“Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.”
Ah, spring, you are most welcome! As Kenneth Grahame so deliciously puts it in his classic tale The Wind in the Willows, it is “moving in the air” and penetrating the earth, stirring something within us that has lain latent these past dark months. Spring’s arrival is nothing like the first blows of winter—it seeps in soft and timid (and for many of us, long overdue!), yet once here, its arrival is irrefutable and unstoppable. It’s a new smell on the breeze, the observation that that “breeze” no longer feels like biting wind. The first sound of solitary birdsong. The first time you realize that you don’t actually want to hustle to get back indoors but instead wish to pause for a moment, face upturned to the sky, to savor the gentle warmth of the long-absent sunshine on your cheeks.
As I live in Chicago, the return of spring is something I relish and celebrate as an almost sacred event. This is particularly true because I am a dog owner, and so I’m out of doors for long walks every single day of the year, whether the forecast is one of abundant sunshine or driving snow and frigid wind (and given that it’s Chicago, it’s very often the latter).
Nothing makes me happier than to welcome spring each year with my annual rereading of Grahame’s classic The Wind in the Willows. Immersing myself in this tale for children of all ages, I can perfectly envision the lush green meadows of Grahame’s shires, I can smell the loamy musk of the thawed river. The marvelous and mischievous vernal adventures of Mr. Toad, the Mole, River Rat, and Mr. Badger speak to that delicious childlike desire in all of us to take to the woods and the fields and to gambol with abandon in the sunshine and fresh air after a punishing winter.
Of course, this is an oft-visited theme in all art forms, particularly literature. Spring and renewal and the rebirth of nature are hallowed territory for some of the most celebrated adult writers. Everything from the opening lines of Chaucer’s General Prologue in The Canterbury Tales to Wordsworth’s musings in Lines Written in Early Spring elegize the stirrings we feel to get outside into the rich and vibrant springtime.
Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows touches on those timeless themes, and allows us to rethink them with the wonder and freshness of a child. What’s more, it gives us permission to heed the innocence and optimism of that child within. To feel that “today . . . with a new-born need stirring in his heart, the clear sky over their long low outline seemed to pulsate with promise; today, the unseen was everything. The unknown the only real fact of life.”
This book still appeals to children of all ages, more than a hundred years after its publication, in large part because of the ageless stirrings it identifies and draws out.
How could lines such as this one do anything but elicit the desire to turn off your computer and take off into a landscape of fresh and unspoiled adventure? “The rich meadow-grass seemed that morning of a freshness and a greenness unsurpassable. Never had they noticed the roses so vivid, the willow-herb so riotous, the meadow-sweet so odorous and pervading.”
If only we could approach each day with this sense of profound gratitude and awareness. If only we could look on not only the return of this season but on each day with that childlike sense of wonder and adventure. To feel it as Kenneth Grahame describes:
“All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.”
A sunny day can do that for us, yes. So, too, can a great book. And the two put together, well, does it get any better than that?