Mickey Rathbun returns: Poetry, petals and pandemics

  • The author’s dog, Allie, adopted from Dakin Humane Society in 2011. SUBMITTED PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 3/30/2020 1:28:38 PM

Editor’s note: We are thrilled to welcome back “Get Growing” columnist Mickey Rathbun, a perennial favorite of readers.

These days we are living in an epically strange period of mud and social isolation. As the spring thaw settles on the Pioneer Valley, we distance ourselves from friends and neighbors hoping to avoid contagion. And we look for signs of normalcy in the world. 

Anticipating the reassuring return of green to the landscape, I recently leafed through “Spring and All,” a slim volume of prose and poetry published in 1923 by the American poet William Carlos Williams. (He’s the same guy who wrote that “so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow.” In my garden, that’s certainly true.) To my astonishment, I came upon a poem that perfectly resonates with the unprecedented situation we find ourselves in. Williams wrote this poem during the Spanish flu pandemic, which infected a quarter of the world’s population and took between 20 and 40 million lives between 1918 and 1920. 

The poem begins:

“By the road to the contagious hospital

under the surge of the blue

mottled clouds driven from the 

northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the

waste of broad, muddy fields

brown with dried weeds…”

Even in the midst of mud and infectious disease, Williams observes: 

“Lifeless in appearance, sluggish

dazed spring approaches—

They enter the new world naked,

cold, uncertain of all

save that they enter. All about them

the cold, familiar wind—”

As I walk my dog, Allie, along the trails behind our house, I see all the sights Williams described in this poem, the muddy fields and lifeless weeds. It’s as if I’m walking on that same road to the contagious hospital. I don’t know if Williams, an obstetrician, took time from his regular medical practice to work with influenza patients, but I think it’s likely that he did. I imagine Williams driving to the contagious hospital to tend to dying people and risking his own health in the process. I imagine the solace he took in observing the beginning, however tentative, of nature’s yearly life cycle. As dire as our present situation looks at the moment, what he faced must have been unimaginable by comparison. 

Allie has never enjoyed the company of other dogs. When we encounter other dog-walkers she invariably moves as far away from them as possible. These days we laughingly refer to her habit as “social distancing.” Our fellow walkers appreciate her taking the lead in this brave new world of human interaction. 

As we walk, I see the small changes that are taking place all around us as new life emerges, “naked, cold, uncertain of all.” Today I noticed the purple- and green-speckled sheaths of skunk cabbage sticking their pointy heads out of the soggy edges of the swamp. In the branches overhead, two male red-bellied woodpeckers appeared to be sparring for the affection of a prospective mate. Or perhaps they were just enjoying the sunny morning after a series of cold, gray days. Insistent tuftlets of green are appearing under mats of dead grasses, mud be damned. 

The name of this column is “Get Growing.” I had always thought of that phrase in connection with gardening, the practice of inducing plants to grow in specific places. In other words, imposing our will upon the plant kingdom. But today it dawned on me that get growing is also what happens willy-nilly, whether we do anything or not. 

Unlike many of my snow-happy friends, I am a warm-weather person. This time of year, I can’t resist trying to imagine the scene a few months from now, when the trees are leafed out, the hum of bees fills the air and parkas and boots are banished (wishful thinking!). I look ahead to that random moment of epiphany that happens every year when I realize that I will not be cold again for months to come. I’ve never had much luck with this exercise, but I always try. 

In the meantime, I enjoy inspecting my garden every day for tiny changes. The snowdrops are fading in patches of crusty snow as daffodils, their heads swollen and ready to pop, thumb their noses at nighttime temperatures that still dip into the 20s. I’m relieved to see signs of life in the form of tiny buds on the spindly Kousa dogwood and redbud trees I planted last summer. (Whew! They made it through their first winter.) As Williams writes, “Now the grass, tomorrow/the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf.”

All around us, nature is obeying the seasonal command to Get Growing. 

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the Get Growing column since 2016.



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