The temperature was about 20 degrees Fahrenheit at sunrise on Sunday a week ago, but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the cardinals and robins and mourning doves were singing when I stepped outside. At Maple Grove Forest Preserve, the woodpeckers and flickers and nuthatches were going strong. The ground was frozen. Ice crystals in the soil were as much as a centimeter long. The wild leeks and Virginia bluebells were rigid, frozen in mid-expansion, but perfect in appearance: they looked and felt like wax plants. I wondered if they would suffer from having frozen so hard. The false mermaid had advanced slowly over the previous week even with the cold and had just begun spreading across the leaf litter. It was frozen less completely than the leeks and bluebells, probably because such a small plant is proportionally more protected from the cold by the blanket of oak leaves.
The next day I awoke to snow on the ground and the sound of our neighbor’s yard sprinkler running on automatic. But on Wednesday temperatures rose into the 60s, and by Thursday it appeared that everything had grown by a few inches after weeks of holding tight. In the East Woods, Camassia scilloides shoots were five inches high. Trout lily (Erythronium albidum), jumpseed (Polygonum virginianum), basal leaves of Symphyotrichum drummondii and violet (Viola sororia)were all visible. Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) floral buds were turning white at the tips. Friday, a few colleagues and I found Galium concinnum a few inches tall, flowers on a bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), and floral buds almost ready to open on the toothwort (Cardamine laciniata), which had unfurled dramatically in just a couple of days. Foliage of Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum) was about half-size, and its close cousin H. appendiculatum showed foliage about 1/4-size or smaller. Anemone quinquefolia leaves could be found at the bases of many of the trees. A very small clump of Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) peeked up above the leaf litter.
It is Sunday again, and temperatures are hovering just above freezing. It has been raining on and off for the past 36 hours and rained almost incessantly overnight. Water was funneling through every channel in Maple Grove this morning, collecting in the low spots and racing through the culverts. I needn’t have worried about the wild leeks: they look fine, though they appear not to have grown much in the past week. Prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum) is up. There are clones of short, sharp trout lily leaves scattered throughout the woods. False rue anemone (Enemion biternatum) is in bud, and I found one bloodroot with closed flowers. The forest is carpeted with false mermaid, but none appear to be in flower. It seems odd that the first plant to come up in the woods, one of the first to die back in early May, is not also the first to bloom. Did I just miss it? I’ve been watching this plant since it first showed up this year, and I don’t think I would have missed it, but I’ll keep my eyes peeled.
On the way out of the woods this morning, I came across a brown creeper moving from tree to tree, seemingly unconcerned at my presence. From one tree to the next, he made no effort to move away from me. I drove home listening to the rain on the road and the Irish poet Michael Longley on the radio. He was talking about a cabin he’s been visiting since his children were young. We always think that travel broadens our horizons, he was saying, but going from one place to another also makes us more shallow. Longley was saying how he often thinks that he’s written the last poem he could possibly wring out of the place where his cabin stands, but then he invariably finds there’s another poem waiting for him there. Spring in a familiar place is a particular joy, perhaps because the pleasure of the season resides in the nuances of its trajectory from winter to summer and back again. The vagaries of the local climate are most palpable when you are attuned to past seasons in that same place. I arrived home to have breakfast with my sons. We were in the city yesterday, and they are happy to be home today with the sleeping cats, rain tapping endlessly on the side of the house.