The rolling Illinois countryside along the McDonough-Fulton County line glows on a mid-April Saturday morning. The road heads into Fulton County, which is in the Spoon River Valley.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

T. S. Elliott
The Wasteland (1922)

In the upper Midwest, the month we’ve just endured — April — can be the cruelest month. It teases with extremes—raw or balmy, calm or wicked storms, fair or gray, dry or flooding.

One day, the bones and joints ache in the cold wind. The next day they exult in the warmth of sun and breezes and being outside.

April is a vigorous reawakening after the depths of seemingly endless winter. April is, in reality, life—new and renewed—released into the vagaries of today’s weather with the natural certainty that spring is more than a promise. The sun is rising higher in the sky. Some days really are warmer. Spring is coming again at its own pace. Now that May is here, the changes are obvious and seem inevitable. But in April, we were not so sure.

Life stirring is truly sweet, marked by the release of stored carbohydrates from tree roots, millions upon millions of calories turning the rural countryside through a phase of pale reds, oranges, and yellows as trees flower in February or March to splashes of greens and yellows as the leaves pop out along roads and daily changing streams, pastures, and farm fields.

And then there are the seeds planted for crops. One day, a field is nothing but newly turned earth. In a few days, the tender sprouts will emerge. Within weeks, they will hide the soil. Each seed becomes a constantly expanding manufacturing plant, deriving nutrients from the soil and converting sunlight to energy to fuel intensive growth that will yield the fruits for the inevitable fall and harvest.

Corn sprouts in a field bordered by trees on Warren Road in northern McDonough County. Small fields bordered by trees are a rarity in this area of intensive, large-scale farming. Photo by Timothy Collins

For now, springtime offers windows on the countryside. The tans and grays of worn out plants, remnants of seasons gone forever, resolve into new and renewed life, continuing cycles of the infinitesimal of plant biology foreshadowing seasons to come within the seemingly infinite cycles of a planet in a solar system in galaxy surrounded by galaxies in an expanding universe.

All of this thinking may seem a long way from the backroads of West Central Illinois, and perhaps it is. But a day in April or early May day can be like that, triggering thoughts of what is here and present, of what is smallest and largest, and of what is so far away, but still ever-present.

On the byways of McDonough and Fulton counties in these glorious days, early spring’s sampler reveals the character of our landscape, used well in places, abused in others.

Whatever the conditions, life is there, promising, enduring, and glorious in its explosion of greens. There is so much to savor. At these moments at least, April is, perhaps, the kindest of months.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone. He is the proprietor of Then and Now Media and author of Selling the State: Economic Development Policy in Kentucky.

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