Nature Walk

How Quickly the Seasons Change: Signs of Early Spring in New England

All of a sudden it is the cusp between winter and spring.

In A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard, John Hanson Mitchell writes that each season has such a multifaceted character, to limit their number to four denies the nuance of each.

"For a number of years now I have held the opinion that there are eight seasons rather than four. Anyone who has followed natural history ... over any period of time will know exactly what I am talking about. There is a distinct difference between the spare, blustery landscape of late March and the lush verdure of early June, even though they both are a part of the same season. ... The natural year is in fact divided into a series of mini-seasons, each with its own weather patterns, its own hatchings or flowerings or deaths.

"Of all of these eight seasons, perhaps none is more welcome than the brief season that falls between early March and mid-April. It is then that the first scents of moist earth occur, and it is then, even in the far north, that a definite change in the nature of sunlight can be sensed. This first release from the prison of winter has a way of drawing people out of doors into yards and onto porches ...

"As far as natural history is concerned, early spring is the most eventful season of the year. Everything that takes place has a sense of beginning, of veritable resurrection from this seemingly eternal death of winter. It is for this reason undoubtedly, that more nature journals are begun at this time of year than any other ... Every event, in early spring, every shoot and bud and frog call is filled with hope of better things to come."

This winter four successive northeasters—great, barreling storms that sweep in from the sea, and slam the icy New England coast with erosion, power outages by the hundreds of thousands, snow, and a halt to daily life—four of these in quick succession filled this March in Massachusetts and maddened everyone's attempt at routine.

After this onslaught, we were hungry to be outside and snatched up the opportunity to visit the Live Owl event at the Audubon Museum of American Bird Art. Up close and personal with a Great Horned Owl and beautiful little Screech Owl gave the opportunity to sketch, listen, and observe, as their handler explained the brilliance and distinctness of owls.

It was a lovely but busy event, with hundreds of visitors coming to the hourly owl shows, filling the tiny museum to capacity, and raising much of the funds needed for their well known art summer camps.

From the heat of the indoors and the crowds we slipped away, through the gateway in the granite New England stone wall, to the trail through the property's woodland.  All around was debris, evidence of the recent storms: twigs, branches, whole trees felled. But just here the woods were still. The snow cover was still at about three quarters, the remaining snow soft and wet and leaving rapidly. Yet it still revealed fresh coyote tracks heading straight across the trail.

Lichen shone brilliant and hopeful through melt patches and on logs. Seedling evergreens pushed aside their mantle of white. A bevy of robins attacked the deep, rich leaf mold right on the path. We waited and watched. Two pileated woodpeckers flashed their colors, darting between the tall straight evergreens, and resumed their percussive search for finds.

Bird calls echoed from one side of the wood to the other, but in the background was a white noise, like the incessant thrum of the Interstate highway at peak speed travel. As we followed the trail, the sound grew to a loud, gleeful running of snow-gloating, melt-winning water.  We had found the Pequit Brook. We wondered what actually gives water its sound. We squelched in mud and delighted to spot skunk cabbage, growing at the boggy water's edge, one of the first signs of emerging spring.

It was a short walk but it took us from winter into spring and refreshed the spirit.

(Click to enlarge as a slideshow.)

A Library-Builder Title

A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard by John Hanson Mitchell is a favorite book on my nature journaling shelf.

More lovely prose than reference field guide, the book lyrically characterizes each of the "eight" seasons: early and late spring, summer, fall, and winter. It invites you to notice and enjoy with nuance and understanding the nature that surrounds you.

You don't have to go far.