Is April the Cruelest Month?

By Madeline Raynolds

Vermonters know in their bones the dynamic nature of spring.  As the seasons change, we not only watch the earth come back to life from dormancy, but feel like we are renewed as well. The warmer temperatures melt the snow and thaw the land preparing the conditions for the season of growth. There is a timing to the successive signs of spring. The robin hopping, the red-winged blackbirds, the budding trees and the spring peepers all fall in line as the vernal processional begins. And then the flowers, almost like a celebratory ritual, appear in order: daffodils and crocuses, tulips, forsythia, lilacs, and apple blossoms. April is a happening time as John Hanson Mitchell confirms in his book, A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard.

“As far as natural history is concerned, early spring is the most eventful season of the year. Everything that takes place has a sense of beginning, of veritable resurrection from this seemingly eternal death of winter. It is for this reason undoubtedly, that more nature journals are begun at this time of year than any other … Every event, in early spring, every shoot and bud and frog call is filled with hope of better things to come.”

A whole area of inquiry has emerged to figure out why and how these changes take place. One of the explanations for this behavioral adaptation is fairly intuitive; there is more light. These investigations into seasonality as a phenomenon became centered on understanding “how light is processed and transduced into major changes in the regulation of the hypothalamo-pituitary-gonadal axis” (Ball, G.F., et al., 2017). In common language, light effects the brain’s processes. And this just makes sense. It’s obvious that light effects our circadian rhythms, our vision and how we feel.  We know that through photosynthesis, light provides energy to plants, and subsequently is passed on to humans in the food chain. I am learning this is called a “trophic relationship” in which energy flows from one organism to another through the consumption of organic matter. To put it simply, light and life are intricately connected, and that is just one major reason why, when the seasons change, we change concurrently.

But these changes are complicated by the fact that April is fickle. We know. We had the biggest storm of the winter on April 4th this year. Just as the daffodils were starting to come out, 20 inches of snow fell. Just as our moods were lifted in the warmth of the sun, capricious weather fluctuations took us on a rollercoaster hurtling us up and down. Is this why T.S. Elliot says “April is cruelest month” in the opening stanza of his famous poem “The Wasteland”?

“April is the cruelest month, breeding

lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

memory and desire, stirring

dull roots with spring rain.” 

With the rekindling of life against the stark natural landscape, we feel the tension of the opposites and are confronted by the apparent paradoxical nature of existence. Is this why April is the cruelest month? The imagery shows life and death existing in the same environment. The stanza suggests our memory is set against the backdrop of forgetting and desire as a vital energy co-existing with its counterforces. While the cognitive dissonance of holding two conflicting ideas is uncomfortable, it may be an invaluable, sentient practice. Oh dear, did I get to the conclusion again that nature is our teacher? 

The most miraculous thing is, the daffodils at my house are going strong!


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