Sunday, March 9, 2014

Winter's back is broken

I grew up hearing this phrase, which always struck me as a tad grotesque but still caught the spirit. By the time March comes around, everyone in the four-season belt is heartily sick of winter and can’t wait until it’s over. This year in particular.

A day always comes, though, when you know the season has turned. It may yet snow and sleet, and linger for days below freezing; but enough daylight is back so that winter’s effects cannot endure.

That day occurred two days ago, when it dawned at seven below zero and by noon had risen fifty (!) degrees to a sunny, sloppy mess. Back down to single digits overnight, bouncing right back up by another forty-plus degrees the next day, to a grayer mess.

We’ve seen this cycle several times over the season, but this time it’s different. In December, January, and February, you know it’s an anomaly, and foul weather will return. It did—with vigor.

But now the “warm” episodes last longer and effect the earth and living things more deeply. Frost has begun to seep out of exposed places, auguring mud season. Certain bird species have already started their mating rituals and territorial songs. Early migrants are passing through. Trees no longer crack like rifle shots in the cold. In fact, the up-down temperature has caused the sugar maples to start running sap.

Critters have emerged: two raccoons, scrounging below the bird feeders; a pair of foxes on their great-circle hunting route where we normally see one. Small rodents leaving prints across a fresh dusting between holes in the snow.

The turkeys are gobbling in the woods, and two males discovered the fallen-seed patch below the bird feeder. That stop has become part of their daily rounds, to the kittens’ astonishment. The cats have been the best indicator of something changing: Previously unwilling to put a paw outside for more than a few seconds, if at all, they are pounding the windows and yowling at the doors to get out, then staying out for hours.

People, too, have begun emerging, especially the sugarers. We’re seeing pickup trucks hauling or trailering sap-collecting tanks, men stomping around in the woods checking lines, roadside collecting stations opened up for servicing. Homeowners appear in their yards with coats unzipped, heads and hands in view, instead of bundled up into invisibility.

Nobody’s kidding themselves: Snow is forecast three times for the next week, with one storm possibly significant. I haven’t forgotten that our biggest dump—five feet in ten days—occurred the last week of March. But then it vaporized in the growing light, allowing spring to arrive more or less on time.

What matters is that the nadir of the season has passed, and it’s a sure bet that within a few weeks we’ll be seeing buds and bulbs breaking through, and the redwing blackbirds will have arrived to scout out this year’s mates and nest sites.