Each spring, long thin, perfectly compact tapers of new growth appear at the tips of pine branches all over the Delmarva Peninsula. The emergence of these slender bundles always just precedes the arrival of the Neotropicals—the brilliantly colored orioles, tanagers, warblers, and grosbeaks that transit through these parts each year on their way to points north. This brief passage, the bulk of which lasts little more than a fortnight, marks the highpoint of a bird-watcher's year. Veteran birders, as if inviting a guest to table, will nod at the little tapers of new pine and speak the phrase they know their fellows long to hear, “The candles are lit ...” The rest is left unsaid. Like spring itself, the words are a promise of things to come.
Here at the library's Easton branch, the signs of spring's arrival are numerous. First, the master gardeners set up shop in our lobby to offer free plants, advice on gardening, and the opportunity to join their group. Then there's the annual Easter egg hunt, and here and there, like dabs of paint, bright red, yellow, and blue plastic eggs appear on the green palette of the library's front lawn. Hidden in plain sight, the “hunt” seldom lasts long. Yet despite its brevity, I once heard a triumphant five-year-old tell his mother, in all seriousness, “This has been the best day of my life!”
But you really know spring is here when patrons start checking out books from the 590s—the library's superb collection of field guides and nature books. If the library's cookbook aisle is scented with rosemary and thyme, then the 590s are redolent of spring, of new-turned earth, apple blossom, lilac, and roe. No matter how cold and rainy it is outside, here the sun is always warm on leaf and limb: the Coelacanth makes his antediluvian way—undisturbed by passing millennia-through the depths of a Malagasy sea (597.39 W), elephants weep (591.51 M), wild animals think (591.513 H) and even converse (591.59 H), and the annual shad run courses up and down tributaries throughout the mid-Atlantic (597.45 M).
For a while, life's tide is at flood and the natural histories pour from our shelves. Then, slowly, the weather turns. Books on small engine repair (lawn mowers) and pest control (Japanese beetles) begin to outnumber the field guides at check-out. Soon, mustard-green heads will appear on the winter wheat, giving dimension to its movements, and Melissa and I will head out on a breezy, sunny Sunday (a book of verse by local poet Sue Ellen Thompson in our hamper) to watch the wind roll silvery-green combers through the fields around our house.
By autumn, traffic in the 590s has dropped to a trickle. But interestingly, come the first hard cold days of winter, like a flicker of hope, it begins to pick up again. Bernd Heinrich's “Winter World” (591.43 H) makes the rounds, along with James Halfpenny's classic “Mammal Tracking” (599.0978 H)-snow making animal print all that much easier to follow and interpret.
Cicero once said that all you need in life is a library and a garden, but watching the way people turn to the 590s as they would to the out-of-doors, I sometimes wonder if he didn't get it wrong ... the library is a garden.