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An essay by John Burroughs

A Breath Of April

Title:     A Breath Of April
Author: John Burroughs [More Titles by Burroughs]


It would not be easy to say which is our finest or most beautiful wild flower, but certainly the most poetic and the best beloved is the arbutus. So early, so lowly, so secretive there in the moss and dry leaves, so fragrant, tinged with the hues of youth and health, so hardy and homelike, it touches the heart as no other does.

April's flower offers the first honey to the bee and the first fragrance to the breeze. Modest, exquisite, loving the evergreens, loving the rocks, untamable, it is the very spirit and breath of the woods. Trailing, creeping over the ground, hiding its beauty under withered leaves, stiff and hard in foliage, but in flower like the cheek of a maiden.

One may brush away the April snow and find this finer snow beneath it. Oh, the arbutus days, what memories and longings they awaken! In this latitude they can hardly be looked for before April, and some seasons not till the latter days of the month. The first real warmth, the first tender skies, the first fragrant showers--the woods are flooded with sunlight, and the dry leaves and the leaf-mould emit a pleasant odor. One kneels down or lies down beside a patch of the trailing vine, he brushes away the leaves, he lifts up the blossoming sprays and examines and admires them at leisure; some are white, some are white and pink, a few are deep pink. It is enough to bask there in the sunlight on the ground beside them, drinking in their odor, feasting the eye on their tints and forms, hearing the April breezes sigh and murmur in the pines or hemlocks near you, living in a present fragrant with the memory of other days. Lying there, half dreaming, half observing, if you are not in communion with the very soul of spring, then there is a want of soul in you. You may hear the first swallow twittering from the sky above you, or the first mellow drum of the grouse come up from the woods below or from the ridge opposite. The bee is abroad in the air, finding her first honey in the flower by your side and her first pollen in the pussy-willows by the watercourses below you. The tender, plaintive love-note of the chickadee is heard here and there in the woods. He utters it while busy on the catkins of the poplars, from which he seems to be extracting some kind of food. Hawks are screaming high in the air above the woods; the plow is just tasting the first earth in the rye or corn stubble (and it tastes good). The earth looks good, it smells good, it is good. By the creek in the woods you hear the first water-thrush--a short, bright, ringing, hurried song. If you approach, the bird flies swiftly up or down the creek, uttering an emphatic "chip, chip."

In wild, delicate beauty we have flowers that far surpass the arbutus: the columbine, for instance, jetting out of a seam in a gray ledge of rock, its many crimson and flame-colored flowers shaking in the breeze; but it is mostly for the eye. The spring-beauty, the painted trillium, the fringed polygala, the showy lady's-slipper, are all more striking to look upon, but they do not quite touch the heart; they lack the soul that perfume suggests. Their charms do not abide with you as do those of the arbutus.


These still, hazy, brooding mid-April mornings, when the farmer first starts afield with his plow, when his boys gather the buckets in the sugar-bush, when the high-hole calls long and loud through the hazy distance, when the meadowlark sends up her clear, silvery shaft of sound from the meadow, when the bush sparrow trills in the orchard, when the soft maples look red against the wood, or their fallen bloom flecks the drying mud in the road,--such mornings are about the most exciting and suggestive of the whole year. How good the fields look, how good the freshly turned earth looks!--one could almost eat it as does the horse;--the stable manure just being drawn out and scattered looks good and smells good; every farmer's house and barn looks inviting; the children on the way to school with their dinner-pails in their hands--how they open a door into the past for you! Sometimes they have sprays of arbutus in their buttonholes, or bunches of hepatica. The partridge is drumming in the woods, and the woodpeckers are drumming on dry limbs.

The day is veiled, but we catch such glimpses through the veil. The bees are getting pollen from the pussy-willows and soft maples, and the first honey from the arbutus.

It is at this time that the fruit and seed catalogues are interesting reading, and that the cuts of farm implements have a new fascination. The soil calls to one. All over the country, people are responding to the call, and are buying farms and moving upon them. My father and mother moved upon their farm in the spring of 1828; I moved here upon mine in March, 1874.

I see the farmers, now going along their stone fences and replacing the stones that the frost or the sheep and cattle have thrown off, and here and there laying up a bit of wall that has tumbled down.

There is rare music now in the unmusical call of the ph[oe]be-bird--it is so suggestive.

The drying road appeals to one as it never does at any other season. When I was a farm-boy, it was about this time that I used to get out of my boots for half an hour and let my bare feet feel the ground beneath them once more. There was a smooth, dry, level place in the road near home, and along this I used to run, and exult in that sense of lightfootedness which is so keen at such times. What a feeling of freedom, of emancipation, and of joy in the returning spring I used to experience in those warm April twilights!

I think every man whose youth was spent on the farm, whatever his life since, must have moments at this season when he longs to go back to the soil. How its sounds, its odors, its occupations, its associations, come back to him! Would he not like to return again to help rake up the litter of straw and stalks about the barn, or about the stack on the hill where the grass is starting? Would he not like to help pick the stone from the meadow, or mend the brush fence on the mountain where the sheep roam, or hunt up old Brindle's calf in the woods, or gather oven-wood for his mother to start again the big brick oven with its dozen loaves of rye bread, or see the plow crowding the lingering snow-banks on the side-hill, or help his father break and swingle and hatchel the flax in the barnyard?

When I see a farm advertised for rent or for sale in the spring, I want to go at once and look it over. All the particulars interest me--so many acres of meadow-land, so many of woodland, so many of pasture--the garden, the orchard, the outbuildings, the springs, the creek--I see them all, and am already half in possession.

Even Thoreau felt this attraction, and recorded in his Journal: "I know of no more pleasing employment than to ride about the country with a companion very early in the spring, looking at farms with a view to purchasing, if not paying for them."

Blessed is the man who loves the soil!

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John Burroughs's essay: Breath Of April