Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The place between spring and the winter that wasn’t

Escaping the morning deliberations about the presidential primaries, I head out for a brisk early morning walk.  There is a light film of frost on the car windows, but given the forecast of 60C for today, those ice crystals won’t last long.  I find this Wednesday to be much more super than the alleged Super Tuesday of yesterday.  A day characterized by a flawless blue sky and a sun that is rising higher and earlier than of late.  Having a prominent view of the Kittatinny Ridge—a part of the Appalachians—helps us judge the angle of the rising sun, although, in the deep of astronomical winter, it obscures our sunlight such that our photoperiod is even less than experienced in the flat farming areas over yonder.  This year, only day length provided clues that it was actually winter.

Ah, but now the perfect azure sky is sprinkled with flocks of geese—both Canada and Snow— trying to form perfect “V’s” but never quite succeeding.  10, 20, 30, 100, 200, 300 – oh there is another flock and I lose count.  Countless flocks are heard, but many cannot be seen with the glare of the rising sun.  The birds are flying very high, so this is not the early morning ascent from the ponds in search of food in a dormant corn field as has been the case for the past few months.  These birds are heading north; they are on a mission.   Countless flocks containing an even greater countless number of members.  Just how do geese choose which club to join?

As I head into the woods, I hear the drumming of a woodpecker, most likely one of our resident Pileateds.  There are turkeys gobbling down along the south slope.  Directly overhead, a pair of raspy croaking ravens gives me a look; it is unusual that they fly so low, barely missing the treetops.  I hear the song of the solitary White-throated Sparrow; he, too, will soon be following the path of the Canada geese.  Everywhere it seems, I hear the incessant calls of titmice, each individual testing a different pitch.  It is as if they have to practice until they once again remember their proper “Peter, Peter, Peter”, the song that will attract the perfect mate in the not too distant future.

As I return from the woods, I spy the thirty plus robins that have returned to our lawn – seemingly from nowhere this morning.  They peck at the ground which surprisingly is not frozen as it normally is this time of year.  I wonder how far down the worms are hiding.  Did they anticipate this morning’s onslaught of hungry red-breasted predators?  The mourning doves too have returned – not my favorite bird for reasons I can’t quite explain.  I don’t particularly like their cooing, although I am outnumbered on that sentiment in this family.  I gather the bird feeders to fill, and by the time I return from the barn, a White-breasted Nuthatch is running impatiently up and down the tree trunk waiting for me to return the feeder, full, of course.  A Downy Woodpecker is pecking at the deck railing; he too wants some seed until the insects come out for the day.

Although not quite a spring dawn chorus yet (that comes with the return of the neotropical migrants), it is a noisy morning today – a bit like orchestra members tuning and warming up before a performance.  It is in stark contrast to the bird quiet of winter – interrupted from time to time with crows and blue jays mostly.  Several people noted this year that the number of birds at their feeders was lower than usual, perhaps because it was mild and the winter feeder visitors instead found sufficient food in the cover of the woods.  The fruit on the invasive shrubs was excessive last fall, and oddly enough, we saw insects around during much of the winter.  This winter, if you can call it that, was not normal.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA for short), the period between November 2011 and January 2012 was ranked 112 – just five shy of number 117 in terms of the warmest for the lower 48 in the years of collected records.  In Pennsylvania, we came in at 114 of 117.  In the area where I live, December, January, and February ranged from 4.8 to 5.5F above the average for the 1981 and 2010 time period.  (And remember, those decades were warmer than the previous ones.)  Snow cover extent during January, NOAA tells us, was the third smallest in a 46 year period, 329,000 square miles below average.  That is an area bigger than Texas, about three times bigger than New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania combined, and about the size of 8 of the 10 states that had primaries on Super Tuesday (excluding Idaho and Alaska).  Climate change doesn’t care if a state is red or blue. 

A winter without snow is not as quiet as the hush that exists when a white blanket covers the earth and all sleeping under it.  A winter without snow is gray and tan and somewhat ugly unless you appreciate the fractal patterns seen amongst the silhouettes of tree branches.

But today, as the sun hits the tops of the trees, I see the red of buds of the maples beginning to swell, the orange yellow now present in the dangling branches of the willows, and the emerging breeding plumage colors of the male goldfinches.  I don’t think that it is my imagination that the house finches appear to have more red on their heads and breasts now.  Reds and golds against the brilliant blue perfect sky.  As I type this, I can still hear the honks of geese migrating north.  My son comes in to report that a Killdeer flew over calling and that he heard (and photographed as evidence) an Eastern Meadowlark.  

Indeed spring has emerged.  I am just not sure when we had winter.


  1. "This year, only day length provided clues that it was actually winter." This is a beautiful post. Your position as a scientist and teacher aside, it is heartwarming and soothing to read the words of another human who notices and cares enough to write.

    I'm still on the edge about the emergence of spring though. My unsettled mind can't seem to accept it. But since it is my favorite season, I must learn how to enjoy it no matter what the calendar says.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Thanks Ruth. It was too beautiful a morning not to notice, but I often write when I have other pressing tasks to accomplish but don't want to tackle them!

    There is something about early warm days that tempt us into believing that spring is arriving while subconciously, our years of experience tell us that a cold snap or freak snowstorm could still arrive. (I grew up along Lake Superior where March storms were often the worst and snow could visit in May!) Such tension reminds us that nature remains unpredictable despite all the attempts of humans to tame her.

  3. A wonderful blog post Diane! I enjoyed every word. I think that in our observations of the timing of things in nature, we reset our own internal (and psycho-spiritual)clocks. Keep at it! You write beautifully as a scientist-advocate. I think that the two of us should team up on the artsy-scientist side and write something significant --like a book. Seasons on the extremes or some such. What do you think?

    All Best,

  4. Wow Drew, I am honored that you would even suggest such a collaboration. I do think that we could put together something that would have a range of unique perspectives as we explore the intersections of science and creativity, which as we have discussed, are far from being mutually exclusive. So yes, let's consider this.

    I added some contributions to Sandra Steingraber's FB page for her latest book yesterday, indicating that as someone with a doctorate in the field of science where chemistry intersects with biology, I struggle to understand the risks and benefits of what science brings to our world. My contributions to that page (filled with activism), the phenology project, and this "new prosperity" blog are a part of this soul-searching.