Marking time with natural rhythms and seasons—even as they change—can grow compassion and commitment to all life.
Five years ago, when I was pregnant, but didn’t know it yet, my husband and I planted raspberries. They bore their first fruit the summer our son, Gregory, was one. He toddled into the brambles and ate straight from the canes. That Christmas, we announced a sibling, and explained it would arrive about when the raspberries ripened. When Gregory looked out the window, the fruit-bearing canes had been shorn to the ground after the leaves dropped, the dormant root was buried beneath snow.
Come spring, after the first canes appeared, we would regularly wander out to the bramble patch to check their progress and to talk about brotherhood. We watched as they grew taller than him during the long days of June. As the days shortened, as my belly swelled, they flowered and set fruit.
Our berries arrived at the end of August. So did our second son, Matthew, whose birth was celebrated with brimming bowls of bright raspberries. And so was his first birthday.
How fortuitous that Matthew was to be a late summer baby so that I could explain the intangible wait that is gestation through the growth of late summer-bearing berries. I began to wonder about other ways to mark time in a child’s life before the clock hands hold dominion. When the trees bud. When the robins return.
Except where I live, in New England, the timing of these events is shifting subtly, yet with such complexity—complexity that can be as intangible to us as a mother’s pregnancy can seem to a two-year-old.
Some seasonal events no longer sync with our calendars, or with the expectations formed when we were children. When Gregory asked when the snow will fall, my answer had been, “after the leaves drop.” Except this year, snow fell on green-leafed trees, the weight of which toppled or topped many of the oaks up the hill from us.
As I write this, I am finishing the final chapters of Early Spring, a book that has graced my nightstand for several years. I felt compelled to finally read it after a warm spell last month lured forth the daffodils Gregory and I transplanted from a neighbors’ yard. Now, the tender sprouts are frozen in shallow snow, and I wonder when, if at all, they will bloom.
Amy Seidl, a mother and ecologist, has thought about what these subtle shifts in seasonal events mean to how she and her children mark time, to the rhythms of her northern Vermont family. Particularly significant to her is the timing of the lilac blooms, which happen eight to sixteen days earlier than when Seidl was a child. When her daughters reach her age, the lilacs will bloom two to four weeks earlier. Marking time by “when the lilacs bloom” will mean something different for her grandchildren. It’s likely, too, that “when the raspberries come” will hold a different meaning for my grandchildren.
Early Spring celebrates the everyday act of noticing. Seidl tells stories of those who have, for decades, looked out their windows and written down what they see. In those diaries are stories of accumulated shifts and corresponding adaptations. From those stories, and from her observations out her backdoor, I am inspired to document more carefully my children’s growth against the backdrop of what happens in this microhabitat we call home.
I’m now in the habit of juxtaposing their lives and the lifecycle of our raspberries, a habit that started serendipitously, if accidently. Only in hindsight did I come to understand the tiredness that overcame me the weekend we first planted them, and how their planting marked my first days as a mother. I don’t remember either how I came to answer Gregory’s incessant questions about his brother’s arrival with the phrase, “when the raspberries come.” I was probably tired then, too, and bewildered by the questions he asked. “When the raspberries come” was probably the only answer that satisfied his two-year-old curiosity, and so, I stuck with it, and the practice of tracking their growth in tandem took root.
But, of late, motherhood—and everything my children notice and ask about—has inspired me to deepen my ecological education, and to cultivate a more deliberate practice of noticing and witnessing and recording. For me, noticing and recording requires first, naming, so that I can look up what I’m looking at. But, knowing and naming can also be an anecdote and analog, writes essayist Scott Russell Sanders in Writing from the Center, to my preoccupation with pollution and environmental problems that comprised my formal education, that can wear on my soul and resolve. Until recently, I couldn’t tell my children much about the trees and topography that I could see when I looked away from my computer. I could articulate little about cycles and seasons.
And so, through books, through conversation, through the local historical archives at the public library, I’ve begun to learn who, and what, lives in this wider definition of my biotic community; to learn about the history and natural history of this place I call home; to pass on stories of place to my children; to follow where their questions lead; to invite them to question and observe and record, too, so that we may feel rooted here, in this place, even as cycles and rhythms, and the rituals we attach to them, change. From these roots I hope compassion and commitment to all life can grow.
By Rebecca Altman