Getting Out of Jail

     I’ve been in jail twice, for stuff that wasn’t illegal (really), and worked in immigration prisons for years, so I know what I’m saying when I say this: Seeing geese flying north after winter in Vermont is like getting out of jail.
     The weatherman lies, you and I lie, but geese don’t lie.
     True, it was not much of a winter. It dropped under 10 below only a couple of times and hardly snowed at all, but even so, winter in Vermont is like a prison sentence.
     The darkness at 4 p.m. Total absence of color. The wind out of Canada.
     Something about it all makes me perpetually hungry and tired.
     I hibernate: go to bed at dark, read books and get fat. It’s une petite mort, but not the way Frenchmen mean it.
     I was sprung from jail this week. Fifty degrees on Monday (aahh), then sixty, seventy, an unbelievable 80 degrees on the first day of spring.
     Time to oil up the bicycle and mount up.
     On the first long bike ride of the year, I see the nose of a beaver by his new dam, then he flips away underwater and disappears: busy engineer of the animal world.
     A tree stump on the edge of the new beaver pond looks like a Jean Arp sculpture: gnawed nearly through at the base, then gnawed through for good 18 inches higher. The smooth, turnip-shaped stump is bare of bark, a doodad at the entrance to the Beaver Museum.
     I remember everything I’ve seen in these hills: the clearing where I saw the newborn deer on her spindly legs, speckled like Bambi; the gully where I saw the baby foxes; the copse where the ring-necked pheasant lives; the place where I saw a beaver fighting with a stork over a stick. I cruise by it all with a sense of expectation: not that I’ll see those animals again, but still, expecting something.
     I see not in my mind but for real the gushing streams and waterfalls, deep-green moss on big boulders and on the trunks of trees, tons of gray-brown vegetal litter strewn across the forest floor, disappearing already under new green growth, new-fallen trees, long-ago fallen trees rotting under mushrooms, mugworts, liverworts, all the strange growths of the forest.
     Crocuses lead the charge of the wildflowers. The robins are back, cocking their heads, glittery black eyes looking for worms. Male chickadees brag about what a cool nest they could build, if the girl will come in. A fat woodchuck scrambles into his hole. Red-eared black turtles sun themselves in a line on a log in the big pond, each one resting its chin on the next one’s warm shell.
     Each bullfrog pond has its own tune. This one sounds like a bunch of squeaky toys; the next one is a bunch of chumpalumps.
     Crows argue with blue jays about who’s the boss. And high above it all, the hawks scare everyone with their “Kree, kree.”
     I am not folding weeks and months into one day’s column, or making this up. I really did see all this, in a 20-mile bike ride.
     Aside from musical instruments, the bicycle is surely the world’s greatest invention. Better than airplanes, better than computers – and you know why? Because no one can use a bicycle for ill.
     Oh, you could steal one, or rob a bank and pedal away on a bicycle, I suppose. But no army has ever invaded a country on bicycles, or dropped bicycles on people to hurt them, or used bicycles to push jihad or to lie about politics, or to sell bogus diet supplements to old people.
     Another spring. I’m a year older, and feel it, but the world doesn’t look older. It looks the same as it dead last year – and I feel good. Until that fourth hill – that steep son of a bitch that goes on forever.

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