The Master Gardeners

April, the month of fools and showers

Bill Meredith

April, the month of fools and showers, has come and gone again. Perhaps itís a sign of advancing age, or maybe it was just because no grandchildren happened to be around at the timeÖ but whatever the reason, I didnít get April Fooled this year. My wife made a half-hearted effort late in the day by stopping in mid-stride across the living room and asking in an accusing voice what I had spilled on my shirt, but I caught myself before I looked. It was a small victory, but I was proud of it. Then as I reflected on it, I was drawn back into one of historyís quagmires, the origin of calendars.

As noted in this column last month, in ancient Rome the calendar was a mess. Some years had over 400 days, while others had fewer than 300, and if you had the money you could bribe local officials to set a particular holiday at a time that was propitious to your own horoscope. Julius Caesar put an end to that in 46 B.C., establishing January 1 as New Yearís Day and mandating an orderly, if not quite perfect calendar within the Roman Empire; but many European countries kept their own traditions of starting the year around the time of the Vernal Equinox. 

In France, April 1 was the traditional New Yearís Day until 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII instituted our present calendar; and even then many of the provincial folk either didnít hear about it or refused to accept it, and continued to hold their New Yearís revels on April 1. More sophisticated citizens derided their rustic countrymen as April Fools. Eventually the January date became universally accepted; but in the meanwhile, April 1 as a festive date and opportunity for institutionalized tomfoolery seemed too good an idea to give up. So it was changed from New Yearís to All Foolís Day; and it not only stuck but was exported, first to England and then to the American colonies. Mark Twain referred to it as the day when we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year. Personally, I think there would be good historical precedent for moving it to November 2.

T. S. Eliot called April the cruelest month, but he had it all wrong; after the meteorological mood swings of March, April is usually a benign and gentle time. It may have an occasional March-like windstorm or freeze, but its reputation for inclemency is unjustified; by and large, itís the real beginning of spring. The idea of April as the time of showers goes back at least to Geoffrey Chaucer; I donít suppose anyone gets through high school without memorizing the opening lines of the "Canterbury Tales." 

Several years ago when my class had its 45th reunion, the guy who had been the class clown spontaneously greeted Miss Potesta, our English teacher, with "Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote, the droghte of Marche hath perced to the roteÖ." Chaucer may have been right about the weather in 14th century England, but he missed the mark for Emmitsburg. We did have our share of showers this year, but Mrs. Beale, who has kept the official records in this area since 1957, tells me the wettest month in these parts is not April. During the century from 1900 to 2000, the average rainfall for the state of Maryland in April was 3.96 inches; August, incredibly, had an average of 4.43 inches.

I think April may be my favorite month. Itís a time when you have the chance to appreciate little things. Before the grass gets started, my yard is covered with tiny flowers: Veronicas, with ľ-inch blossoms half white and half pure sky blue, chickweeds with ten minute white slashes for petals, and miniature forests of henbit with intricate pink and maroon flowers that rival orchids in complexity. 

Day and night, the air is full of the sound of spring peepers, tiny frogs with ventriloquistic powers. Chipping sparrows, field sparrows, phoebes and tree swallows were all back from the south before the month was half gone; house wrens, barn swallows and chimney swifts were here before it was over. The flower beds erupted with daffodils and tulips, just as my grandmotherís did in my earliest Easter memories. And then there were the trees.

We built our new house in 1989, and planted a mixture of ornamental trees around it. In one case we made the same mistake as the town; we planted three Bradford Pears, not knowing that their attractive white blossoms were designed to be pollinated by flies and hence produce an aroma like rotten meat. We fared better with the others, flowering plums that bracket the house with clouds of pink, and most spectacular of all, a weeping cherry that my grandchildren call the Icky tree. Thereís a story behind the nameólong in time, if not in the telling.

In the spring of 1900, when my grandmother was expecting a child, one of the neighbors had a boarder who was a French-Canadian; he proposed the name "Laliska" for the little girl when she arrived, and Grandma agreed. But the melodic French sound had no chance of surviving against the West Virginia dialect; the name was soon elided to "Liska," and then to "Lisky." My mother was born several years later, and as a toddler she called her big sister "Icky;" and so was my aunt known for the rest of her 92 years. 

When she visited our new home at age 90, she wanted to contribute to the landscaping, and gave us some money for a tree; we selected the weeping cherry. It was not much to look at initiallyÖ a 5-foot stalk and 3 straggly, grafted branchesÖ and when she saw it on her last visit in 1992 I think she was a bit disappointed with the choice, although she never would have said so. But it flourished after that, and this April it was in its fullest glory, towering over the corner of the garage and spreading graceful sprays of pink blossoms into the driveway. From the beginning we started taking pictures of the grandchildren standing under it at Easter, and as they have increased in number and size, the Icky tree has become one of their connections to their familyís history. Most of them are too young to remember Icky, but they know she was here. A little thing, perhaps; but in an overcrowded, harried, computer-driven world, we need things like that.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith