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Spring fights back



Sometimes all the news is so bad it feels as though the switch has been flipped. A threshold reached, no turning back. As if Elijah has been summoned, or the man on the pale horse is tramping up our lane. Death tolls on TV read rote and so monstrous that they are abstractions, our brains unable to reckon them as anything other than a number on a page. And didn't that Libyan make nice, or go away? I seem to remember that. Meanwhile, the president's bracket picks aren't human enough or interesting enough to divert us from multiplying the nuclear fallout by the easterly wind speeds or subtracting the days since the earthquake from the sell-by date of our favorite fish.

Sure, most of us think Franklin Graham is crazy, but this time when he says that these are "birth pains" for the Second Coming, our agnosticism feels flimsy in the face of what seems to be overwhelming evidence. Maybe he knows something we don't.

Yet in the face of the gruesome, there's another type of orgy going on. I noticed it first in a lone jonquil at the side of my driveway. A harbinger of nothing, its meekness all too easy to ignore. But in the weeks since, the birth pains are bringing something irrefutable to bear. Look around you, folks. Nature's on a bender.

There's nothing subtle about spring. What the black tulip magnolia does is not bloom so much as detonate. And then the flowers spill like youth, or a life dispatched too soon. A field of crocus goes as fiercely as it came. And what you can't help but acknowledge is not how tranquil, but how sublimely wasteful it all is. As Annie Dillard said, "Don't believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn't it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place?"

But there's a lesson in that wastefulness. It's not only a sign, but a testament to something larger. There's no more reason for birds to sing than there are for trees to flower and, because of that, in the face of devastation, spring's lovable defiance is to be cherished. "Go ahead," it seems to say, "believe that life has no value." Then, in one seeming stroke, its value comes in overflowing, beautiful and useless, everywhere and in everything.

It's a lesson, not that we should mirror its Bacchanal frenzy, necessarily, but of what a moment means. Spring is the hour every year where, no matter how far we have distanced ourselves, through blinding light and concrete, the world demands our attention. It won't settle for less than our receptiveness and our concentration. And in that moment, we're given the opportunity to forget the brutish horrors and recalibrate ourselves to the world's captivating extravagance.

I opened my back door this morning to find a broken bluebird egg on the steps. There is little in the world as plainly pretty or innocent as a bluebird's egg, so what could be more unnecessary than to see it in pieces? The world makes and makes and makes, then cuts down. Evolution itself is a pretty profligate way to make a creature change after all. Does all of this mean nature is savage or am I just sentimental?

Ignoring all the bad news won't deny its existence, yet by ignoring nature we deny ourselves some of our own. Whatever it is that makes beauty is sometimes peaceful but mostly excessive. It is inextricably tangled with the haunting and the horrifying. One week it wields its weight like a butcher, the next it charms us like a drunk bride. Attuning ourselves to nature isn't just about adjusting to what is good about the world, but understanding the force that both drives and kills us. So look a little. To a sprouting sycamore leaf or a tulip or just what's going on in the topsoil. What's happening out there today is beautiful. We have the rest of our year for the harrowing.

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