Long ago, before artificial cooling became a casual luxury, movie houses had special summer-only signs: “AIR CONDITIONED.” When it was 98 in mid-July, for a quarter — half a dollar downtown — you could sit on a cushioned chair in a cool room for hours, munching popcorn, watching movies.
Last weekend, contemplating semi-permanent snowdrifts, I recalled those good old days, wishing, ironically, for a time when “AIR CONDITIONED” would be a welcome sign. Then, on Monday, I did see an even more welcome sign. It read, “Spring is coming.”
It was in the hills, a couple miles west of my home. I was driving around taking landscape photographs. (Even a countryside in grays and browns can be beautiful, if the air is clear and the sun’s at a good angle and power lines don’t intrude.)
The sign was 37 deer. Not all at once. I saw them singly, or in small groups, as I drove up and down back roads. They crossed in front of me, they grazed quietly on rural lawns, they watched in amusement as I tried to get the camera pointed at them before they vanished. One — slower than the rest, or maybe just an extrovert — did stand still long enough to give me a clear picture.
I mean, they know, don’t they? They wouldn’t come out so brazenly, in such numbers, unless they had agreed it was time for Spring. And deer wouldn’t lie to us.
Like the rest of us, they’ve had a miserable winter. Long. Cold. Unremitting. Ironically, last year was the sixth-hottest year. The first ten years of this century were the hottest decade on record. Thirteen of the fourteen hottest years on record have hit us in this century. All that is, pardon the phrase, cold comfort.
I did see a lot of birds that day. But I’ve given up on birds as harbingers of Spring. Robins used to be, but they’ve been around for weeks, chirping deceptively in the back yard birch tree and the silver maple out in front. Nothing happened.
Saw crows that day as well, but you know about crows. They’re liars and tricksters and magicians. You can’t believe them. They never tell the truth unless they know you’re onto them, expecting a pack of lies. That’s when they tell the truth, knowing you won’t believe it. Devious, deceitful creatures, those crows, always trying to pull the feathers over your eyes.
Biggest bird I saw that afternoon was a wild turkey. He waddled across the road, then stumbled into a ditch and scrambled up the bank into underbrush. You can’t tell much from a turkey. Really, why do you think they call him a turkey? He probably believes the crows.
No, birds in general are over-rated as messengers of Spring.
Oh yeah. I forgot to mention geese. Geese used to be markers, back when movie houses tried to lure you inside with promises of coolth. You’d see them flying high in show-off formations. If they were headed south, Winter was coming. Headed north, Spring was coming. Now the raucous beggars hang around all year, getting in the way and making a mess. I heard a man in the supermarket last month describe them as the in-laws of the bird family.
But I think we can trust the deer. I want to, anyway. Out in the hills west of here, 37 of them. Have to admit though, a couple — numbers 22 and 23 — did look familiar. Maybe the total was only 35.
How many ever there were, here’s why I trust them. They’re out, suddenly, calmly chewing on whatever peeks up through the snow in fields, in people’s lawns, even in roadside ditches. Standing there, munching on weeds and grass, looking me casually in the eye as I drive by.
On the way back home, I came to a railroad crossing. I slowed down to minimize damage to my elderly vehicle and bones. At the edge of the tracks I saw an ad for the season, like an ad for a spectacular movie, the kind you used to see right under the “AIR CONDITIONED” sign.
I thought at the time it was meant for me. Later, I decided it had been for the deer.