You’ve been alerted


Shadbush delivers the news. Among the abundant signs of gathering spring, shadbush flower brightly along the road and in the woods where, at ground level, the Vineyard palette remains otherwise dullish. This spidery shrub, which is often called wild pear or juneberry, despite its bright white moment in April, is only beginning to catch the eye, because, naturally enough, despite the variable winter, the Vineyard spring is slow to mature, especially up-Island where I live. Shadbush is a member of the rose family, with white blossoms and small dark blue fruit that may be eaten, although it’s slightly bitter. There are other, less cheery signs. For instance, the deer, numerous and hungry, visit early each morning, breakfasting on the plants near the house. Later, in the evening, as I drive in the road on my way home from work, I find our three deer dependents browsing on the grass up the hill from the house, maybe 75 yards from the front porch, where Diesel, the 170-pound mastiff, reclines, nominally on guard. Diesel looks devastating, but he’s a patsy. I’m sure that when he has one of his rumbling, leg-twitching snoozes, those deer could slip up to the house and pull his tail before he’d know they were around. In the mornings now, Diesel’s determined to be up and out about 4:30. I can hear him talking to himself. A low, grumbling growl signals that he’s sensed a visitor. He alternates the growl with a whine that is a plea for someone to open the door and release him to the hunt. In those restless, pre-dawn hours, as the deer gather around the house, he stretches in full length splendor on his bed in the living room, his genetic legacy of poacher-nabbing prowess long lost in the dimming evolutionary mists. In his vast, wind-swept cranium a dreamlike sense stirs, and he remembers that he ought to go out and check the property.

The other day, he got me up, then went to the door, waiting without a sound. I figured he knew something was up. I slid the door open, and he charged. As he did, the deer who was browsing on the foundation plantings at the foot of the steps, three feet in front of him, headed instantly south, 20 bounding feet at a stride, while Diesel, taking a flying leap off the porch and chugging up to top speed, headed north, probably the direction in which he’d seen deer before.

Cheered by the shadbush, resigned to defeat in the spring war at the fleet feet of the deer — oh, and squirrels, don’t forget the squirrels — it takes a monumental summons to face the mess that is the yard. The grass, drowned by the early spring rainstorms, is only beginning to dry out and get busy. Right now, it’s more moss than grass. As a lawn, it’s a failure. On the other hand, the grass growing between the stones on what we laughingly call the terrace, or between the bricks on the walk to the front door, is flourishing. Sadly, we don’t want grass growing there, where we seem to grow it best.

This mixed spring assessment continues. The lawn is littered with twigs, sticks, branches, and limbs (in ascending order) blown from the worthless oak trees during the great easterlies of the last two months. Every one needs to be picked up and carted off, before we can mow the grass for the first time. Thankfully, given the lawn’s progress, we’ve got time.

Along with the sticks, the kayaks were also blown around and into the jungle behind the shed. The grape vines, their buds just opening, and the poison ivy, quietly determined to reclaim whatever space we have carved out of this wilderness in our 20 years in this house, now bind the kayaks into a bouquet that looks a lot like one of those dragon’s teeth tank traps at Omaha Beach, on that brave, bloody day. Untangling the kayaks, I discovered that the grape vines and ivy had climbed all over the roof of the shed, inside through the eaves, and even beneath the wood shingles. Tearing the vines and the shingle bits away, I disturbed an extended family of mice that had set up housekeeping on the plate at the top of the back wall.

The black compost we used as mulch on the gardens last spring is like cement a year later. The rain and snow have compressed it. We’ll use something else this year, maybe a mulch with a piney fragrance, more pleasant than the fetid aroma of these grim scrub oak woods all around us.

I’ve pruned the climbing roses on the trellis at the back of the house. They were blocking the back door to the garage. Two tiny plants, New Dawn, when they went in the ground, are now invading the house by the second floor windows with thick, reaching, bud-lined branches. And they’ve accomplished all this without our help or husbandry. We know nothing, we’ve done nothing, and it’s worked splendidly.

Then there is the small circle of peonies outside the bedroom window. These voluptuaries flourish, for no reason I can think of. They have, since we planted them a decade ago. Their purplish stalks are a foot tall now, and there are lots of buds. The heavy white blossoms, six inches in diameter, will be so sumptuous they’ll need be caught in the rings atop metal stakes to keep them upright.

There you have it. The news is, it’s spring, such as it is. The critters are hungry and restless. Nature is giving us a heads up. You’ve been alerted.