Not My Land

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.

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8 Replies to “Not My Land”

  1. Trees! Trees, trees and more trees. Trees that blossom and bear fruit and trees that shade. That’s the only hope for Central Illinois gardens and Florida, too. I have planted seven trees here and will probably tuck a few more smallish ones in here and there – all for one very important reason, shade. Without the shade, I couldn’t hope for anything else to survive. As for mosquitoes, have you tried bathing with a product made by AVON called Skin So Soft? You will have lovely soft skin for sure, and the mosquitoes will run the other way. I also rinse the dogs with it for the same reason. Works great and is safer than some of the other anti-mosquito ointments and it is with you all the time.

  2. PM – I’ve tried the Skin so Soft, not the shower gel but the cream….slurped it on, went out, got eaten alive. Also, we are already surrounded by trees, which almost seem to trap the heat and humidity, even though the sunlight is dappled. Believe me, I’ve tried everything to combat these problems and nothing works. It’s a simple case of the wrong physiology. I see people working out on the roads here in the height of summer, something I wouldn’t last five minutes doing – not because I’m weak, but just that my body is accustomed to more temperate climes. In gardening terms, I’m not a cactus, but an alpine. One day, we hope to move further north. Until then there’s not a lot to be done, but make the best of it.

    mikesheppard – I love your response. It’s so American.

  3. Similar problem here r.j. some of the plants we grew in the UK just didn’t survive the 45°c of summer and the -15 of winter. We have sort of had to go “local” but then we don’t have much of a garden. An old farm doesn’t lend its self to well to “english” style gardening. We have planted 8 apple trees, 1 peach, 1 apricot and a cherry. Things we couldn’t grow in UK so that is something. I can sympathise mosquitos here thank god!!! just snakes……..

  4. mikesheppard – Occasionally on Sparrow Chat I write a more personal article than the general political comment and ‘hot topic of the moment’ debate that has been the blog’s evolution. It’s not “whining”, Mike, it’s simply expressing a few personal feelings of the moment. You ask why I found your original response “American”. It’s because that particular response of “shut up whining and do something about it” I have found to be trendy among those Americans who refuse to see the faults inherent in US society, or even if they do, will not accept a ‘foreigner’ broadcasting them.
    In fact, my only criticism – if one could call it that – was of the weather in central Illinois and its impact on a lifestyle that is important to me. The only way to *Do* something about it, is by relocating to cooler climes. For personal, family reasons that is not presently possible and so, until it is I cope with summers I find unbearable – and which prevent me from enjoying pursuits close to my heart – as best I am able.

    AP – my neighbor, a really great black guy born and bred in the sweaty heat of Alabama, grows most of his own vegetables in his yard. He has no trees near his veggie patch, yet is regularly out in the wicked July sun irrigating or weeding. I asked him once if I could grow veggies on my patch and he told me I’d have to get rid of all the trees around the house, as they kept the sunlight off my yard!

    Incidentally, we have snakes, too, but nothing poisonous. There was talk last year of a rattlesnake spotted only a few miles away – but I believe the mosquitoes killed and ate it! 😉

  5. i understand that you can’t relocate; i’m sure that many are in a similar situation. i, myself, have relocated far from my favorite part of the country as a result of my spouse. it happens…life goes on…if you were happy enough to follow her, then perhaps your gardening interest isn’t as important to you as you make it appear in your post?

  6. Mitigator Rules!
    I can recommend a new “scrub” product called “Mitigator Sting & Bite Treatment”; to say that it is terrific is an understatement! It actually removes venom by exfoliating the top layer of skin, opening the pores and drawing out the toxins. I had instant relief from pain and itching and all traces of the sting disappeared within minutes. I found it on the web at which is their military website. I called and they sold me (6) ½ ounce packages for about $2.00/pack (each resealable pack treats about 20 stings or bites). The only thing that can create a problem is if you wait too long to apply it, it should be rubbed in vigorously within the first few minutes after the bite or sting – the longer you wait, the less effective it is. I’ve used it on bees, wasps, fire ants (no blisters even appeared), mosquitoes and chiggers. They say it works on jellyfish but I’m a long way from the ocean so I haven’t needed it for that problem. No smelly chemicals, works great and is even safe for kids (the scrubbing replaces scratching so – no secondary infections). I should make a commercial for them!

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