C.W. Gusewelle

Morning in the country: First light tells of another renewal

C.W. Gusewelle at his cabin near Appleton City, Mo., in May 2007.
C.W. Gusewelle at his cabin near Appleton City, Mo., in May 2007. dpulliam@kcstar.com

Originally published on May 22, 1995.

The rhythm of a springtime morning in the country is dependable and sweet.

At 5 o’clock, in full darkness, the whippoorwills are chorusing, each three-note whistle preceded by a click. By half past the hour, the light has begun to come.

The woods that wrap the cabin clearing are a massed and solid presence, but soon the mounded upper treetops are defined against a paler wash. As if on command, then, the whippoorwills go silent all together. And from valleys to the south and west the owls start up, hoo-hoooo-ing the declarations of their territory.

The western sky is so full of night that even on a fine morning — of which lately there have been few — you almost could think another storm was gathering. But then it lightens, and what you took to be a cloud front is only an amazing depth and richness of uninterrupted blue.

An early crow, a solitary, paddles across it. The squirrel, an irritable riser, begins a metallic scolding from his branch above the wood pile.

In a single hour, the world has gone from sightless dark to the color of emerald — color so vivid that the sunlight through the leaf canopy is stained green, like light filtered down through seawater.

A whisper of a morning breeze stirs. Carried on the river of the air is the far-off bark of a dog. Then the growl of a balky engine being turned. Then the clatter of a house door that cannot be nearer than a quarter-mile. Then the engine again, this time catching.

The breeze freshens, and in it the treetops move like dancers. The sound of their dancing shuts out the rest, and the world is drawn down again to the perimeter of the clearing: the pine trees we planted, the irises that seldom bloom, the plum tree that never bore, the place where a vegetable garden used to be.

And the day is begun.

That’s how it is now, and how it was 25 springs ago when I first greeted the season in this place.

The lane toward which my cabin fronted was gravel then, and the old cars and broken trucks passing slowly along it raised blowing rooster tails of chalky dust. Now it’s paved, traveled by youngsters in pickups, farmers on tractors and city folks on outings to view us rustics — traveled, by all but the tractors, in a heedless rush.

A bit to the west, in a declivity where hills converge, is the four-way crossroad, blind from three sides, with a blinking caution light that is ignored. The light is only a token, and someone will have to die there before the county does more. I hope it’s no one I know.

Across the lane, when I came here, was only forest. Now there’s a house, though trees block the view of it, and neighbors whose amiable spotted dog already is camped at this early hour by the screen door while I write.

Last night I made the mistake of giving him my plate scraps and will be paying for that the rest of his lifetime or mine.

The winter of that distant year had been uncommonly severe, with fierce cold and much snow. It closed the country down. About my only visitor was an old man who lived alone in a drafty ruin of a farmhouse two ridges away.

He had a reputation for being hard, but for some reason we got on well. Sometimes I would split his firewood, and he would pay me in Mason jars of wild berries canned the year before. We would drink coffee, sitting close to the stove, and talk about fish we’d catch in the creek when spring came.

Then spring did come, and one of his machines killed him.

Another friend of sorts was the strange, brooding and often stone-drunk fellow who kept the store I walked to four miles over the gravel for flour and shortening and other necessary grub.

He was a great horseback quail hunter, when he could see to shoot. But his store burned, with his bird dogs under it, and broken-hearted that man died too.

So much is gone, and much more has changed.

But the spring arrives as it always did, with the sweet cadence of its mornings exactly as you remember. And if the day is fine, with the first light falling green as emerald through the trees and a fresh breeze rising, everything is new again.