In central Illinois, today is the first day of Spring. Now, before you grow confused and rush to check the calendar, let me explain that I don’t mean it’s the first calendar day of Spring. It’s only Spring according to the weather outside.
You know what I mean. After months of bone-numbing cold interspersed with ice storms, blizzards – and those weirdly irritating things the weathermen call “Canadian clippers” that can cause your nose and ears to drop off in an inkling – you wake up one morning to find the sun’s warmth gently caressing your face through the glass; the needle on the outdoor thermometer, frozen for months in the ‘fifty degrees below absolute’ position has miraculously sprung up overnight to the balmy sixty degree mark, and a quick glance out the window reveals wildlife everywhere hard at it ravishing each other while simultaneously choking on mouthfuls of nest-building material.
Today is the first day of Spring in central Illinois.
For most of my sixty years on this planet, today was when it all began again. To a young foal, born in the depths of winter and struggling to survive, the first touch of spring sunshine breathes life and energy; it’s warmth, the touch of a magic wand casting out winter weakness and replacing it with the verve of life itself.
On me, however, for the last four years, that magic wand has cast only the spell of depression and heartache.
In the gentler, milder climate of my native home, the first Spring day is a herald of bounteous growth and balmy summers, eventually to be followed by the glorious tints and mellow fruitfulness of autumn. Nine wonderful months of a yearly cycle that saw me seldom settled indoors before eleven in the evening, on all but those most inclement of warm, rainy days so necessary to the freshness and unique greenery of my homeland.
Five years ago I moved to central Illinois to be with the woman I loved. It was mid-September, still hot and humid, but with the promise of cooler, Fall weather on the way. It snowed on Christmas Eve and presented me with my first white Christmas since childhood. Through the ongoing bitter cold of those early months of 2003 I looked out on the “yard” of our new home, planning and planting in my mind’s eye the garden that would blossom into loveliness over the coming summer. By that ‘first day of Spring’, half our kitchen floor was awash with seed trays sprouting infant annuals and perennials to grace the borders, once dug out and suitably fertilized.
That task kept me occupied most of the Spring, along with re-staining the deck and laying new irrigation hoses. By May, the garden was prepared and planted with new shrubs and perennials, interspersed with young annual plants to flower and fill out the sparse areas till more permanent residents became established.
It was a blow when the first violent storm smashed everything to the ground. Sad but not daunted, for I knew Mother Nature requires no convalescence and would quickly repair the damage, the mess was cleared; broken young boughs mended. Before long, it was as if the storm had never been.
The next one did even more damage, and it became obvious some plants could never survive this oft-repeated onslaught. The dead were mourned, and replaced with perhaps less glamorous but more robust specimens.
In the weeks following that “first Spring day” I was spent lots of time outdoors. The work of creating a new garden from scratch was arduous, yet enjoyable, but by the middle of May I was beginning to notice the heat. Used to the cool mountain air of Wales, continually swept by fresh breezes from the sea, I began to discover the languid heat and oppressive humidity of my new home far from the ocean, somewhat overbearing. The time I could spend outdoors became less and less. After a couple of occasions when I was forced to take to my bed after spending too long in the sun, it soon became obvious that the work entailed in maintaining my garden was impossible to achieve. By mid-June, I was only able to work in the early morning and late evening, and often only for a short while. The air was always heavy and oppressive. My lungs refused to adapt and it was hard to breathe. Tasks that would normally prove no chore became wearisome. Meanwhile the weeds grew faster than it was possible for me to clear them in the short time I could spend outside.
Then, the mosquitoes arrived.
Welsh mosquitoes are relatively benign creatures. An occasional bite only lasts a day or two and is no more than a minor irritation. Illinois mosquitoes are something else. Within days my body became a mass of itching, suppurating sores, so painful I would be unable to sleep. Those born in this country, while not immune to the bite, are at least protected to some degree by lifelong exposure. For the Illinois mosquito, British blood is the elixir of life, and they sought me in their droves. A Mosquito Magnet worked well. According to the manufacturer, one inch of dead mosquitoes in the net was the equivalent of 10,000 bodies. If so, our device – nicknamed “Arnold” after the Exterminator – was responsible for 40,000 of the brutes in the first three weeks.
It made no impression on the numbers seeking out my blood vessels. While Arnold hissed quietly away in the garden, I was forced to sweat in the not-very-balmy air-conditioned, eighty-degree house, and watch the pernicious weeds strangling my beloved plants, unable to lift a finger to prevent it.
By late August, the bowling greens that my lawns had been stood two feet high; the annuals – and most of the perennials – long since given in to the native species that engulfed them, and any more than two or three minutes outdoors meant serious consequences for this writer.
Eventually, in late September the heat gave way to the milder air of Fall, and I was once again able to venture outside. Lawns were cut, an attempt was made to clear the weeds from borders, and Arnold was packed away for the winter.
Fall is a beautiful season in central Illinois. Tree colors are superb, and the air is fresh and pleasant – on the days that ADM pollution, or the stench from the sewage works a mile away, is blowing in the opposite direction. But a few brief weeks can never recoup the loss of nine months, when extreme weather forces this outdoorsman to remain inprisoned.
Four years on, the garden has reverted to a “yard”. The kitchen floor has remained bereft of seed trays since those first Spring days of 2003; days replete with empty promise.
And so today, the first day of Spring 2007, holds no joy; no verve for life; no herald of glorious growth and balmy summers. For this one Illinois habitant, at least, it may just as well remain winter.
Filed under: Home sweet home