In the Village or Woods – Finally Spring?

April 12, 2008

In the Village…

With warm temperatures and weekday sunshine, spring is making a comeback in rural central New Hampshire. “Mud season” returns to dirt roads. The bomb-cratered, muddy duel-track road to our farm would put the back roads of Bhutan to shame.

When passing, we wave to neighbors as is the custom. Back in January, when our icy hands white-knuckled steering wheels, a grimace with barely-a-nod sufficed for a warm greeting. In March, epic frost heaves spattered coffee all over my dashboard and windshield. Neighborly etiquette suspended in winter, is now back in vogue. A friendly wave now ranges from one-raised-index-finger to the spirited “wipe the dashboard” and enthusiastic “twist the jar lid” acknowledgement. It pays to stay friendly - for a few more weeks, we might need to pull each other out of a roadside ditch. The tire-sucking muddy ruts of spring are a welcome sight. If mud is here, can black flies be far behind?

The long, dark winter took a heavy toll on human dispositions. If folks are a bit more frayed than usual this April, who can blame them? We’ve earned our stripes. Comrades in long underwear and woolens now emerge from houses, blinking in the bright sun like moles; except on a weekend when it rains. We survived a brutal winter together and now neighbors are now more inclined to stop to chat. We exhibit almost-manic spring tendencies: smiling, extroverted, talkative, grateful for the novelty of Red Sox baseball or yard work.

Nobody looks too good when they first awaken. So too with our front lawns and dooryards – sodden and muddy brown. From beneath the retreating snow banks emerge ghosts of seasons past: gap-toothed orange cardboard Jack-O-Lantern, freeze-dried holiday wreath that blew half way across the county in a blizzard and every single tennis ball my border collie lost this winter. I see roadside campaign signs that proclaim names of candidates I can barely remember. The grade stake posts will be handy for staking tomatoes this summer. A radio station ran a segment on items found as the snow melts: cell phones, bank books, even a car! A colleague had her leaf rake stuck in the snow all winter. She finally extracted it last week as triumphantly as King Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone.

We inhabit a grim Andrew Wyeth landscape. Houses look a bit seedy in wet clapboards, peeling paint and sagging porch roofs. Roof shingles emerging from under the snow is not a good sign. Rural real estate is at its worst in early April. The entire winter’s accumulation of dooryard refuse: plastic sleds, broken snow shovel, boat trailer, skis, a pitchfork, ice house, snowplow and miscellaneous rusty car exhaust components would make any well-dressed shiny shoe Realtor cringe.

With warm weather, we’ll get to the dump, rake the lawn and tidy flower beds. We’ll re-nail the loose shingles, shakes and clapboards torn loose by wind, ice and snow. Eventually, we might even scrape and paint if we don’t go fishing instead. By Fourth of July, with the flag flying on the porch, it’ll look more like a Norman Rockwell landscape. Yard work in the fresh air will be welcome spring exercise, releasing endorphins while vitamin D from strengthening sunshine will lighten the mood.


In the Woods…

"Come with rain, O loud Southwester! Bring the singer, bring the nester;

Give the buried flower a dream; Make the settled snowbank steam..."

"To The Thawing Wind" - Robert Frost.

April proceeds with new bird arrivals. Large migratory flocks of birds have begun to “fallout” of warm, southwest winds. Recent arrival include: ducks, geese, robins, starlings, grackles, cowbirds, woodcocks, killdeer, song sparrows, phoebes, turkey vultures and soon broad-winged hawks. Turkeys are beginning to breed. I hear male "gobblers" at dawn on Meetinghouse Hill. In May, early nesters like chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, owls and red-wing blackbirds will be brooding chicks before all the various warblers have even arrived. Yellow-rumps, pine warblers, and black and white warblers are the advanced guard of dozens of species of colorful tropical migrant birds - warblers, vireos, orioles, tanagers, thrushes, and flycatchers - that will arrive in the next several weeks to glean insects from pink pastel buds of emerging hardwood flowers.

Woods and wetlands reawaken. Flooded maple swamps host mallards, wood ducks, and hooded mergansers. Deer break-out of the long confinement of deer yards and march in conga-line fashion in search of any green growth of spring. Bears emerge from dens to make a beeline for birdfeeders (please take them down) or the wetlands and farm fields that offer the first green salad appetizer of grass, sedge, “Indian poke” or false hellebore and skunk cabbage. Wetlands are a magnet for wildlife in spring. Watch for wildlife crossing roads at night.

Spring peepers are beginning to sing in the Seacoast region. In the next week, choruses of ardent male wood frogs which sound like quacking ducks will resume statewide in "vernal pools" - temporary, fishless pools of water that form from spring snowmelt. Male wood frogs arrive first in woodland pools and begin calling even as ice lingers on cold mornings. When female frogs arrive, a frenzy of explosive breeding and egg-laying ensues. Young wood frogs must grow and leave natal pools before they dry-up in June. Ephemeral pools are critical breeding habitat for wood frogs and for three species of mole salamanders: Yellow-spotted salamanders, Jefferson/Blue-Spotted salamanders and rare Marbled salamanders - amphibians are most conspicuous in April.

"Nature's first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf's a flower; but only so an hour..."

"Nothing Gold Can Stay" - Robert Frost

April itself is ephemeral - lasting for a brief time; short-lived and transitory. Before leaf-out, hardwood forests can become suddenly hot and very dry. Statistically, most forest fires statewide occur in April. Bright green fern fiddleheads and pastel wildflowers emerge from beneath last autumn's dry leaves. Many wildflowers including spring beauties and trilliums grow and die-back in full sun beneath yet-leafless hardwood branches. The "spring ephemeral" wildflowers serve as a nutrient dam, briefly locking-up important nutrients that would otherwise be washed-away with snowmelt and rain. As early flowers die-back, they release nutrients to trees that will shade the forest floor for the rest of the spring and summer.

Now where did I leave that plastic leaf rake last fall?