Light at the end of 'The Tunnel'
Tunnel of winter is ending; nature has one thing on its mind
When the kids were young I arose every morning at 5 to walk several miles with a neighbor. Walking was easy during warm weather. But as the Northeast weather turned cold, I began to think of winter as The Tunnel, because I walked in darkness from Thanksgiving in late November to St. Valentine’s day wearing a headlamp like a coal miner. Past mid-February the sky lightened in the east starting at 6 a.m. Soon I could put the headlamp away.
I’ve replaced walking with writing in the morning, but all winter long I await the return of light eagerly, literally counting the minutes. We gain two minutes a day of daylight in mid-January, and by the third week of February, three minutes a day. The sun begins to feel warmer. By March, snowfalls melt quickly. In the country, signs of spring are more obvious than in the city, and more numerous than the crocuses that peek from the ground.
Spring here always starts with pails attached to maple trees, and the steady drip, drip, drip of the clear sap into buckets. It takes boiling down 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of maple syrup. A few weeks ago I traded a loaf of six-grain bread for one of the first pints of syrup from my friend Roger’s maple trees. (I got the best end of that deal.) He calls his harvest Grandpa’s Maple Syrup, and it was delicious on cornmeal pancakes with the wild cranberries that I picked in fall and froze.
Other signs abound. The bees are back! At the end of our property we have hives, which a neighbor owns. The wildflower honey the bees produce was the supporting star at our daughter’s wedding five years ago; we stacked dozens of jars in pyramids on every table for the guests to take home. I think of the bees as our friends, which indeed they are. They don’t exactly hibernate in winter, but they stick close to the hives and work together to keep the queen warm, feasting on the honey they collected during days of summer. Two days ago, during a mild afternoon, I saw them hovering expectantly over our compost heap. A sure sign of spring.
Last week I heard the crackling call of scores of redwing blackbirds, returning from their southern winter habitats. The males fly north first, followed by the females who arrive several weeks later. I used to think that the males came ahead of the females so they could build the nests. I pictured them laying down the wall-to-wall carpeting and putting up curtains. No such luck; the females build the nests when they arrive. Instead, the males pick out the neighborhood, defending territory from intruders, be they crows, hawks or the occasional, defenseless farmer such as my husband, trying to plow the fields and minding his own business.
At night I always watch Orion’s march across the sky, one of the most prominent constellations of American winters (although, as it is on the celestial equator, it can be seen around the world). Around late November it rises in the eastern sky, but by now, it is headed toward the west, and will soon sink lower and lower as the summer constellations rise in its place. For now, Orion, the hunter, and his faithful dog, Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, aims ever for Taurus, the bull, his scarlet eye the blazing star Aldebaran. Soon, Orion’s celestial hunt will be over until autumn, when it will rise above the horizon once again.
Thank you for reading! I hope you consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The courtship hooting of the barred owls is taking place, too, another sign that the season is changing. I hear them in the forest that borders our land, first the male, singing the avian equivalent of, “You are so beautiful, hoo, hoo, hoohoo” and when he is done, the female softly calls back. They go back and forth and damned if I know if there’s any resolution; somebody has to make the first move.
But for me, the true sign of spring are the peepers, the little tree frogs that live around water and marshy areas and sing their hearts out, once again, to find a mate, proving that nature has one thing, and one thing only, on its mind. Peepers are the Mormon Tabernacle Choir of the amphibian world. When they sing together it is a sure sign that winter is coming to a close. At 90 decibels their chorus makes them among the noisiest critters in the Northeast, as loud as a lawn mower, but so much sweeter.
Every year, I write down the date I first hear the peepers. Last year was March 8. I had high hopes for this year, but after a mild February, winter came roaring back. Snow. Sleet. Wind.
But tonight, after an unusually mild day, I heard it.
One, very loud, lone and lonely peeper, singing solo, his a cappella love song floating toward us from the pond across the street.
I hope he has a fur coat, as I fear he will be frozen this week. The weather is about to take a stormy turn.
But for now, I’ll take the sound as a good omen, a song of Spring.
What made you think the male redwing blackbirds made the nests? Do ANY males (birds or humans) make nests?!
This was SO BEAUTIFUL, somewhat like a reading from Thoreau at his pond. You have naturalist intelligence as defined by Howard Gardener in his work on multiple intelligences. You are "nature-smart".