February has left the hills, and no one seems sorry to see her go. She has always been a hard month to endure, leaving behind dirty piles of leftover snow and muddy soil everywhere. Son-in-law Bob calls it a “tweeny” month, stretching between winter and spring, sort of like the month of August, which is a bridge between summer and autumn. I’ve always thought of it as a “grubby” month, with remnants of winter festooning the landscape.

We have hope, though. The winds of March will soon be sweeping through the hills, drying up the mud and preparing us for spring. Already the songbirds have mostly forsaken the bird feeder; going about their spring duty of mating and preparing to build nests. Just when we think winter is going to hold on forever, it happens.

I heard Spring singing this morning. I was still in bed, drowsy and contented. It came clearly through the bedroom window and jarred me wide awake. It was barely breaking day; night shadows lay yet on the hilltops as dawn peeped shyly through fingers of pink. It was a bleak landscape that greeted Dawn’s eyes. Water-logged ground had frozen in the night, and dead spears of dead grass were frosted and stiff.

The bare branches of the trees shivered in the early morning cold; supplicating naked arms reached skyward. The massive icicles that had marched so proudly across the face of the rock cliffs had frozen in the very act of thawing, and lay welded together in awkward, dispirited heaps on the ground.

Everywhere was the brown of winter. Brown leaves had fallen on browner earth; outmoded garments discarded carelessly by trees anxious to go to bed last fall. Broomsage patches gleamed with their golden-brown heads held aloft, while the once red berries of the sumac were now a dull brown. Garden patches were desolate and empty save for the cut-off corn stalks stubbornly testifying to last year’s crop of corn. Dried, brown weed stalks lined the creek, although the raspberry canes shone with a whitish frost on its purple-brown arms.

It was hard to see Spring in all this brownness. But there she was, perched on the highest limb of the tall sycamore tree standing at the edge of the yard. A miniscule fluff of feathers about the color of one of the brown sycamore balls hanging from the tree, and not much bigger, her song floated out on the clear morning air.

And what a mighty song came from that wee feathered throat-a song of such longing, and hope, and good cheer that the heart of each listener was lifted. Across the slumbering hills and winter-weary land, it drifted, telling of wonders to come.

She told of rich soil being tilled in the springtime-long, dark strips of earth curling up behind the keen edge of the plow-and of the grubs and earthworms uncovered in the sunshine; awaiting the sharp, yellow bills of her kinfolk. She revealed secret places hidden from curious eyes-tiny nooks and crannies where intricate, woven nests could be built. She sang of the grape arbor, where among the twisted vines a home would be made for helpless, naked birdlings. And how the miniature eggs are laid-one at first, and then another and another until Mother Nature says there are enough. Each tiny egg contained life, beauty and a world of song.

In her liquid notes, she told of tender, new grass that would grow under the grape arbor-not the tough, wiry grass trampled underfoot, but grass soft as velvet. How every year, purple violets push their way through to spangle the yard with gems of amethyst. She sang with longing of how her maternal heart beat when the eggs pulsed with life, and the baby birds began to peck their way out of the confining shell.

She grew joyous as she described the mother love that filled her heart as the helpless babies opened their mouths and cried for nourishment. How she worked and slaved in an endless cycle to satisfy their voracious appetites.

She described how the grape leaves grew full and sheltered the home from the rainstorms that sometimes blew violently, and from the sun’s heat that waxed hotter. She told of the satisfaction of seeing her young grow strong enough to try their wings and leave the nest; freeing her to repeat the same life-giving cycle once more. The musical warbling went on and on, revealing how anxious she was to start.

Winter is not over, The North wind will blow, snow will likely fall again on hills and ridges, and icicles can form once again on the rock cliffs. But I have hope.

I heard Spring singing this morning.

We had a reply to the request of the caramel pie from the Shell Gas Station. Judy Hamilton writes, “This recipe isn’t from the Shell Station, in Monroe County, but it is very good and easy, and made from scratch.”

1 ½ cups sugar, (divided)
2 cups of 2% or whole milk
3 large egg yolks
4 Tablespoons all purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
Pinch of salt
1 (9” baked pie crust (homemade or store-bought)

Place ¾ cup of sugar in a medium sauce pan. (Mom used an iron skillet) Cook the sugar over a medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until golden-brown and caramelized-around ten minutes. Keep warm over very low heat.
Meanwhile, whisk together milk and eggs in a medium saucepan for the custard. Add the flour and remaining ¾ cup of sugar. Whisk until the mixture is smooth. Continue whisking over medium heat until the mixture thickens (around 10 minutes.)

Add caramelized sugar to the custard, whisking continuously. If the caramel hardens, just continue whisking over medium heat until it has melted and the mixture is smooth and thick (around 5 minutes.)
Then stir in the butter, vanilla and salt.

Pour custard into baked pie crust and refrigerate at least an hour until chilled and set.

Serve with whipped cream.

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Alyce Faye Bragg

She writes the "News From the Hills" column. Born and raised in the country, and still lives on the same farm where she was raised. Has a sincere love for nature and the beauty of the hills. Began writing in 1981 & currently has three books published. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer