This time of year my dad, Robert Munn Sr., one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet, loved seed catalogs. He’d be leafing through pages and pages of colorful advertisements to find just the right vegetables and flowers for his yard. From first planting, until the final turning of the soil in the fall, his garden was his life.
My father always wanted to be a farmer. As a little girl I remember Sunday rides to view country homes with farmland for my parents to buy. Until retirement, his job required a lot of travel and ultimately defeated the farm-dream. But standing amidst his tomato, cucumber and pepper plants, set back from the busy Post Road in East Lyme, he was like any other farmer dreaming of a lush harvest.
As the short days of winter began to lengthen, but were still wrapped in cold, he’d talk about the first sign of spring, and what lay under the soil, like a little kid talks about what will be left under a decorated tree. As the last frost of winter would begin to soften the soil he’d begin to watch and listen for nature’s messages that winter was almost over and spring would soon be upon us. He believed those messages were first shown in the heady fragrance of damp soil and the sound of spring peepers.
Peepers, are little frogs that inhabit moist woodlands and wetlands in the eastern United States and Canada. In parts of Canada they are known as “tinkletoes” and “pink-winks” and on Martha’s Vineyard they are sometimes called “pinkletinks”. Once the ground thaws these little amphibians begin peeping at night, just to let all of us know that planting season is almost here. My dad used to spout the old wives-tale that after hearing the peepers’ song, there would be three more frosts before you could begin planting.
One of the least competitive men I have known, my dad loved to be the first to hear the peepers each year. But because our driveway abutted wetlands we almost always beat him to the first peep. I’d call, hold the phone up, and though separated by miles we’d celebrate the arrival of spring.
It became so newsworthy in our family that I began to mark the calendar when one of us heard the first sounds. In January, when I’d switch to a new calendar I would hardly note family birthday dates but I did keep track the peeper’s first peep. It was always in March.
One year while switching calendars I threw away the old one before I made note of all the peeper dates. I cried and never told my dad I had accidentally trashed the family’s fifteen year peeper record.
My dad has been gone almost ten years now, but every year I get a call from my daughters, or I make one, when pop’s peepers first begin to sing. It not only reminds us that spring is indeed upon us and warm weather follows but it’s a tribute to my father, the gardener, who gently lived by the sounds and sights of nature like the farmer he had always wanted to be.
This year our family will be particularly attentive when the ground begins to thaw, and the trees begin to tip with buds, because the cold has been so intense and relentless. I can’t help but think of the little frozen frogs held captive underground in the nard-packed wetlands. They are just waiting for the ground to soften so they can scrim out of the mud and make a racket about spring. When they do, I hope to make the first call to my daughters and tell them that pop’s peepers are shouting and spring is finally here.