This piece appeared first in The Montreal Standard on April 2nd, 1921, and was reprinted several times by newspapers in the following years. It also appeared in Leacock’s 1923 collection of sketches called OVER THE FOOTLIGHTS, published in Toronto by S. B. Grundy, and the source of this copy. It illustrates very well the kind of writing (and editing, or lack thereof) that makes Leacock persistently both interesting and irritating.
First Call for Spring
Oh, Listen to the Birds
I gather that Spring is approaching. I am not an observant man, but as the days go by, the signs begin to multiply. Even for me that means that spring is at hand.
I take this early occasion to notify the public of my opinion and to support it with collateral facts. I am anxious this year to be among the first in the field. Among the signs on which I base my views that spring is near, I may mention that I observe that the snow has gone : that the income tax declarations are being distributed at the post-office; and that the sign BOCK BEER is hung out at the Marshal Foch Café, formerly the Kaiserhoh.
Spring then is upon us. The first call for spring has come : and I should like to suggest that this year we meet it firmly and quietly and with none of the hysterical outburst that it usually provokes in people of a certain temperament. I refer to those unfortunate beings called “lovers of nature.”
Each year I have been pained to notice that the approach of spring occasions a most distressing aberration in the conduct of many of my friends. Beside my house, a few doors on the right, I have an acquaintance who is a Nature Man. All through the winter he is fairly quiet, an agreeable friendly fellow, quite fit for general society. I notice him, it is true, occasionally grubbing under the snow. I have once or twice seen him break off a frozen twig from a tree, and examine it. On one occasion, indeed, last winter he was temporarily unmanned by seeing a black bird (otherwise harmless) sitting on a bough. But for the most part his conduct during the colder weather is entirely normal.
Spring, however, at once occasions in my Nature friend a distressing disturbance. He seems suddenly to desire, at our every meeting, to make himself a channel of information as between the animate world and me. From the moment that the snow begins to melt, he keeps me posted as to what the plants and the birds and the bees are doing. This is a class of information which I do not want, and which I cannot use. But I have to bear it.
My Nature friend passes me every morning with some new and bright piece of information : something he thinks so cheery that it irradiates his face. “I saw a finch this morning,” he says. “Oh, did you,” I answer. “I noticed a scarlet tanager this afternoon,” says my friend. “You don’t say so!” I reply. What a tanager is I have never known : I hope I never shall. When my Nature friend says things of this sort all I can do is to acquiesce. I can’t match his information in any way. In point of ornithology I only know two birds, the crow and the hen. I can tell them at once either by their plumage or by their song. I can carry on a nature conversation up to the limit of the crow and the hen ; beyond that, not.
So for the first day or so in spring, I am able to say, “I saw a crow yesterday,” or “I noticed a hen out walking this morning.” But somehow my crow and hen seem to get out of date awfully quickly. I get ashamed of them and never refer to them again. But my friend keeps up his information for weeks, running through a whole gamut of animals. “I saw a gopher the other day,” he says, “guess what the little fellow was doing?” If only he knew it I’d like to break out and answer, “I don’t care what the Hades the little fellow was doing.” But, like every body else, I suppose, I have not the assurance or the cruelty to break in upon the rapture of the Nature Man. Some day I shall : and when I do, let him watch out.
My particular anger with these Nature Men such as my friend, springs, I think, from the singularly irritating kind of language that they use : a sort of ingratiating wee-wee way in which they amalgamate themselves, as it were, with nature. They really seem to feel so cute about it. If a wee hepatica peeps above the snow they think they’ve done it. They describe it to you in a peculiar line of talk almost like baby language. “What do you think I saw?” says the Nature Man. “Just the tiniest little shoot of green peeping from the red-brown of the willow!” He imitates it with his thumb and finger to show the way the tiny little shoot shoots. I suppose he thinks he’s a little bud himself. I really believe that my particular friend actually imagines himself in spring-time to be a wee hepatica, or a first crocus, or the yellow-underleaf of a daffodil.
And notice, too, the way in which they refer to colours; never plain and simple ones like red or black or blue; always stuff like “red-brown” or “blue-green.” My friend asks me if I have noticed the peculiar soft “yellow-brown” that the water fowl puts on in spring. Answer: No, I haven’t : I haven’t seen any water-fowl : I don’t know where you look for them and I didn’t know that they put anything on. As for “yellow-brown” I didn’t know that there was any such colour. I have seen a blue-black crow this year, and I have noticed a burnt-indigo-sepia hen : but beyond that I have not seen anything doing.
Worst of all, and, in fact, verging on paresis is the state of mind of the Nature Man in regard to the birds. When he speaks of them his voice takes on a particular whine. My Nature friend told me yesterday that he had seen two orioles just beginning to build a nest behind his garage. He said he “tiptoed” to the spot (notice the peculiar wee-wee language that these people use)—and then stood rooted there watching them. I forget whether he said “rooted” or “riveted” : on occasions like this he sometimes reports himself as one and sometimes as the other. But why on earth, if he is once fairly rooted does he become unrooted again?
I therefore wish to give this plain and simple notice, meant without malice : If any other of my friends has noticed a snowdrop just peeping above the edge of the turf, will he mind not telling me. If any of them has noticed that the inner bark of the oak is beginning to blush a faint blue-red, would he mind keeping it to himself. If there is any man that I know who has seen two orioles starting to build a nest behind his garage, and if he has stood rooted to the ground with interest and watch the dear little feathered pair fluttering to and fro, would he object to staying rooted and saying nothing about it?
I am aware that I ought long ago to have spoken out openly to my nature friends. But I have, I admit, the unfortunate and weak-minded disposition that forces me to smile with hatred in my heart. My unhappy neighbour does not suspect that I mean to kill him. But I do. I have stood for all that tanager and oriole stuff that I can. The end is coming. And as for that hepatica just putting its tiny face above the brown of the leaf—well, wait, that’s all. Some day, I know it, I shall all of a sudden draw a revolver on my friend and say, “Listen. This has gone far enough. Every spring for many years you have stopped me in the street and told me of this nature stuff. And I have stood for it and smiled. You told me when the first touch of brown appeared on the underwing of the lark, and I let you say it. You kept me posted as to when the first trillium appeared from a pile of dead oak leaves under a brush-heap and I let you tell it to me and never said that all I knew of trilliums was in connection with the German reparations indemnity. But the thing is exhausted. Meet your fate as you can. You are going where the first purple-pink of the young rhododendron will be of no interest to you.”
I don’t want to appear surly. But I am free to admit that I am the kind of man who would never notice an oriole building a nest unless it came and built it in my hat in the hat room of the club. There are other men like me too : and the time has come when we must protect ourselves. There are signs of spring that every sensible man respects and recognizes. He sees the oysters disappear from the club bill-of-fare, and knows that winter is passing; he watches boiled new California potatoes fall from 25 to 10 cents a portion and realizes that the season is advancing. He notes the first timid appearance of the asparagus just peeping out of its melted butter : and he sees the first soft blush on the edge of the Carolina Strawberry at one-dollar-and-fifty cents a box. And he watches, or he used to watch, in the old day beyond recall, for the sign BOCK BEER TO-DAY that told him that all nature was glad.
These are the signs of spring that any man can appreciate. They speak for themselves. Viewed thus, I am as sensitive to the first call for spring as any of my fellows. I like to sit in my club with my fellow members of like mind and watch its coming and herald its approach.
But for the kind of spring that needs a whole text book of biology to interpret it, I have neither use nor sympathy.