Thursday, March 24, 2011


I need the spring.  Please don’t get me wrong, I love the winter and could not live anywhere there were not four distinct seasons, but by the time March rolls around I desperately need spring.  I need its warmth, I need its color and I need its reassurance.
When autumn creeps in I relish in its crisp days.  The cool air invigorates me and pushes me on to complete my late season tasks.  I watch the green fade from the landscape to reveal the plants and trees in all their glorious colors.  The wonderful smell of wood smoke ignites distant memories from my childhood, as my neighbors begin to use their fireplaces or burn piles of leaves.  And in those early months of the season, I take in my expanded view of the surrounding woods minus the leafy curtain that has hidden so much the previous summer.  The ducks and geese are again visible on the distant pond.  There is the muted pallet of gray and brown which pleases my desire for earth tones.  I anxiously await the first flakes of winter and later the big snowfalls that transform the landscape into a fairyland. 

However, by March the novelty has worn off.  The landscape has remained unchanged for four months.  The grass is brown and lays flattened from the weeks of heavy snow and ice.  The winter winds have gradually redeposited the leaves I so meticulously worked to clean from my lawn last October.  My flower bed, so colorful last summer, is an ugly scar across the lawn, and the garden ornaments sit askew.  The area beneath the birdfeeder is buried in sunflower hulls which smother the grass.  It is still too early for the return of the neotropical migrants, so it is the same cast of characters at my feeder each day, and these still sport their dull winter clothes.  

This is the time of year I begin to lose faith.  Despite my 48 autumns that have passed successfully into spring before, I still look upon the yard and woods and wonder if it is forever lost to me.  It all looks so dead.  The winter winds have left branches broken and hanging in the trees, and I survey them looking for any possible signs of life.  They don’t always come back.  Dutch elm disease has taken a few of my trees each year, and by winter’s end large slabs of bark have sloughed to reveal the white skeleton of their trunks below.  Will this be the fate of all my trees?  It is the foolish question I ask myself each year.  It is so hard for me to believe they could have survived the long, cold, dark months that have passed.

My first daffodil of the year
And then March arrives.  I look at the branch tips silhouetted against the sky and can see the subtle swelling of their buds.  I scan the earth for any signs of life.  When the snow finally receded this year the snow drops were already standing proud.  And as expected, the tips of the daffodil leaves had already pushed their way through the leaf mulch.  I knew the crocus plants would be the next to appear, and thankfully they both burst into bloom this week, simulated by an unseasonably warm period.

The diminutive Harbinger of Spring
Soon the woods will go through the transformation that renews not only the landscape by my soul as well.  The change reminds me of the scene in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy leaves the black and white world  of her storm-tossed house and emerges into the vibrant and colorful world of Munchkinland.  I enjoy the crocus and daffodils, but I planted those. It feels a little like cheating.  To really feel that all is right with the world, I need to see the native spring ephemerals make their return.  The first of these is aptly named Harbinger of Spring.  Also known as Salt and Pepper, it is the smallest of our spring flowers and emerges well before any of the others.  It is easily overlooked, and you must set out to find it.  For me it is like the first blip on the ECG screen signally that the flat-lined patient is not dead after all but is still fighting.

A clump of bloodroot
A few weeks after the Harbinger of Spring the patient convulsively bursts back into life.  Simultaneously, the rue anemone, the spring beauties, the cut-leaf toothwarts, Jacob's ladder and bloodroots will all spring into bloom.  Bees will appear and visit the violets that bloom on the edge of the woods.  My bleeding heart sends out its dripping heart-shaped blossoms while its wild cousin, the Dutchman’s breeches, hangs his laundry out in the woods.  Ferns uncoil their fiddleheads.  Dog-toothed violets nod next to trilliums.  My trilliums are a maroon color except for a single nodding white trillium that I carefully protect each year.  The wild ginger hides its burgundy bloom deep beneath its velvety leaves, and the mayapple shades its white blossom with its tropical looking, umbrella-like leaves.  In my younger days, this is when I would roam the hills for sponge mushrooms, but my little patch of woods has yet to yield a single morel.  Mother Nature also forgot to give me hepatica or wild phlox, although they bloom down by the creek.   I’ve added to the natural flowers with pulmanaria, tiarella and brunella.  The bugleweed that serves as a groundcover will deepen its burgundy color and will later carpet the woodland’s edge with its purple blooms.  Once the weather warms, I will sit on the old bentwood hickory rocker on the front porch and survey nature’s show.  

Dog-toothed violet
False Rue Anemone
Dutchman's breeches
Cut-leaved toothwart
My beautiful bleeding heart
 The bird life is soon tochange, too.  Already, the bluebirds have checked out the nesting box, and the phoebe’s are again chasing bugs through the woods.  I will soon hear the flutelike call of the thrushes, although they are not as frequent as they once were.  By early April I will see my first warblers, probably the yellow-rumped warbler, and blue-gray gnatcatchers will dart from branch tips to catch small insects.  The goldfinches will lose their drab green and don their vibrant yellow breeding plumage.  By the last weekend in April, the ruby-throated hummingbird will visit my feeder for the first time.  My favorite part of spring is opening the windows and listening to the chorus of birdsong early each morning.  Territory is being staked out, mates are being courted, and it seems each bird wants to outdo the other. I have to admit that although they are not exotic visitors, cardinals and robins still have my favorite songs.  But I’m also partial to the boisterous “tea kettle” of the Carolina wren and the “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” of the white-throated sparrow.  The noise reaffirms that the world is again alive.  When the children are gone, the most conspicuous sign of their absence is the silence of the house.  That is how I feel about the woods in winter.  The kids are gone and the house is too quiet.  

Prairie trillium
My lone nodding trillium
Spring beauties
The velvety wild ginger
I’ve reached that point in life where I am losing family and friends, and life seems all the more fragile.  That is why I need the reassurance of rebirth that spring brings.  Now I am just waiting for the fat around my stomach to melt away like the winter snows and the bare spots on my head to fill in like the lawn.  Maybe I’m putting a little too much pressure on spring’s shoulders, but I can keep hoping.


  1. Spring days give us back that sparkle in the eyes, smiling faces, shoulders back, a little springier step. The winter grumps are gone! The last few warm days have also given me hope, then today the weather reminded me it's still March...

  2. Beautiful pictures, Scott! I'm going to share these with Mom. I can hear her oohing and aahing already...


  3. Thanks, Jay. I didn't think they were too bad for a little digital camera. I sure don't have anything fancy. I cheated and used shots from a couple years ago because only the harbinger of spring is up in the woods so far this year. I can remember the day I took some of those shots. I was laying on my stomach to get some different angles and the next door neighbor thought I had collapsed. She came hurrying over to help me.