Franklin Williams, the arborist who took care of my trees, died recently, and I’ve been missing him as spring approaches. Franklin was good at cutting down trees but disliked removing healthy ones. He was fond of a Latin expression, “arbor vitae,” which means “tree of life.” It was a reminder to him that each tree has its own animating spirit, something to consider respectfully.
More than a decade ago, after he’d spent a week removing a sickly oak from my yard, I told Franklin he might as well cut down our little mayhaw tree on his way to the truck. It looked tired to me, not likely to pass another year.
Franklin could have dispatched the mayhaw in a few quick swipes, easily collecting a couple hundred extra bucks and my deep gratitude. Instead, he talked me into keeping it. There was nothing wrong with the tree, he said, that nature wouldn’t work out if we gave it some time.
By next season, the mayhaw had leafed out with its old vitality. I was glad I’d taken Franklin’s advice.
At some point, anyone who predicts a tree’s death is going to turn out right. I think of Franklin in the weeks before each spring, when I cross my fingers and wonder whether the mayhaw will green up for another year. The tree doesn’t look like much right now, but it’s special to me as a haven for birds.
Two feeders hang from its branches, and the tree conveniently rests in a straight line of vision from my living room chair. I can have coffee there, with a pair of binoculars across my lap, and peer through louvered shutters at any visitors that arrive. It is, I guess, a blind that any duck hunter would envy.
But as I sit near the window these late-winter mornings, it’s not mallards I’m trying to spot, but goldfinches.
Goldfinches arrive at my feeders each year around Thanksgiving, and they usually start leaving around Mardi Gras. My bird guide tells me that goldfinches can linger in their southern range until May, but I’ve never seen one hanging around my place that late. Fat Tuesday seems like their cue to pack up.
They’re drab gray and olive in autumn and winter, each one hardly bigger than my thumb. As spring nears, the males get yellower, and their white stripes grow sharper. Everything about the bird becomes more vivid, and watching them is like seeing spring slowly resolve itself from a vague suggestion to a coming reality.
This month has been a banner time for birdwatching; they flutter into your awareness whether you seek them or not.
To my friends in snow-weary Boston, I’m trying to be a Paul Revere of spring, letting them know, from my vantage point here, that the season is starting to well up from the bottom of the country. Nature just takes time, as Franklin Williams would surely remind me.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.