a living, and the hapless sunburned Peace Corps Volunteer wracking their brain trying to come up with new helpful solutions.
Tropical countries have imperatives of sun and rainy seasons. In Maine our imperatives are no less, well, imperative. Good luck growing something in Maine in March without a lot of heating. Or April for that matter. What the collective experience of international development and aid organizations tells us is that May is awesome, but deceptive. The wild forage crops help spike options and nutrition in the middle of the hunger gap, but some of the greatest danger for families is while the crops are growing.
Now maybe Mainers are insulated from physical hunger in some ways (not everyone, I know), but if you look at it as a resource gap, it’s now, buddy. Fiddleheads mark the first thing you can spend no more than your sweat on, and maybe some scrounged jars or bags, and get cash on the side of the road, or in your yard.
In the farming, not foraging, world, we start saying definitively, there will be no oats until the crop comes in. Potatoes are done til we get ‘new’ potatoes in mid-late summer. Carrots, gone til summer. Fertilizer has to be bought, even though there may not be money until fall. Warmer weather means the roof leaks again, instead of the ice keeping us dry.
Livelihoods based on actual food and actual production are a funny little paradox, because in some ways they have the safety net of being close to the ground, in the most direct contact with the supporting stratum. But on the other hand, farming is one of the biggest gambles in the world. Sounds trite, but weather’s a big deal. Look at the apple crop last year, zapped by frost right at the perfect, most inopportune moment of apple-blossom time. Look at the St. Jean Valley right now, where the St. Jean River is surging over the river bottom potato fields, higher than it’s been in years.
My father used to tell customers in Boston that people thought of farmers as these staid figures, chugging along in their overalls chewing on grass stems, milking cows and square dancing for fun, but in reality the farmers are the adrenaline junkies of the world, more akin to paratroopers or high speed Wall Street traders. Hyperbole aside, anyone whose professions demands that they eyeball the unknowable and make their best guess, using all their wit and skill to wrest a year’s sustenance from a narrow window has to have nerve and some sort of evolutionarily favorable risk-taking bent. I’m just sayin’ …. might be a little truth to it …
In the meantime, it’s May, finally. Time to rock ‘n’ roll and get things going. Welcome to Spring, everybody.