Subtle Season

One very cold morning last February, after we’d had a mini blizzard in the night, I found the roads snow-covered as I drove into town. By noon the sky cleared and a small, weakling sun shone down from the pale-blue winter sky. Despite the cold temperatures, I noticed that patches of snow on the blacktop road were melting. I thought with a wry grin on my face, “This is the start of spring.”

Most people would strongly deny that spring was finally returning to our northern ice-blocked land on that February day. Only when the grass is green, the trees have leaves and the temperatures are shirt-sleeve comfortable, is spring generally recognized.

Spring in Wisconsin is very subtle. It arrives slowly. Each stride it makes is the size of a “chicken step”, my Mom’s term to describe how slowly days become longer after the winter solstice. Instead of lengthening the usual three minutes a day, the days in December and January lengthen by only a minute or two. That same slow, but steady progress is the way spring returns to the northern hemisphere.

Each February I get excited when I see that the sun is finally high enough in the sky and warm enough to melt snow on a blacktop road. It is a small thing, but an important first step toward spring! When I parked the car in the garage that day and walked to the house, I stopped and listened. The only birds I heard were the chickadee at the feeder, a downy woodpecker chirping between pecks at the suet and a cardinal’s loud, “Chip! Chip!”

A few days later on my way to the garage, I stopped to listen again. That is when I heard the second sign of spring. Off in the tree tops along the river, a cardinal was plaintively begging, “Bir-dee? Bir-dee?” A male cardinal was using the summer-language of love in courting his mate! Staring intently at the gray branches, I finally saw the red of his wings as he fluttered to a different tree to take-up a new chorus of, “Bir-dee? Bir-dee?”

The third step toward spring follows a few warm days and cold nights in early March. This is when small, fuzzy buds appear on willow plants along the road. Soft, like kittens, pussy willow buds are gray after emerging from small black husks along the branches. When picked, but not put in water, they will stay in bud stage and dry. If a pussy willow branch is put in water, the small catkins become larger and eventually turn yellow with dusty pollen. I can hardly imagine a Palm Sunday without a vase filled with a mix of pussy willow branches and the palms from that Sunday’s Mass.

Usually during the second week of March the fourth and most obvious sign of spring occurs. Fat, orange-bellied robins begin to return from migration. Their strident voices and raucous chuckles are the first to be heard on these frosty mornings. They are quickly followed by the burbling trill of red-winged black birds. By the end of the first week of April a host of other birds have returned and add their voices to the morning chorus.

Starting in February when the snow is first starting to melt on blacktop roads, the sap in maple trees begins to run. The maple syrup season ends once the nights stop dropping to freezing temperatures. As the daytime sun gets warmer, spring kicks into high-gear. Life in puddles and ponds begin waking up. Thousands of gnats birth into bug-clouds that choke. Mosquitos begin to hum and common house flies sleepily buzz. At night, small amphibians begin to peep.

By the end of April, the lawns aren’t fully yet green and none of the trees have leaves. On dreary, damp, bone-chilling April and May days, I’ve heard people grump, “I wish spring would get here! What’s taking it so long to come?”

I want to tell them, “What you really want is summer. Spring is already here!”

 

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