What does April mean to me?
The answer is…, “Not much.”
You see, I grew up in California. Out here, April is a sort of in-between month. It’s after Easter and before summer. Out here, there just isn’t very much happening in April.
But I think the real source of my indifference to April lies in the grocery store.
Had I been born a few years earlier, April might have meant a great deal to me. I can still remember, vaguely, how when I was very young my parents would breathlessly announce the arrival of peaches, say, at the grocery store. Winter was finally over and wonderful waves of fresh fruits would begin to sweep through the produce department.
Remember, you used to get only local fruit. It had to be both in season and close enough to arrive at the store without spoiling and at a price people were willing to pay. That meant local fruit. Which meant that groceries were slaves to the seasons.
By the time I grew up enough to notice, fruit shelves were pretty much always full. We got fruits from the East, the North, the South, from overseas even. The seasons didn’t matter much.
Truth is, we were (and are) pretty well spoiled rotten.
From my friends, I know that had I grown up back East, things would have been different. Spring would have really meant something. I would have experienced the dying and death called Fall and Winter. And when the snow began to melt in the spring, I would have seen the dead trees and plants and grass lying naked under the cold rains of March.
When April finally came, I would also have been able to witness the annual miracle of life reborn. I would have seen unbelievably green leaves springing from apparently dead branches And the empty fields flush with their own colors. And the blossoms that seem to cover every plant as if they were in a race to see which could produce the most flowers in the shortest time.
I can imagine all that, but I can’t really know it.
But maybe it would help to take this idea of April one step further. If it is hard for me to imagine what spring might mean to someone from back East, what would it have meant to someone in another time?
For instance, what do you suppose April meant to a medieval crofter? Or a Roman peasant? Or to just about any small farmer throughout history? They said April was a Janus-faced month.
Providing there was enough wood, winter could be a rather cozy time. But it was also a time of fear. Farmers throughout history had only their larder to hold all the gains of the previous year. As winter wore on, that hoard of food shrank. How much food would be left in the larder when spring finally came?
They must have felt joy at the return of green life in April, but it was a mixed joy. Spring promised relief, but it didn’t deliver it. Instead, what it delivered was unremitting labor just when nourishment (and stamina) was at its poorest. If you wanted to eat you had to plant the garden, till the fields, sow the crops. It was spring, but it would be weeks before even the fastest growing plants in the garden could be harvested.
That was April for centuries. Rich with promise, but its reality was all about stretching that shrunken remnant in the larder to last until the first fruits began to appear.
A two-faced month.
And what do you suppose April meant to our ancestors who lived before that? The hunter-gatherers, I mean?
I must confess my ignorance here. Did they eke out the winter scratching for tubers and roots? Did they set snares for birds and rabbits? Did they raid squirrels’ winter caches for nuts and seeds?
I don’t know.
But I’ll bet that hunter-gatherer’s lives were spent exposed to the weather. I imagine that winter meant a lot of time cold and wet and hungry. So I suspect that the most important thing about spring was that the rains were warmer.
Having migrated south, by April, when their sedentary descendants further north would just be beginning to scratch the holes for the year’s crops, the hunter-gatherers down south would be enjoying the first fruits the land offered. Maybe by April they might even be thinking about the trek back north, following those fruits as they appeared while hunting the animals that came out to feed on them.
Comparing the two, from the fossil record we know the hunter-gatherers had a richer and more varied diet than their farming descendants and grew bigger because of it. Early farmers mostly lived on cereals and that narrow nutrition scars the bones left behind. And even when they domesticated animals, they also acquired a whole raft of species-jumping bacteria and viruses from their animals. On the other hand, the hunter-gatherers not only lived far more at the whims of wind and weather. They also had few defenses against wild animals or their predatory fellow man. Their more secure farming descendants would probably argue their own was the better bargain.
But back to April. Did my imaginary trip back through history help me appreciate April in a more wholehearted way?
I think the problem is that it takes pain and discomfort to really appreciate things. In order to really cherish April I would have had to grub for my food in those icy rains of winter. Or work my buns off with a growling belly while waiting for those fruits to ripen. Or simply live in our modern East and taste the joys of shoveling snow, slipping on ice, and driving in slush.
Well, gee, who would want to miss all that? Call me soft, but I just can’t bring myself to cry too hard. I know that without all that misery I can never really appreciate April as they can. But it somehow sounds a bit like that old joke about beating your head against the wall because it feels so good when you stop.
Don’t misunderstand. I swear I truly appreciate my loss. Truly. Mea culpa, mea culpa.
But just as truly, and as a secret just between you and me, I think I got the better bargain.