Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Winter's Edges

images from Green Lake, WI

March can be the ugliest month of the year, in the Upper Midwest. It is the transition time between high winter and actual spring. You might get a few more winter storms, but they cold be snow-ice mixes rather than snow, making the roads treacherous and slippery. The sky can be overcast for weeks on end, making spring seem like it will never come, making cabin fever all the worse.

It's still too cold and wet to go outside for the entire day, but it's warm enough that your body yearns to leave the shelter of walls and be in the sunlight; if there were any sun, today. You get impatient with the world, waiting for actual spring, restless and irritable. You can wait weeks for any sign that life will return to the land.

The trees might start to bud during March, but they rarely leaf out till April. The lawns are green in patches, from where the grass was flash-frozen in fall, but mostly they're a dingy tan. The brush under the trees by the river is sticks and twigs a uniform brown-grey, the ground spongy and muddy, carpeted with the rotted leaves that fell last autumn.

if the snow has melted already, the roads are ugly with sand and dead leaves and other natural trash that was frozen into the snow and ice banks all winter, now left behind as the ice goes. It will stay there until the first hard, heavy rain washes everything into the gutters, eventually to flow into the river.

But March also has its particular beauty, and its charms. The lakes are still ice-covered, and after a winter colder than usual, you can still walk on the ice, and ice-fish if you're brave. The ice surface can be slicked and slippery with a thin sheen of melte, or crackled and spongy where the ice has degraded but not fully collapsed. The ice in March can tempt you to walk all the way across the lake, but it's much riskier than it was a month ago. Some few folks die on the lakes every year, as the ice goes bad faster than they realize.

The crocus flowers start to appear in early March, if it hasn't been too cold, and by the end of the month, daffodils and tulips will be up and soon to bloom. The rose bushes will leaf out again by month's end. You might have to mow the lawn once or twice, if not yet on a weekly schedule. In spring, the last leaves fall from the oak trees where they've stayed on their branches, dead brown tinged with red, all winter long. There is always one or two last leaf-piles to make, connecting early spring to late fall, bracketing the winter with identical chores. The pine and spruce trees become home again to hundreds of returning birds, gone for the winter, now back in time to nest, breed and hatch. In the pine trees outside my window, a pair of cardinals appear more often, having spent much of the winter nearer the river, nearer other homes with bird feeders.

The first sign of true spring, even if the roads and still cluttered and the brush dead brown and prickly, is not the return of the robins, but the first return of the redwing blackbirds. These marsh and river-loving songbirds, with bright shoulder patches on the males, move back into the cattails and reeds by the river, nesting deep inside the wetland places where their nests are hard to see, hard to approach. The males perch on the end of reeds and branches, singing mightily to mark their territories. It's often loudest in the late afternoon, approaching dusk. Meanwhile, the robins start returning a little later, and other birds pass through on their way further north: orioles, scarlet tanagers, the first wave of hummingbirds. By late spring or early summer, the great blue heron returns to the bend of the river. Redtail hawks watch from the sky and the tall trees for voles and mice in the greening lawns, and the golden grass zones near the river. You might see the deer gather in larger numbers by the river than they have all winter. Soon you might catch a glimpse of twin fawns, all dappled backs and awkward legs, gamboling under mother's alert eyes and ears. That's when you know spring's finally arrived.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I love the one with the lamppost - it's just so out of place. We like 'out of place'.

4:53 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Little anachronisms and unintentionally surreal juxtapositions like that always get my attention. Somewhat the visual equivalent of parataxis in poetry, perhaps.

10:54 PM  

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