Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sounds of spring

The transition from winter to spring around here is a sputtering business -- a few steps forward, a few steps back, with a few steps sideways thrown in for good measure. You know spring has truly arrived, however, when suddenly the world gets loud.

Especially at dawn and dusk, opening the door presents a wall of sound. Peepers trilling at the ponds, accompanied by quacking frogs. (Yes, it's a quacking sound -- I keep thinking they're a flock of distant ducks.) The mallard ducks arrive with a splash and announce themselves with a real quacking, almost a honking, which in fact is made by Canada geese flying overhead. Wood ducks make a little stifled scream.

Meanwhile, robins are singing, sparrows are chittering, chickadees are dee-deeing and peeping, nuthatches are beeping, woodpeckers are drumming. The woodcock first peents in the underbrush then hurls himself into the air for a whistling spiral in hopes of attracting a mate.

Phoebes call their own name in a raspy voice while tree swallows squabble. Mourning doves emit their haunting cry, seeming almost owl-like until you hear the barred and great horned owls hoot in measured patterns. Crows caw, ravens squawk, hawks kree, blue jays blare. And always, underneath it all, the water roars.

It's a muffled roar of the hills emptying themselves of almost daily rain and the last of winter's snow, galloping down through well-established channels and into full ponds and rivers. Eventually these channels dry out, refilling briefly after summer downpours. We're a long way from that still, though the promise of the next season lies in the first thunderstorms flaring and booming during the night.

It's a happy cacaphony I look forward to all year long.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Taking down the wreath

When it happens, it happens fast -- one day to the next, the season changes. The harbingers that have been trickling in one at a time suddenly achieve critical mass, so that I draw up short and realize: The Season Has Turned. Today, it is spring. HOORAY!

I used to define spring as when the grass turns green and flowers bloom. After more than a decade in Vermont, however, I consider spring a fleeting transition between winter and summer. "Winter's back is broken," my elders used to say, which runs through my mind when the sun becomes strong enough to vaporize the snow and rot the ice, even if the air temperature stays below freezing. But more often and for longer intervals, the temp stays above 32. Dry stream beds on the hillsides start to gurgle, then flood, and the rivers below begin to gallop. The first migratory birds arrive: robins, red-winged blackbirds, the woodcock, the fox sparrow. And the first bulbs protrude through the first patches soil.

Up north (in the real north -- Alaska, Yukon, etc., not here in the middle north) they call it "breakup" -- a term used to describe the ice letting go, and people going a little crazy. Here it's similar though less dramatic, and it constitutes a few weeks of messy change. Once it gets underway, I know the time has come to take down my Christmas wreath.

The wreath goes up in November, when the leaves have fallen and the snow begins -- and Holiday Season consumes consumers. Some of us display our wreaths for the entire winter, seeing them more as an icon for the cold season than the holidays. I was unaware that this might be a regional custom until a relative visiting from the southwest asked why my wreath was still up in February. She had noticed on her way here that many homes in the area still sported holiday decorations. I had failed to observe this, feeling that it was a perfectly normal practice and as much a part of the scenery as snow and trees.

I keep my holiday wreath up for the winter because, well, why not? It's the only splashy color in a world of black, white, and neutrals; and winter includes most of the major holidays, of which Christmas is the biggy. Ergo, a Christmas wreath seems the perfect symbol for the whole season. Only when I know for sure that the season has changed do I take it down.

Then it becomes a spring-summer-fall wreath, for I hang it around the fence post near the garden until next year's wreath comes down to replace it. The balsam circle browns as the rest of the world greens, reminding us of the never-ending cycle.