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Sounds of earth

THE vernal equinox, I'm sure, had a great deal to do with drawing me out of my warm house into that chilly March dusk. I was definitely weary of winter's assaults, of repeated snows, and of an endless procession of gray damp days. Now at spring's approach, with sap beginning to rise in the trees, I felt a real hunger to be with growing things.

On an impulse, therefore, I had joined a group at the Nature Center for a guided night walk to hear the annual mating chorus of spring peepers, tiny and decidedly vocal frogs, which appear in early spring. Beside a marshy pond, in the darkness, with other kindred spirits I had been stirred by the drama played out before me, although my eardrums continued to vibrate with the shrill, insistent din of frog courtship.

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Touching base with elemental forces had reawakened that exhilarating sense of discovery, and trudging along with the others beneath a skyful of stars I'd forgotten could be so bright, I began to experience a ''high'' no drug could induce, along with a sense of peace I hadn't known in years.

But this was not to be all. For just then I overheard a fellow frog-walker ask his companion, ''And did you hear the earthworms?''

''Hear the earthworms?'' Even I knew that earthworms were unquestionably silent creatures. But curiosity overrode fear of ridicule, and I asked our guide what was this about hearing earthworms. (Like snipe-hunting, I suspected.)

A zealous young naturalist, he was overjoyed to introduce a novice to one of the lesser-known manifestations of spring. He guided me toward a grove of ancient beech trees, still leafless and ghostly in the night. There we stopped. And listened. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness earlier that night as we moved toward the marsh pond, so gradually in that quiet my sense of hearing was heightened. Though at first I heard nothing, soon in that almost primeval silence I was aware of myriad rustlings everywhere underfoot. Faint stirrings seemed to come from every pore of the earth. The rustling, like that of tissue paper, was steady and purposeful.

The naturalist explained that earthworms at the end of winter, sensitive to lengthening days, come up to the surface to pull down portions of dry leaves into their underground burrows, feeding on the microbes adhering to them. The sound was that of their chewing. (I privately visualized the wintering earthworms, at some unheard signal, all sitting down at table, tucking small napkins under their chins, and beginning voraciously to eat.)

There beneath these forest giants, the beeches, I felt that I'd been present at the precise moment when earth had rolled over into spring, and when all that had been static had been set in motion. I knew I would be forever enriched by what I had been witness to that night. And I felt secure in the belief that the universe was indeed unfolding as it should.

I tried to block out the knowledge that the Interstate was just a thought away. That, with one giant step, I'd be back in civilization.

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The others moved off toward their cars. But, entranced, I stood there, reluctant to leave.

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