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What a Search for the Signs of Spring Reveals

What a Search for the Signs of Spring Reveals
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If you looked into the sky before dawn on Monday morning, you may have seen the worm moon.

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That’s the name some Native Americans give the March full moon because that’s when the soil warms and earthworms emerge. Others call it the crust moon, when snow melts and refreezes, or the sap moon, when maple trees are tapped.

But we’ve had little snow to melt because this winter was the warmest on record for the lower 48 states, and my friends tapped their trees in February. This makes me wonder: Which signs of spring still align with such ancient wisdom?

I’ve been thinking about that on my walks around our Pennsylvania farm.

Few finer places exist to observe the onset of spring than a pond. The spotted salamander has already attached her white, globular egg masses to forsythia branches that bend below the surface, and wood frogs, with their little black Zorro masks, leap off the bank in front of me into the water.

Henry David Thoreau called wood frogs “the very voice of the weather,” and what a voice it is: a deep, repetitive croak like the strumming of a banjo. They basically freeze during winter and are among the first frogs to emerge from leaf litter to breed in spring, which is when the females lay masses of gelatinous, black-speckled eggs on the pond’s edge.

But my favorite frog is the spring peeper, whose mating call surrounds our sleeping porch at night with a sound so loud and high-pitched I could swear spaceships are landing. Who can’t love a one-inch, nocturnal, camouflaged tree frog with an X on its back? All amphibians are threatened by wetland destruction, but spring peepers are widespread here.

By the creek, skunk cabbage pokes up reliably from the muck, its speckled, maroon-yellow spathe resembling a jester’s cap. I get down on my hands and knees and sniff its scent, like rotten meat, which pollinators apparently adore, and I inadvertently scare away a fly hovering around the spiky, prehistoric-looking flower called a spadix.

Skunk cabbage fascinates me because it’s one of a small group of plants that can generate their own heat. It could even melt the snow around it, if we had any. It’s an ancient plant, here since dinosaurs roamed the earth, but it is now suffering in Tennessee. Can Pennsylvania’s skunk cabbage be far behind?

Near a path in the woods, I see my first spring beauty. As the weather warms, I’ll be on the lookout for our other native wildflowers, like Virginia bluebells, trillium and trout lily.

Spring ephemerals, they’re called. Their name alone is magical! These flowers sprout when sunlight streams onto the forest floor, before the trees leaf out. But they don’t stay with us long, having only a brief window in which to bloom and be pollinated. Then, they die back completely, as if they were never here. I worry, though. We have so many deer eating them, and invasive plants are taking over their territory.

In the old cow pasture, I hear what is dependably our first returning songbird: the red-winged blackbird, plentiful in North America. And at dawn, from the apple tree outside my bedroom window, I hear the first “fee-bee.” That means the Eastern phoebe is back, and soon she’ll freshen up the nest on the light fixture at the pantry door that’s been used every year for 36 years.

I await the chimney swifts. Not for their song, but for the funnel cloud they create at dusk as they fly round and round like fighter pilots trying to dive into our 19th-century stone chimney. Sometimes I rescue a baby that has fallen down into the hearth — the closest a human can get to a bird that spends all day on the wing. But where once we had many of these insectivores raising their young, last year we saw few. They’ve declined about 70 percent over the past 50 years, researchers say, largely because of habitat loss and pesticides that kill the insects they rely on for food.

When I forage for ramps, also known as wild leeks, I do so sustainably. Someone took a dining-room-table-size portion of them out of the woods not long ago, and irresponsible foragers sell masses of them to restaurants. This has caused the plant to be listed as vulnerable in many states.

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I get lucky and find a patch of scarlet elf cup mushrooms, which grow on dead wood and whose name conjures up elves frolicking about the forest. Their color enchants me, too: an orange exterior when young and a brilliant red interior that catches rainwater. Some say they’re edible, though I haven’t tried them.

I’ve long foraged for morels, which I sauté in butter and pile deliciously on toast. Locals tell me, however, there aren’t as many as there once were. The black morel fruits first, any day now, when the ground temperature reaches 50 degrees, according to lore. But May is when I find my prized specimens, golden and eight inches tall, if the stars align.

I like to imagine fairies having meetings atop the umbrella-like leaves of May apples. This native plant is poisonous except for the ripe, yellow fruit (discard the seeds, a forager friend says) but people here make May apple jelly and wine. Small mammals eat the fruit, as do box turtles, important in dispersing the seeds.

May apples are used in wart medicine and are being studied as an anticancer agent. We have large colonies around the farm, but the plant is in trouble in Vermont and Florida.

In the understory of a gray March wood, I see sparkles of yellow: the tiny, delicate flower clusters of spicebush. I snip some twigs to brew a spring tonic. This aromatic plant can substitute for allspice and is a host plant of the spicebush swallowtail butterfly. In fall, the wood thrush eats the red berries before migrating to the Gulf of Mexico.

We have no shortage of stinging nettles, which I eat raw for their anti-inflammatory effect, despite the burning of my fingers and tongue. Most people think of this plant as a weed and try to eradicate it, but it has amazing medicinal and culinary properties. I already have a rash on both wrists from poison ivy, a plant thriving in our warming climate, growing much faster with more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In my wanderings through the fields and forests of this old farm, it’s easy to forget what’s happening to the plants and animals around me. It all looks so beautiful, so peaceful. But all I have to do is peel away a thin pastoral veneer to witness how many signs of spring are no longer in sync with the old rhythms of the season.

Still, I cannot help but rejoice in these, the harbingers of spring, and the rebirth they symbolize. Plants die, but come back. Birds leave, but reappear. Frogs freeze, and then sing their hearts out. Mushrooms fruit once more. Aren’t we all just spring ephemerals anyway? Shining as gloriously as we are able and then gone?

And I am optimistic about one sign of spring we thought we’d lost: the budding, almost fluorescent green leaves of the ash tree.

Hundreds of ash have toppled over in these woods because of the emerald ash borer. But some trees, it turns out, did not succumb to the brilliant green beetle. These survivors have become known as lingering ash, and from them, scientists are breeding new trees. In certain areas, there are also reports of an increase in ash seedlings and saplings.

Maybe none of these will make it to maturity. No one knows yet. Not in my lifetime, certainly. But maybe, just maybe, our grandchildren’s generation will be able to see a bright spring moon rise above those towering trees once again.

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Daryln Brewer Hoffstot’s book “A Farm Life: Observations From Fields and Forests” was published recently by Stackpole Books.



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