It’s eleven degrees Fahrenheit outside, and the ground is mostly white with snow cover. On my way to my garage, I have to navigate deadly patches of ice.
According to the calendar, it’s officially spring now.
Spring is cruel, at least in the beginning, because we all know what it promises and what it’ll eventually deliver. Winter is long and cold and becomes an affliction, also known as cabin fever, and in the first warm days of spring we feel that fever breaking, only to fall victim to one last cold snap or heavy snow. Slow though it might be in arriving, spring will eventually come.
Around here, in the southeast corner of Wisconsin, spring announces itself with water. First it’s the snow melt, then the ice from the lakes, and finally the rains in April and May that put the final coat of green paint on the season.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite discoveries each year would be the day in early spring when a thaw came, and walking home from school, whether it was the old grade school off of State Street, or the middle school on the south side of town, or even the high school on highway 45 on the north side, following newly created rivers of melting snow water. I have never outgrown my love of moving water. The great thing about those days was that they were always unexpected but annual surprises, the time every year that the flat, boring town that had been stifled by the cold for so long suddenly warmed up and transformed, the streets that had been gray and dead now alive and flowing. I’d drop something, usually a stick, at the headwaters of these new, great and temporary rivers, and follow its voyage to its unexplored destination.
The water that accumulates and pools in swamps and eddies gives birth to enormous quantities of wild life, from the dreaded hatching of vast armies of mosquitoes to the schools of tadpoles that so enthralled me when I was little. A couple of years ago, on my property in northwestern Wisconsin, I discovered in the stray backwaters deposited by the swelling and contraction of the Chippewa River, hundreds of the little green guys swimming about, and I was just as captivated as I was when I was little, although these days I am more aware of the fact that just a percentage of them will make it to full grown frog-ness, as any number of predators is also captivated by their presence for altogether more practical reasons.
In my property up north, in the woods near the river, in early to mid spring, the forest floor becomes covered with white and blue wild flowers. They last for a couple of weeks, a brief honeymoon period until the rest of the forest floor reignites into green thickness and overtakes them.
Spring is brilliant blue skies and white clouds, but it is also the ominous black rumbling skies of thunderstorms that move in from the west and bring hard rains that pound the hard and unyielding ground into the soft and fertile soil from which sustenance sprouts and grows.
Spring is a great time for wildlife viewing. The supply of fresh water and the rebirth of vegetation provide an all you can eat buffet for a variety of species. In the early spring, after a typical winter of snow and cold, as the snow melts, more deer can be seen than any other time of year. In late winter, with food scarce and their defenses down, deer will herd up; obeying there’s a safety in numbers logic. When the snow first melts, you can see what’s left of these herds in fields and meadows, picking through the holes in the snow for the best of the still brown and faded grasses. Often times you can find large numbers of them out even in the middle of the day, so hungry that they could care less if they are watched.
There is a wide variety of species that awakes from hibernation in the spring. Most notorious of these is, of course, in the northern part of the state, the black bear. Bears are always to be respected, but especially in the spring, when they are hungry and their body weight is down from their long slumber, and when sows have young cubs to raise. Over the past several years, near my cabin, we’ve had countless sightings. Once, about five or six years ago, on a spring day as I was walking down the dirt road in front of my cabin, I saw a bear get up from about twenty yards from me and run off. I didn’t think much of it until, after running about another twenty yards the bear changed direction and started running to the north, parallel to me. At the long driveway of the property next to mine, it abruptly turned, and started running straight towards me. Standing there with nothing between me and an adult bear running straight towards me was an unnerving sight. It got to about fifteen yards away from me when I raised my arms and said “hoo hoo,” the first words that popped in my brain, my survival instincts apparently having been instructed that impersonating an owl is the best defense against a charging bear. Much to my amazement, upon hearing my eloquent plea, the bear hit the brakes, its front paws digging in the dirt, and turned around and kicked it into high gear, running away from me at a speed I never imagined such a large animal could achieve. It’s a good thing, too, because if the “hoo hoo” hadn’t worked, all that would have been left for me to do was to soil myself. Then I heard some noise in the woods to my left, on the other side of the road, and the best guess I could give is that my bear was a mother with cubs on the other side of the road, and I had gotten between them, the most dangerous place to be. When the mother ran at me, she was trying to scare me (and trust me, she succeeded), my “hoo-hoo” calling her bluff. This is all theory, though, as I didn’t stick around to fully investigate the sounds to my left and confirm that they were made by cubs. Instead I made my way back to my cabin as quickly as my overweight, out of shape, rubber boots wearing body was capable of.
The best part of spring comes later, when you least expect it. I remember sharing this observation with my dad a few years ago, and he agreed, he knew exactly what I meant. Every year, there’s a sunny morning , in either late April or May, that the sky is a heartbreaking vivid shade of blue, and I become aware that seemingly overnight the world has transformed into a symphony of lush greens, the trees having leafed out, while the musical chatter of songbirds plays in the background. It’s rebirth and renewal, it’s awakening, it’s life. It always comes as a surprise, and it always takes my breath away.
On this cold first day of spring, with everything frozen and bare, I think of that day and what a wonderful thing it is that the world can still surprise and amaze me. However long spring takes, the wait is always worth it.