Scrounging for Spring 

IMG_1852It happens every March. Family and friends from Parts South call to rave about their daffodils and tulips while we’re in the middle of a snowstorm. My neighbor Bill, however, puts things in perspective. “Anyone can love a tulip,” he scoffs. “But it takes a real connoisseur to appreciate three months of pussy willows.”

March marks Month Two of Pussy Willows in down east Maine, and the point at which I’ve had it with snow and mud and leafless trees. Griping never helps, though, so with Bill’s joke as a challenge, I pull on my mud boots and clomp out the door. Maybe scrounging around for pussy willows and any other signs of spring will help shake off the crabbiness that grabs me in March.

Micmacs call the March full moon the Maple Sugar Moon and other northern tribes know it as the Sap Moon. Sure enough, the first harbinger I encounter is Larry emptying sap buckets into a tank the size of a small hot tub in the back of his truck. I sign up for our annual gallon of his rich, dark syrup, the thought of which instantly brightens my mood.

At the edge of an alder swamp, I spy skunk cabbage, our earliest wildflower, and, okay, perhaps our most remarkable one as well. Skunk cabbage does something exceedingly rare for a plant: it makes its own heat. Inside maroon spathes that resemble huge talons jabbing out of the half-frozen muck, hideous, red, petal-less knobs of skunk cabbage blossoms can reach temperatures of seventy degrees on freezing days. The flower’s namesake stink, by the way, attracts flies and carrion beetles, which pollinate it.

Rain and melting snow have refilled the vernal pools not far from the swamp, setting the stage for amphibian love. After spending the winter nearly frozen solid under the leaf litter, wood frogs thaw in the warming temperatures of late March. Their tiny hearts, which haven’t beaten for three or four months, will miraculously resume pumping. Right after their resurrection, the males hop straight to vernal pools to call for mates, filling the air with clattery love songs that sound like syncopated choruses of quacking ducks.

I peer into the shallow pool, imagining it filled with wood frogs, followed by their eggs. After these small masked frogs have finished breeding, they spend the rest of the year on land, where they’re difficult to spot because their rust-brown skin blends perfectly with dead leaves on the forest floor.

In the woods beyond the pool, heaps of old snow litter the trail like dirty rags. A closer look reveals that the snow isn’t dirty, but flecked with tiny, winged spruce seeds, bits of bark and lichen, and what appears to be soot. When I kick the snow, the soot comes to life as snow fleas leap and scatter in every direction. Dark blue-gray, they aren’t fleas at all, but a kind of insect called springtails, which eat leaf litter. One of the few insects to survive winter in adult form, snow fleas congregate by the hundreds in footprints and animal tracks in the snow on sunny days in late winter and early spring.

Most of the tracks in the snow are too blown out to tell what they are, except for deer and snowshoe hare, whose coats are turning from brown to white like mud showing through melting snow. I see smaller tracks, which could well be skunks, since March is the apex of the skunk mating season. I don’t mind the holes they make in the lawn—skunks eat grubs, including, hopefully, those of the Japanese beetles that have begun invading our gardens.

A song rises overhead, two dreamy notes over and over: “fee bee, fee bee, fee bee.” I straighten and spot a male chickadee calling from a birch tree. He and his mate will soon build a nest of moss lined with a thick, cozy cushion of cattail down in a tree cavity or nesting box.

We have testosterone to thank for birdsong, and the lengthening daylight of March to thank for the rising tide of testosterone inside birds’ brains. Weeks before our jazzier and more virtuosic migrants return, many of our local birds are looking for love, including the male ruffed grouse, who drums his ardor by beating the air with his wings from a hidden perch on a log. And while grouse and chickadees are still courting in March, great horned owls have already laid their eggs.

It may not look like much is happening outside in March, but the sun has slipped its key into the ignition. There’s no going back. Tiny engines rev all around us in resurrected frogs and ice busting flowers, in bird brains and sap wood, in owl eggs and spruce seeds. With all this extravagance, who needs tulips?

(Down East Magazine, March 2014)

Posted in Essays.