Discover the Signs of Spring | Nature’s Awakening

Nature’s Awakening

If you gaze into the sky on Sunday evening, you might catch a glimpse of the worm moon. This name is attributed by some Native Americans to the full moon of March, signifying the time when the soil begins to warm up and earthworms emerge. Alternatively, it is also known as the crust moon, marking the period when snow melts and refreezes, or the sap moon, indicating the time when maple trees are traditionally tapped.

However, this year has been different due to the unusually warm winter, making it the warmest on record for the lower 48 states. Consequently, there has been little snow to melt, and some of my friends have already tapped their maple trees as early as February. This situation prompts me to ponder: In light of such climatic shifts, which age-old signs of spring still resonate with ancient wisdom?

On my walks around our Pennsylvania farm, I’ve been reflecting on this matter.

Symphony of Spring: The Melodic Calls of Amphibians

There are few places as exquisite as a pond to witness the arrival of spring. Already, signs abound. The spotted salamander has affixed her white, spherical egg masses to forsythia branches, gently swaying beneath the water’s surface. Meanwhile, wood frogs, adorned with their distinctive black masks reminiscent of Zorro, gracefully leap off the banks into the water before me.

Henry David Thoreau aptly described wood frogs as “the very voice of the weather,” and indeed, their croak resonates deeply, echoing like the rhythmic plucking of a banjo. Remarkably, these frogs endure freezing temperatures during winter and are among the earliest to emerge from the leaf litter to commence breeding in spring. It’s during this time that females deposit clusters of gelatinous, black-speckled eggs along the pond’s edge, marking the renewal of life in nature’s cycle.

However, my personal favorite frog is the spring peeper. During the night, their mating calls envelop our sleeping porch with a cacophony so piercing and intense that it often feels like an invasion of extraterrestrial crafts. It’s hard not to admire these diminutive, nocturnal tree frogs, measuring just one inch, adorned with camouflage and sporting an unmistakable X marking on their backs. While all amphibians face threats due to wetland destruction, the spring peepers are fortunate to maintain a widespread presence here.

Unveiling Spring’s Splendor: Exploring the Enchanting Flora Along the Creek

Down by the creek, the skunk cabbage reliably emerges from the muck, its distinctive speckled maroon-yellow spathe resembling the cap of a jester. I find myself crouching down, getting close to the ground, to inhale its peculiar scent, reminiscent of rotten meat, which surprisingly attracts pollinators. In doing so, I unintentionally startle a fly hovering around the spiky, primitive-looking flower known as a spadix.

Skunk cabbage never fails to captivate me due to its unique ability to produce heat, a trait shared by only a select group of plants. In fact, under the right conditions, it can even generate enough warmth to melt the snow surrounding it, although this winter, snow has been a rare sight. This plant has ancient origins, dating back to the era when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, yet its survival is now under threat in Tennessee. It raises concerns about whether Pennsylvania’s skunk cabbage population may soon face similar challenges.

Along a woodland path, I spot the first spring beauty of the season. As the temperatures continue to rise, I eagerly anticipate the emergence of other native wildflowers, such as Virginia bluebells, trillium, and trout lily. Each of these blooms serves as a colorful herald of the changing seasons, reminding us of the beauty and resilience of nature’s cycles.

Embracing Nature’s Transient Beauty: Reflections on Spring Ephemerals and Avian Delights

They are known as spring ephemerals, a name that carries a touch of enchantment! These delicate flowers emerge when sunlight filters through the canopy, illuminating the forest floor before the trees fully leaf out. However, their time with us is fleeting, as they have only a brief period to bloom and attract pollinators before fading away entirely, as if they were never there. Despite their ephemeral nature, I can’t help but worry. Our local deer population seems to have a voracious appetite for these blooms, and invasive plants encroach upon their territory, posing additional threats to their survival.

In the old cow pasture, I’m greeted by a familiar sound signaling the return of spring: the melodic call of the red-winged blackbird, a common sight across North America. As dawn breaks, a sweet “fee-bee” emanates from the apple tree just outside my bedroom window, indicating the arrival of the Eastern phoebe. Soon, she’ll set about refurbishing the nest perched on the light fixture by the pantry door—a nesting spot that has been utilized without fail for 36 consecutive years. These sights and sounds serve as reassuring reminders of nature’s timeless rhythms and the cyclical return of life each spring.

I eagerly anticipate the arrival of the chimney swifts, not for their melodious song, but for the mesmerizing spectacle they create at dusk. Like skilled fighter pilots, they swoop and swirl around our 19th-century stone chimney, forming a captivating funnel cloud in the fading light. Occasionally, I find myself rescuing a fallen chick from the hearth—a rare opportunity for a human to connect with a bird that spends its days tirelessly in flight. However, the once abundant presence of these insectivores has dwindled in recent years. Researchers report a staggering 70 percent decline over the past five decades, largely attributed to habitat loss and the pervasive use of pesticides that decimate the insect populations upon which they rely for sustenance. This downturn is a stark reminder of the critical need to safeguard and maintain the fragile equilibrium of our ecosystems for the welfare of all species.

