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Speaking of Nature

Spring can be a fickle flirt

Fed up with her teasing, Bill is hopeful she’ll soon relent

Last week was a week of vacation for me; the famed (and much anticipated) spring break. In my mind, I had great plans and every day I awoke with the greatest of hopes for the day’s events. But day after day I was forced to deal with one inescapable truth — spring can be a fickle flirt.

Winter is usually a firm and inflexible mistress. She is beautiful and capable of moments of generosity, but on the whole she is quite standoffish. Find yourself a warm fire and a soft chair next to a big window and enjoy her beauty. Or, if you like adventure, you can brave the elements and spend some time in her immediate company. Eventually, however, you will have to retreat to the warmth that she never promises and only momentarily may offer. Winter is easy to deal with.

Spring, on the other hand, is a temptress. She offers the promise of warmth and may cloak herself in the most seductive of robes, but if she succeeds in coaxing you outside, she will often laugh and make you feel the fool. The warmth will be there, of that there can be no doubt, but she will make you pay for it first.

Such was the case last week. The world looked delightful through the window. The austere white of winter had been replaced by the brown of spring’s traveling cloak. But then spring set about changing her appearance and added a little green to her gown almost every day. She even bathed the landscape in the warmth of a different kind of sun for a while, but as soon as she set the hook, she played her trick.

It was that blasted wind and I wasn’t the only one that commented on in. When I returned to school this week, my naturalist colleague Mike had all of the same complaints that I did. “I was going to try some birding, but it was so windy.” “I kept wanting to go outside, but it was so windy.” All I could do was nod my head and sympathize.

My chief goal for spring break was to make my annual pilgrimage to Slabsides, the ultimate man cave for the ultimate naturalist. John Burroughs brought this fantasy to life with his own hands in 1881 because he felt he needed a refuge from the world. He needed a place where he could focus on reading and writing and entertaining notable guests such as William Brewster, the famed Massachusetts ornithologist, and John Muir, who needs no introduction at all.

In 2013, we can visit the site of this beautiful cabin and we can stare into the windows (past the iron fencing) to gaze upon the writing desk and fireplace where Burroughs worked and relaxed. You can visit any day you wish, but beautiful days in the spring and fall are my favorites. So it was only natural to want to visit when I had time last week.

But spring decided to play a joke on me every day. Looking out at it, the world had the appearance of being cooperative and pleasant, but as soon as you stepped outside you realized the joke was on you. The wind was cold, biting and, at times, it was overpowering. And if I tried to stay inside and ignore spring, she would stir up the wind and cause the deck chairs to slide across the porch, or even blow over with a crash.

She wanted my attention, but once she got it she laughed with throaty glee and gently slapped my face while taking a few steps away. If I turned my back on her she would immediately approach again and set about singing her siren song in an attempt to lure me out for another humiliation. And it worked again and again.

The first of her tricks was the enchanting song of the spring peeper. This tiny frog has one of the loudest voices of any wild animals in our area and when a group of males assembles they can belt out a chorus that can be heard for a mile. It is a tantalizing, enchanting sound that stirs up a desire to be outside, but it is often used as a form of torture.

Spring peepers spend the winter months hibernating in the forests around us. Normally one thinks of frogs burying themselves in the mud at the bottom of a pond and waiting there, down in the dark, for spring to come and release them. Spring peepers are a little different.

Instead of sheltering themselves in the depths of our local lakes and ponds, peepers find shelter in the leaf litter that autumn sprinkles across the forest floor. There, each peeper will select a little nook, a little hibernaculum, and tuck in for a long winter’s sleep. Their tiny bodies produce large amounts of glucose (sugar) that act as antifreeze. This usually keeps their blood from freezing, but other parts of their body tissue will freeze solid.

Somehow they manage to survive the bitter cold of winter by just huddling under the leaves and waiting. I often wonder what dreams may dance across their minds when they are in these prolonged periods of meditation. Do they dream of spring the same way we do? If so, I imagine that they are the victims of her tricks just like us. How cruel to be coaxed back into consciousness only to be forced to endure spells of cold once again!

As if the songs of peepers weren’t enough, spring will up the ante by sprinkling tantalizing bits of color across the forest floor. We’ve all heard the little rhyme about April showers bringing May flowers, but some of those flowers bloom in April. If you wait for May you might actually be too late to see some of them.

Last year, on April 20, I made the trip to Slabsides and found flowers aplenty. Violets and wild columbine were a delight to behold and Solomon’s seal and Jack-in-the-pulpit were lucky finds. But there was one flower I wanted to see, but could not find.

Trout lily is actually a flower that Burroughs named. Also known as “adder’s tongue” or “dogtooth violet,” he grumbled about the plant’s name in writing. “It is a pity that this graceful and abundant flower has no good and appropriate common name.” He suggested the name “fawn lil,” because the leaves are spotted like a fawn’s fur. He also suggested “trout lily” because the leaves resemble the sides of a trout and because the flower blooms next to trout streams when the trout return in spring. The later name stuck.

To show exactly how cruel spring can be, I received a phone call from my sister on Sunday. She had a question about a beautiful flower she had seen, but was unable to identify. She described the blossom as yellow (which left many possibilities in play), but when she said that the leaves were slender ovals with patches of the most beautiful, creamy brown I knew exactly what she had found. The very flower I sought was blooming … in Pennsylvania!

Eventually spring will stop her teasing and will deliver everything out hearts desire, but only after we have suffered just enough. Soon her perfume of wet earth will fill out nostrils and she will soothe our hurts with her mellifluous laughter, which comes in the form of bird song. She will demand that we forgive her and we will, gladly. For now, however, we may have to endure just a little more torture before we are treated with a true reward.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit
www.speakingofnature.com

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