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Rites and wrongs of spring

4/7/2014

A couple nights ago, I stepped outside to discover it smelled exactly like spring. And spring didn't even start until the next day.

I could hardly wait. But the next morning, I glanced outside to see dense plumes of smoke wafting through the cedar trees out back. Rats. Gusty day, too, so I went out to locate the fire and see if it needed to be doused.

Didn't smell like fire and smoke, though. I noticed the cedars were covered with new flower buds. Jostling breezes shook loose clouds of fine pollen, drifting through the air like smoke.

No, this wasn't a global warming moment. My sap starts to run this time of year, so I experience spring everywhere I go, like it or not. Usually not "not."

I really do think something is going on that can't be fully explained by my childhood upbringing -- grubbing around in the dirt in the spring, then packing away the produce as fall approaches, like any responsible ground squirrel would do. Dad did a lot of the former, Mom the latter. They served as role models for my own behaviors and values, to be sure, but what I subjectively experience comes closer to the drive that impels the ground squirrel.

It's in the blood, or more likely, in the genes.

Our species has survived in part for our ability to project today's concerns into the future. Even hunter-gatherers must search out the best places to find emerging shoots of useful plants, and assess the location and numbers of food animals.

Complex behaviors can become genetically -- or epigenetically -- programmed, if those who are prone to exhibit them are more likely to survive and reproduce than are their peers.

Bird parents don't teach their bird babies how to construct those amazingly intricate nests. Chicks already know what they need to know.

Vast migrations of insects, mammals, fish and birds occur annually, as they have for millennia. Nobody tells them how to do it, or when, or by which routes. Even the tiny brain of a monarch butterfly has room for a remarkably complex multistage migration program.

So this time of year, as the earliest tree buds appear and tiny blue flowers speckle the yard despite heavy frosts, I feel an unfocused upwelling of motivation and energy.

Increasingly, the latter fails to keep pace with the former, but when the seed catalogs appear in the mail earlier each year, I immediately rationalize last season's sore joints and muscles weren't really so terrible. More importantly, there are so many varieties I haven't tried to grow yet. I'll have to attempt them soon, because Big Momma Nature has been kicking my can down the road to crippledom for several years now.

The only thing I can do is cope -- quitting the garden isn't an option yet, though I occasionally wonder if I should "cut back." Next year, always next year.

There's the matter of the back -- mine is prone to self-inflicted injuries, though I've become fairly adept at avoiding the postures and movements that provoke serious complications. Doesn't always work.

So instead of stooping and bending, I squat or kneel, keeping my spine straight and erect. This reduces the strain on ligaments and muscles back there.

But it's not that simple. Squatting and kneeling intensify the demands on knees, feet and toes. Before long, those body parts join and amplify the chorus of complaints accompanying activities of daily living.

There's a solution for that, though -- the ordinary walking stick. It allows me to redistribute some of the mechanical stresses across arms and shoulders. With the support of a third leg, I can reach farther without risking sudden paralysis, and reduce the strain on my legs when I repeatedly kneel and stand.

But it's not that simple. Now the shoulders, elbows, hands and fingers begin to object.

As a kid, I abused my arms and shoulders a lot -- and was glad to do so, at least for the beefy bulk it added to help me block, tackle and put the shot. Heaving an iron ball hundreds or thousands of times over my 10 years of shot-putting took a hidden toll; so did hoisting and tossing hay bales for nearly as long.

Now those chickens are coming home to roost, leaving me with egg on my face. But the only time I'll quit the digging, lifting, planting and mulching will be the time there's none left to do, or I'm no longer around to do it.

Bob Dalton's last words come to mind, as he coughed them out to his brother Emmett in a Coffeeville alley: "Never surrender! Die game!"

This year drought threatens, so planting is more labor-intensive. More and heavier mulch, and careful drip-hose placement, expose only a narrow slit of soil for the seeds. This will maximize retention of any rain, and drastically reduce water loss from evaporation. More efficient use of much less water. It's worked before; maybe it'll work again.

If the old body endures, and outside watering isn't banned entirely, this might be a really good season.

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family

physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays.

hauxwell@ruraltel.net

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