The word “march” brings up a variety of images and feelings depending upon the context of the passage wherein it rests. Since we’re examining rhythms of time and calendar as well as the cycles of the seasons, the reader might logically expect March, the third month of the calendar year named after Mars, the Roman god of War, as an appropriate and timely topic for this post. In Roman times, March signified the official start of the New Year and being a military reign, conflicts began or were renewed in the spring. Choosing March for the beginning of the season seemed auspicious for a society accustomed to oracles, omens, warring and domination.
Of course, there are other meanings for the word march. Someone hearing the word shouted on the street might expect a military unit to march past, or a fed-up-mom determinedly telling a daughter or son to walk forward quickly as in “March, young lady/man!” or perhaps it means to walk or march in protest of an unhealthy situation. The word also means borderlands.
My mother’s mother was born on a march, the boundary lands between Wales and England. She was born under the sign of Aquarius on the first day of February, St. Brighid’s Day. I can easily trace my wise woman ways to this Welsh grandmother, Gladys May, who helped teach me the practical skills of gardening and keeping a household while sharing with me the deeper secrets of the wild woods above Lake Pend d’ Oreille in northern Idaho.
My mother’s father, William Henry Colwell, was born under the sign of Aries on the Vernal Equinox, March 20, 1885, and we acknowledged his birthday as the beginning of spring. Grandpa was a gold miner, an adventurer always in search of greener pastures and richer veins from what I’ve been told. According to family, he would work long enough to get a grubstake and then move on in that search for striking it rich. He was harsh with his tongue and elegantly tall although I never saw him stand. He had been confined to a wheelchair with arthritis for decades from the harsh demolition work he did and from the dampness in the mines. Even so, in the spring of the year, his restless soul longed to be outdoors.
My grandparent’s house, built by family, sat perched on the hillside above Lake Pend d’ Oreille with a full view of Warren Island. I spent a lot of time on that hillside as a youth because my family visited my grandparents often helping Grandma with household and gardening chores. My dad, brother and uncles also cruised the lake fishing. Wild fish, game and fowl generously supplemented our diets and helped the family survive the Depression years. Looking out over the lake, seeing the sun shimmer and sparkle, watching the storms churn up the waves which curled up against the boat houses down below, was a true delight for me.
The area where my grandparents lived was considered one of just a few banana belts of North Idaho meaning that because of its sunny southern exposure, the area warmed up faster than most other places in the county. When Grandpa started to feel cooped up and the weather turned warmer, Grandma and I would take his wheeled chair out and he’d shuffle along the concrete pathways and onto specially built concrete pads in the shade of maple and apple trees. From there he had a fine view of the lake beyond the tips of cherry and plum trees and the native shrubbery lower on the hillside. He’d ask for a lap blanket and for his snoose habit, a tall juice-can spittoon. He was then content to spend several hours cat napping and listening to the myriad of birds that lived on the hillside and the freight trains clickety-clacking on the rails below.
With him settled, Grandma and I took off on our own scouting forays. The trails we traversed were virtually deer trails partially widened to accommodate our footfalls but forever wild. We’d be on the lookout for any new sign of spring such as the waxy yellow buttercups that sprung from the weepy side hill above the driveway. The dog-toothed violets, also locally known as adder’s tongues or Glacier Lilies to non-locals, made their appearance very early as well. Their lily-shaped, yellow flowers nodding in the breezes was a sure sign that spring was here to stay. Later the trailing purple-flowered wild clematis and orange honeysuckle vines festooned the trees and hung close enough to the trails that we could examine and admire their unique blossoms.
Grandma and I loved watching the robins attack the muddy earth bordering the ditches filled with spring run-off waters, their red and gray bodies jerking up and down as they waded in the saturated ground. The red-breasted birds had a wary eye for night crawlers and earthworms forced to the surface and I enjoyed watching their tug-of-wars with the squirmy worms. Robins were the subjects of my very first naturalist photos taken with an old Brownie Box camera. I remember quite vividly one experience of trying to get the robins to hold still and my grandfather’s gentle laughter ringing in the background.
Grandma and I always reported to Grandpa what we saw on our walks for he relied on our eyes to tell him news of spring’s arrival to the hillside. Between his cat naps, he would have heard us scrambling along the trails and was always curious about what we’d found. Sometimes we’d make a quick hike down across the highway at the bottom of the hill close to the railroad tracks. We’d check and see if the watercress was growing in a creek feeding into the lake and harvest some to take back and enjoy its pepperiness in her potato salads along with over-wintering parsley. From where Grandpa sat, he could not only hear our chatter but also snippets of the conversations of swimmers and boaters who frequented the cove or were out trolling on the lake. Clearly he could hear the ducks and geese feeding nearshore eating the minnows or nibbling vegetative flotsam draped on the beach stones.
Being that we were on a south-facing slope above the lake, the deer ticks were a springtime concern and my grandmother studiously gave me a good going-over when we returned from our naturalist excursions. I’d also check her wispy thin hair and collar for the flat-bodied mites. It was the boys, my uncles, who would come home from working in the woods that were most harassed by the ticks although no one ever got sick from them from what I remember. The ticks were just a nuisance and always carried the threat of something more insidious.
That was then, someone else owns the hillside now. Grandma’s house, as we called it, has been renovated and a hot tub resides at the end of one of the walkways. Grandpa would approve. The new owners have done extensive landscape work and made more convenient pull-offs for parking along the narrow city street that borders the upper property line. Many of the fruit trees my uncles planted and I enjoyed climbing still remain. Also standing are the stone walls holding up the old terraced vegetable beds constructed and maintained by the Chinese farmers to feed the train crews, mining camps and lumbering men that worked the area so long ago. At the far end of the property, is an Chinese graveyard where a only a few grave markers stand amongst the yellow pine trees, grasses and shrubs that have almost obliterated the site.
Everything looks so small now in comparison to my memories. I can still vividly picture walking along the embankment to the lower property and the rocky handholds that I’d grab in order to get down the steep embankment. In the middle of the property was where my uncles had their smoke house. I can almost smell the apple wood smoke rising up through the rows upon rows of bluebacks hanging by their tails on small pieces of white string draped over smoke-darkened lath strips. My salivary glands even go into hyperdrive remembering the delicious, smokey-flavored, copper-toned fish. Now in that same spot, there sits a two story house. I wonder if the occupants ever think of what might have gone on underneath their foundation area. Good juju, for sure.
That hillside was where I went beyond play and first entertained my wild spirit. I am grateful that I was given a chance to experience many private hours roaming the area. Whereas it might be considered neglect to be let loose on a hill also frequented by bear and cougar, for me it was freedom. It was here I discovered that hillsides put the natural world close to your face, not just at your feet such as experienced when walking on the flat. On the hillsides above the lake, one side was always an elevated surface with lichens, mosses, flowers, rock roses, grasses, ferns, small crystals, snakes, grubs, gopher holes, magic and the mysterious begging for exploration, but on the other side was the lake for meditative contemplation and the opportunity for spirit to soar. I chose both.