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First signs of spring rejuvenate the soul

I'm a worldly writer, to paraphrase a local car dealership, with small town values, or maybe I'm a small town writer with worldly values. Let me tell you what I mean.

I've had the good fortune as an overseas lecturer of American literature at the University at Buffalo to see many of the world's famous cities, iconic monuments and storied landscapes: Istanbul, Taj Mahal and the white cliffs of Dover.

I've often seen them first at dawn or twilight, when one tends to arrive by auto-rickshaw, botel, ferry, hydrofoil, night train and, of course, plane. I've yet to need a pack mule. These are the best times to arrive in new places because one sees them first in outline, as the sun is coming up or going down, against a mood indigo background.

It's not exactly clear in these moments of arrival just how the landscape will look in the full light of day, and that adds a sense of excitement and drama to the first impression. It's a little bit like looking at an impressionist painting and seeing the "points" (if it's a painting by Seurat) resolve themselves into a pattern after a few seconds, or seeing the first signs of spring.

I've had this experience in many faraway places about which I knew practically nothing before I arrived as a teacher: Ankara, Turkey; England's Lake District; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Bhubaneswar, India; Hong Kong; Bloemfontein, South Africa; Tel Aviv, Israel; Berlin, Germany -- to name a few dots on the global map that lie well beyond my house and small garden in Eggertsville.

But I'm not sure that seeing these distant lands for the first time is any more exciting than noticing my lone yellow crocus, pushing through a ground-cover of ivy, at the end of March or early April. I know, when I see it, that other bursts of color and signs of rebirth soon will appear in my modest, but fertile, garden: dogwood branches so crimson that you think they will bleed; red peony buds that linger reluctantly at the earth's surface, so that one isn't sure if they really wish to continue to grow, but they do -- magnificently, each blossom a white bridal gown; flecks of canary yellow forsythia beginning to form a festive crown on the entangled and imprisoned branches.

There are other early signs of the beginning of the end of a Buffalo winter which, even when mild, is long, gray and dispiriting: sparrows or finches (I'm still something of a residual New York City boy) who snag a mini-twig from the center of my arbor vitae and fly up to a birdhouse where they will build a nest in what I regard as their rent-free condo.

I'm not convinced that these annual assertions of new life, of life renewed, are any less important to me than knowing that, say, next late winter I may be lecturing on Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost in Rajasthan, India. After all, many of their flights of fancy -- taking cues from Emerson's celebration of "nature" -- took place in and around the gardens of Amherst, Mass.

And, as much as I may wish to be in India next late winter in the fabled region where rajahs hunted tigers, rode elephants and had themselves weighed in gold, the matter of Kipling, I think I would miss being near my garden when lilacs first bloom.

As Robert Frost says in "Birches": "That would be good both going and coming back."


Howard Wolf is emeritus professor of English at UB and a life member of Wolfson College, Cambridge.