Preserving Nature’s Bounty: Responsible Foraging and Delightful Discoveries

When I venture out to forage for ramps, also known as wild leeks, I take great care to do so sustainably. Unfortunately, there have been instances of irresponsible harvesting, with individuals removing large quantities of ramps from the woods, leading to concerns about their conservation. Furthermore, some foragers exploit these delicate plants for profit by selling them in bulk to restaurants, exacerbating the threat to their survival. As a result, ramps have been listed as vulnerable in many states, underscoring the importance of responsible foraging practices and conservation efforts.
During my excursion, I stumble upon a delightful discovery: a patch of scarlet elf cup mushrooms. These whimsically named fungi, which thrive on decaying wood, evoke images of playful elves frolicking amidst the forest. Their vibrant hue captivates me—their young forms boasting an orange exterior and a striking red interior that collects rainwater like tiny jewels. While some sources claim they are edible, I have yet to sample them myself, opting to admire their beauty from afar for now.
Foraging for morels has been a cherished pastime of mine for quite some time. There’s nothing quite like sautéing them in butter and serving them generously atop toast—it’s a culinary delight! However, I’ve been saddened to hear from locals that their numbers seem to be dwindling compared to years past. Legend has it that the black morels will soon make their appearance, typically when the ground temperature reaches 50 degrees. Yet, it’s in May when I often stumble upon my most prized specimens—golden-hued and towering up to eight inches if I’m fortunate enough.

Exploring Nature’s Alchemy: From May Apples to Spicebush, Tales of Wonder and Utility

As I roam through the woods, I can’t help but indulge in fanciful thoughts of fairies convening atop the umbrella-like leaves of May apples. Despite being poisonous in their entirety, save for the ripe, yellow fruit (I’ve been advised to discard the seeds by a knowledgeable forager friend), locals here have found ways to utilize them in culinary creations such as May apple jelly and wine. Interestingly, these fruits serve as a vital food source for small mammals and box turtles, playing a crucial role in seed dispersal within the ecosystem.

May apples possess intriguing medicinal properties, with their extracts being utilized in wart treatments and undergoing studies for their potential as anticancer agents. Despite their abundance in large colonies around our farm, the plant faces challenges in states like Vermont and Florida, highlighting the importance of conservation efforts to safeguard its future.
While wandering through a serene woodland in the subdued hues of March, I’m greeted by the sight of delicate yellow blossoms adorning the understory—the tiny flower clusters of spicebush. Intrigued by their aromatic allure, I gather some twigs to brew a refreshing spring tonic. Not only does this aromatic plant serve as a substitute for allspice, but it also plays a crucial role as a host plant for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly. Come fall, the red berries are eagerly consumed by wood thrushes before embarking on their migratory journey to the Gulf of Mexico, underscoring the intricate ecological relationships woven within the natural world.

Navigating Nature’s Contrasts: Embracing the Gifts and Challenges of Stinging Nettles and Poison Ivy

Despite the discomfort caused by their stings, we are fortunate to have an abundance of stinging nettles on our farm. Personally, I consume them raw, enduring the temporary burning sensation on my fingers and tongue, for their remarkable anti-inflammatory effects. While many consider this plant a nuisance weed and attempt to eradicate it, I’m keenly aware of its incredible medicinal and culinary properties.
Unfortunately, I’m currently contending with rashes on both wrists from contact with poison ivy—a plant that seems to thrive in our warming climate. With increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, poison ivy appears to grow more vigorously and spread more rapidly. This serves as a poignant reminder of the complex interplay between plant species and environmental factors, underscoring the urgent need for sustainable practices to mitigate the impacts of climate change on our ecosystems.

As I roam the fields and forests of this ancient farm, it’s easy to overlook the changes in the flora and fauna. Everything appears so serene and picturesque. Yet, a closer look beyond the idyllic facade reveals the many signs of spring that have fallen out of harmony with the season’s traditional cadence.

Nevertheless, I find joy in the heralds of spring and the renewal they represent. Plants wither only to return. Birds depart and then make their comeback. Frogs endure the cold, only to later serenade passionately. Mushrooms bloom anew. Perhaps we are all akin to spring ephemerals, radiating our brightest while we can before we fade away.

I remain hopeful for a sign of spring we feared was gone: the budding, vibrant green leaves of the ash tree.

In these woods, hundreds of ash trees have fallen due to the emerald ash borer. However, some trees have resisted the invasive green beetle. These resilient trees, known as lingering ash, are the basis for scientists to breed new generations of ash trees. Additionally, there’s an uptick in ash seedlings and saplings in some regions.

It’s uncertain if these young trees will reach full maturity. The future is unknown, and it may not happen within my lifetime. But there’s a chance, however slight, that our grandchildren will witness the bright spring moon ascending over these majestic trees once more.

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