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by Bill Bailey, guest writer

To me, now that I am older, some of the first signs of spring are the songs and courtship rituals of the birds around my feeder. One small chickadee will show up, carefully choose a sunflower seed, and fly it over to another that is sitting on a nearby branch. That usually brings on a dizzying flight of “catch me if you can” through the trees until he either gives up, or she stops and accepts his offer of food.

If she accepts the gift, he will begin a victory dance, which ends with the two of them flying off together, and he will then defend her from all the other males who offer her their own choice gifts from the feeder; then I watch as the two of them begin to build a nest for their spring hatch.

When I was much younger, I only heard the songs of the birds in the spring. I was much too busy watching my neighbors, who were mostly “older folks,” going through their own spring rituals.

I would see my neighbor’s wife in the front yard removing old leaves and other debris, that had blown in over the winter, from her flower beds in front of the house. I knew that her husband was out back, preparing for a hard day of labor after mostly sitting and quilting together all winter.

The garden in the back had to be prepared for planting and, since this happened in Grantsville and the garden was fenced-in, it required running a roto-tiller to turn the soil, since there was no way to get a tractor in to the garden.

I didn’t know much about flower gardens, so I left her to her flower bulbs and seeds, but I could hear him out back, at the edge of the garden, pulling the rope on that tiller for 10 minutes, taking a five-minute break, and then pulling for 10 minutes more. Being no more than a boy, I was sure I could get that tiller going in no time at all and have the whole garden plowed before noon.

After we removed and cleaned the spark plug and made sure the tank was full of “new” gas, he would explain to his wife (who was, by then, standing at the corner of house certain we had sneaked off to go fishing) that we were just having a little trouble and would be plowing soon.

After another hour of pulling the rope and kicking the tiller, it would eventually start with a loud backfire and a cloud of black smoke. When the smoke turned from black to a pale blue, it was time to engage the tines and start plowing. It was also time for him to check and see if she needed any help with the flowers around front. He would show me, precisely, how he wanted the garden plowed and then off he would go.

Although the two of us were never weighed at the same time, I am certain that the tiller out-weighed me by 20 pounds. The ground was hard and bumpy and no matter how hard I tried to go in a straight line, I always seemed to till in a serpentine fashion. Personally, I thought it not only looked good, but I figured you could grow more vegetables in a crooked row.

Afraid to shut the thing off in case it never started again, I would put it in neutral and walk around front to see if he was ready to take a turn. The sight of the two of them, with heads close together, turning the soil by hand and discussing what would look the best, and where it should be planted, made me laugh to myself and turn back to the dreaded machine that I was certain had been manufactured in the fires of Hell just to torment prideful boys.

About two o’clock, I would come down the last serpentine row and they would come around the house, hand in hand--hands that were covered with the rich, black dirt of their morning toil. He was ready to take a turn at the plow.

She would take me into the house to wash up and have a tall glass of fresh cow’s milk, along with a plate of homemade cookies, while insisting that I come to the house that evening for supper. I always went to enjoy her delicious cooking, listen to the two of them talk of the vegetables to come, and to see that garden, tilled with rows that were straighter than straight. I never could figure out how he did that.

The smiles on their faces in the spring erased years of wrinkles that had been there only the day before. Another winter of cold, snow and quilt-making together, was followed by the promise of spring, flowers, home-grown food and evenings to be spent on the front porch swing talking to neighbors while lightning flashed in the distance and lightning bugs danced in the yard.

I’m starting to think that now it might be time for me to look for a roto-tiller of my own--perhaps an older model--without the new-fangled electronic ignition that makes them so easy to start. It just might be that some youngster still wants to see the rituals of the elder birds.

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