The Natural Enquirer: A search for spring
Cold and bright and 31 days long, March holds the coming of the summer in the folds of its weeks and, most often, buffets us with winter more than it leaves us in spring.
Nature manages, all the year long, to appear undependable, capricious, whimsical, even mad, but never quite so outrageously as in this third wild month, when the violet blossoming on the stream bank is likely to have its blue eye filled with snow, and newly emerged groundhog nibbles sweet new clover, and will most surely be driven back into his burrow by raw cold biting winds.
March winds have to blow, I’m told. It’s one of the few things you can depend upon about March. Masses of cold air have accumulated in the arctic regions, while the sun has been rising in the south, increasing the heat of the shimmering tropics. Strong currents are flowing south from the cold regions, other currents equally strong are flowing north from the warm south, and when the two systems collide, or play leap-frog, it gives rise to the proverbial winds of March.
Wild winds they are, and mad winds, but they help to dry the earth left oozing and soggy by winter, they play a tremendous part in the vital turning-over of the waters in lakes and ponds, and they stimulate the circulation of life juices in trees and lesser plants.
Those trees and lesser plants know another dependable thing about March-its sunlight. Not that today will be sunny or that it won’t, but that the sun is there, above the horizon, lasting a little longer on each successive day. The sun, its heat and light, are irresistible. The snow has to go, the ice has to melt, the earth has to warm, eggs have to hatch, and roots have to stretch and grow.
Most life was shut down for the winter, with its own special code for awakening in the spring, and the key that triggers this opening mechanism is the sun’s light and warmth. Insects, both eggs and over-wintering adults, are quickly warmed, and so are the surface roots of quick-growing plants; but it takes a little longer for warmth to reach the turtle, the earthworm and the frog.
And that is another amazing thing about chaotic March-its ultimate orderliness. Whether spring comes on in a long, slow curve, or whether it arrives with a warm wind and a hot sun in one week, everything happens in its own time. Nothing gets out of its place in line.
The robin does not arrive in any numbers before the earth warms and worms unthread themselves from the tangles in their dark cellars. The first butterflies that drift about the woodlands drink tree sap and are not dependent upon the nectar of flowers yet to bloom. And many a flying insect is becoming active in the marsh before the first frogs arise from the mud.
It is the old food chain again, and the first to arrive is the one who gets eaten, the tiniest, the least able to fight back. And that is why I begin, sometime during March, to bring back from each morning’s walk, a dropper of water taken from the warming shallows of the pond or from a sunny puddle in the marsh or bog. Under the lens of a microscope, in the amazing world of the water drop, one certain morning I shall see some unbelievable creature moving about. It will be seeking, of course, his own tinier food and at the same time inadvertently offering himself upon the table of the next higher creature, some tiny crustacean, or the larval form of an insect.
I am never quite sure that the first animal I find has not warmed out of his encystment in my pocket or, for that matter, on the glass slide itself, but if, in the next day or so its numbers and kinds increase then I can say to myself, “Well spring is here.” But I say it under my breath, for there is tremendous discontinuity between the world of winter-bound humanity and the one under the lens. However, now I can walk through the wet places, knowing that the life I sense with all my being is truly stirring there.
Then comes a day when I find small flies and tiny gnats busy about the fleshy flower heads in the twisted spathes of skunk cabbage, and the catkins hanging loose and free on the alder bushes by the stream. I nod my head. “Spring is here.” But still I say it softly.
And one morning, in a sunny curve of the stream bank where the water flows quietly, I shall find half a dozen water striders and whirl-a-gigs standing about on the surface of the water, looking dazed and newly arrived, and not knowing quite what to do about it. Every now and then two or three will drift together, then solemnly disentangle their long legs and stand about as before.
And I shall make up for their apparent lack of joyousness by smiling broadly, for I love water striders, and I shall say aloud, but still to myself, “Well spring is really here.” And then comes an afternoon when the sun lies warm and bright like a golden veil across the meadow and the marshes.
A tiny sleigh bell tinkles. Another sleigh bell rings. And suddenly the once-winter world is filled with the wildly tintinabulating chorus of the spring peepers as they gather for their primeval rites, and I say joyously, and aloud, and to everyone I meet, “Spring is here! The peepers are back!”
And everyone with half an ear responds, “I know!”
Peter Dring is a retired nature biologist and phenologist who lives in the Land ‘O Lakes area. Questions or comments for Dring can be sent to starjournal@jcp group.com.