This time of year, the intersection of winter and spring, is a most opportune time to reflect on what was and what might be. The landscape on this day holds a blend of snow and stark bare ground. Northern slopes still hold full snow cover while south facing slopes and flat land are a patchwork of white and brown. The landscape reveals a dovetail pattern of last winter and the upcoming spring. Melting snow has formed rivulets on bare ground. Finger like patterns created an undulating edge that has both coves and peninsulas. Faint hues of green can be seen blended in with the dry, dead grass. It is as if I am looking forward and backward simultaneously. As winter slowly retreats the first signs of spring peek out from underneath layers of weathered duff.
This past winter was exceedingly mild and somewhat dry. There is no deep snow pack to melt and refill our streams, ponds, and groundwater supplies. If the water in these natural vessels are to reach normal spring capacity than we will have to rely on wet weather ahead. In order to achieve what was not given to our region this past winter season we will need to look forward to many gray, rainy days. And this might sound depressing to some but the idea of going into summer with insufficient groundwater is a much more daunting thought. Our forests need ample amounts of water in our soil to remain healthy and vibrant. Wildlife is inextricably linked to adequate water supplies, both on the surface and in the earth. And in rural areas where each of us have own private well, clean and ample ground water is paramount to our daily lives. No, an adequate number of rainy days this spring isn’t a bad thing at all. What we need are slow, steady, and enduring rains; the kind that soak in to our soil, replenish our surface water, and does not create havoc with flooding and erosion.
The mild winter was very favorable to larger mammals and most overwintering birds. Vegetative forage was easier to access. Large mammals did not have to expend huge amounts of energy wading through deep snows and breaking through icy surface crusts. Birds were able to forage at ground level for much of the winter. At our homestead we noticed that our bird feeders were not well utilized except when winter storms were approaching or had just passed. Evidently the birds that normally dine at our feeders found natural food throughout our forests and fields. Some small mammals had a very tough winter! Native mice and voles that normally tunnel around underneath the snow in search of seeds and other vegetative forage, were left exposed to the elements and predators by our mild winter. This coupled with last years nonexistent acorn crop will likely lead to a sharp decline in small rodent populations. This will have a domino effect on larger predators who rely on rodent population for food. Fox, coyotes, fisher, bobcat, owls, and hawks will all suffer in the long run if rodent populations experience a steep drop. Changes in predator populations as the result of poor forage on rodent populations would likely lag by about a year.
These connections between climate, wild animal and plant populations, and humans should remind us of the importance of each and every part of our natural ecosystem. Every element, both living and nonliving are linked and interdependent. Alterations outside of the natural and expected scheme of our planet will likely have consequences. Consequences that could prove to be more than inconvenient and, in fact, difficult to live with.
I will miss the solemn winter walks in the forest. There are tracks in the snow to be found. Trails to be followed. Trees and shrubs to be identified. But it is just the quiet woods that I enjoy the most. Perhaps it is during these winter walks when I am most reflective, most astute. A harsh winter day, with a frigid wind blowing into my face and the biting cold nipping at my fingertips, can be bleak reminder of how fragile life is. It makes me appreciate not only the moment but what has been. On those days when I am alone in the woods my memories are clear; my childhood, my family, my adventures, and all those days in the wild come alive. It is somehow ironic that a white, quiet landscape can lead to such life in my thought. It is the reason that I generally exit the winter woods with a smile on my face.
I will look forward to spring. The first yellow colts foot pushing up through last years leaves on the ground and revealing its beautiful flower; a vibrant contrast to all the nonliving around it. I will look forward to spring brook trout flirting with the sunlight along the edge of a dark, sparkling pool in a freshwater brook. I will look forward to soft rainy mornings and bright sunny afternoons. I will look forward to wearing just a T-shirt and feeling the warm sun on my skin. I will look forward to the feeling of hope, a feeling endemic to the spring season. I will look forward to deer fawns, baby rabbits, and spring peepers. And I will look forward to the first days in the vernal forest; the first delicate plants decorating the forest floor, leaf buds on branches about to burst open, and the singing of birds, in my mind the best music in the world.
This time of year has a rhythm, almost a heart beat. I want to feel each thump. I want to hear the gentle cadence. I want to see the throb of life and I want to smell each pulse. With every cell of my body and through the pores in my skin, I want to absorb all that this time of year has to offer. I want to experience the end of winter and the beginning of spring.
This time of year, the alliance of the beginning and end. The union of death and life. The coupling of all that ever was and ever will be. It is a time that should be held gently in my arms while I take in the sweet breath of what is. It is a time to look beyond the obvious and search for the not so apparent. It is a time to behold.
Originally written for the Heath Herald in March of 2012.