First day of spring

Last week’s cool temperatures and snow slowed things down just a bit. Today is the first day of spring, and the woodland sedges in my yard are about two inches tall. The Carex trichocarpa in the rain garden is growing more slowly, and the crocuses are all in bloom. The cornelian cherry dogwoods are in full bloom. Iris leaves are 5” out of the ground. An old friend came into town last night and walked through the wetland by the school. Everything is mushy and caught between brown and green, but growing.

On my ride to the Arboretum this morning, I noticed that the robins didn’t start in earnest until I had biked about 2¼ miles west of my house to Belmont, where suddenly there was a noisy flock of them. I have noticed this other days, and I had assumed it had to do with the timing of my ride. But we set the clocks back for daylight savings time a week ago, so timing can’t explain it. It must be that the robins are simply more abundant at that corner. There’s a big field across the road at the Recreation Center; it may be that the robins like to feed there, and I’m catching the spill-over at the house on the corner of Belmont and Grant.

Just inside the gate, I saw a mouse run across the drive. He galloped like a deer mouse, I thought, though I am uncertain because I did see any tail to speak of. It may be that meadow voles are more scampery than I realized: to be honest, I mostly see tracks, not the mice themselves. In this woods I generally see deer mouse tracks instead of voles, but I leave the question open for now. I followed him with my bike light: straight across the drive he raced up into the brambles and moved along them as easily as if he were running along edge of the yard. What kind of intelligence does it take to think in three dimensions like that? Mostly we think of our movement in two dimensions. Even scaling a rock face is a two dimensional problem, with the surface curving beneath us. He moved along the canes from juncture to juncture and was soon lost to view in the shrubs.

I parked at Parking lot 8 and walked counterclockwise around the trail, which I hadn’t done yet this year. It’s remarkable how different a trail looks the other way around. At the low spot in the trail going east, the peepers were audible above the din of the interstate, but they trailed off as I worked my way upslope and the hill insinuated itself between the frogs and me. The large white oaks gave way to a denser tangle of oaks, and then the woods opened up again as I neared the top of the slope. Earlier this year, I had the impression that the oaks were bigger here at the top of the hill, but I think now that that’s not the case: there may be more clearing around them than there is downslope, but their average size looks to be about the same.

I turned north and saw a peculiarly branchy tree in the distance, branches jutting straight off the bole like branches off a white pine, crown reminiscent of a white oak. I walked to it and found the ground littered with black walnut shells. The bark had the furrows that I associate with this species. The trunk was straight and constant in diameter from bottom to top, with the dead, broomstick-thickness branches sticking straight out in near whorls all the way up. This strikes me as an odd arrangement of branches for a black walnut. I am struck this year at how little I know about the growth forms of trees.

I entered the stand of sugar maples to the north and stood still for a moment. Fat water drops from last night’s thunderstorm were falling to the ground at long intervals from a great tree overhead. I watched them fall one by one from a height of perhaps 20 feet, quivering and shimmering as they fell, as bright as Christmas lights in the flashlight beam. They appeared tawny in my light, and wondered whether in fact they might be maple sap. They fell far enough that I could maneuver myself to catch a few. I tasted them: pure water. Perhaps they were tannic from the tree bark or mosses growing on the trees.

From Big Rock Visitor Station, I could hear another pocket of peepers and chorus frogs singing in the pond just north of the road, one of the ponds that formed when the drainage tiles were systematically crushed a decade or so ago. A woodcock started peenting in the burned prairie along the path. I watched for him, shone my light where I thought he was, and he stopped calling. I didn’t see anything. I turned the light off, and immediately he called again, twice. I shone it again: he stopped. I watched and listened for awhile, but I didn’t see him. My friend Sylvia Marek used to stalk these guys to their dancing spots while they were flying so she watch them when they landed. I’ve tried a number of times but never succeeded. I see them on the wing, I’ve watched them racing between two-flats in Lincoln Square, I’ve seen them in movies, I’ve brought stuffed woodcocks to school for the kids to see, and I’ve been listening to them dance since 1993, but I have yet to see one dance up close. It still delights me to hear them and see them flying overhead, and this past four weeks of morning walks with them buzzing around and whistling overhead have been very nice.

Near the visitor center, the chickadees were calling. Juncos flew over the trail in front of me. It is a good first day of spring.

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