In Southern Ontario, the land sheds its worn-out coat of brown, donned in the waning of the previous year. I had watched the donning of this coat from the train, as cattails and reeds and teasels bloomed and flourished, then faded first to lighter green, then golden yellow, before exhausting themselves in shades of brown. Then snows fell. At first, the remnants of the past season resisted, but eventually, they were beaten back. Now, through their remains, new shoots of pale green rise tentatively, promising their full florescence to come. Here and there, a red-winged blackbird perches, fluffing his feathers, making his “oak-a-lee” call, the red and gold bars on his wing flashing as he hops from stem to stem. Perhaps you might hear one of his mates reply with a “chit-chit-chit”, but she is concerned with building her nest among the remains of last year’s reeds. If you approach too closely, the male may swoop close to defend.
Daffodils and narcissus bloom in flower beds, yellow blooms with long trumpet cups or short orange ones, planted some previous autumn in an act of hope. Daylilies and cranesbill send forth shoots in promise of the warm days to come. Dandelions emerge, spreading their toothy grins in lawns and fields, attracting bees to the yellow polka-dotted fabric of deepening green. Ominously, the Japanese knotweed awakens and plots its advance.
In the woods, the trees, still bare, are fat with buds, here and there shyly bursting into tentative green. On the forest floor, spring’s first flowers–the trout lily, purple violets, white bloodroot. Glossy leaves of mayapple unfurl themselves in the strengthening sun. The crisp yet promising air is punctuated by the sounds of change. The rush of runoff-strengthened waters augment the waterfalls to full strength, sparkling in the growing light. Birds flit from tree to tree–the cardinal, the goldfinch (now gold once again), the robin, little brown birds of all sorts –their calls signalling their presence even when they are unseen. Garter snakes seek the sun, sinuously sliding away upon hearing footsteps to rustle in last year’s leaves. The cycle begins again in the oldest forest ecosystem in the world
For a time, from the escarpment, you can look through the leafless trees all the way past the houses and towers, past the dull throbbing smokestacks of the refineries, down to the lake, gleaming blue, the Skyway bridge arching on the left periphery, and in the distance, the towers of Toronto. Off to the right, a half hour’s drive away, fruit trees burst into flower and vineyards awaken. Hamilton, unique among cities, straddles the escarpment, mountain and lower cities joined by a few winding streets. The leaves will soon mask these intrusions of civilization, leaving only the sounds of cars on the nearby parkway. Down along the lake, the Ephemeroptera — the mayflies–are undergoing their final metamorphosis, waiting to burst forth in massive groups, to dance around each other in clouds along the shoreline. They will live but briefly in this exuberant, final form, mating, dying, but seeding the future. We will swat at them, begrudging them their short existence at the expense of our comfort.
This was the shoreline of a shallow sea near the equator some 450 million years ago. Sea creatures lived and died here, their bodies laid down in sediment, forming dolomitic limestone. The sea dried up, the land rose higher, and wind and erosion began to shape the cliffs of the escarpment. Rivers and streams cut through the soft stone, creating waterfalls both small and immense. In the exposed stone, you can see the shells and whorls of the creatures who died in the formation of these rocks, telling a story 30 million years in the writing and many more in the reading. Walking these trails in springtime, before ephemeral life overwhelms the ancient, but while the traces of last year’s life still remain, makes the story more legible, more understandable. The cycle continues.
We are, in the end, all of us, mayflies in the life of the earth. I think of my mother, she who taught me to plant bulbs in autumn, she who prepared the ground for planting of annuals this time each year. She is gone from this earth nineteen years the nineteenth day of June this year. No traces remain of the pansies and impatiens she planted each year, or even the bulbs she planted so long ago, and in an instant on the geologic scale, she shall pass from memory as well.
But not yet.
And the the land, in its small way, will never forget, even when it is altered into wholly new forms altogether. I walk these trails, remembering what I can, and honouring what came before the limits of my own recollection.