New growth sprouts from an old nest, signaling as well as anything can that we’ve entered that magic time I call high spring. The daffodils are fading, the banks of forsythia are in the last throes of blooming, and the first cohort of wild blossoms – shadbush, spicebush, coltsfoot, hepatica – are shedding their petals. The leaves of birches and black cherries are just beginning to open, turning the ridge to the west a pale green, while the oaks are in blossom all up and down the ridge above my house, giving it a yellow-green wash. Red maples, sugar maples and tulip poplars provide pastel splashes of red and green.
Wild sweet cherry trees – legacy of a long-gone orchard – glow white along the edge of the field in the early morning sun. Down in the hollow, purple trillium (A.K.A. wake robin) is in bloom, and Solomon’s seal and yellow mandarin are just at the point of flowering. Black cohosh, wild sarsaparilla, and a host of ferns unclench their insurrectionary green fists.
Almost every day brings a new birdsong: last Thursday, the black-throated green warblers were back in force. Friday afternoon, I heard weeza-weeza-weeza from inside at my writing desk and bounded out the door with my camera, but was too slow with the focus to get a shot of the first black-and-white warbler calling among the last blossoms of the ornamental cherry next to my porch. Yesterday morning, at around quarter to six, I heard a whippoorwill sing a few phrases of its namesake song from about a quarter-mile away (which is just about the distance and duration I prefer, actually). Later in the day, I watched a pair of Louisiana waterthrushes courting in the branches of a black birch above the now-roaring Plummer’s Hollow Run.
A weekend of hard rain has eased the fire danger I alluded to last week. Water streams from the mountain’s every pore, and it’s a real pleasure to sit outside at first light and listen to the birds tune up against a background of running water. This morning, one of those songs made my heart leap: wood thrush! But not, I’m sorry to say, an especially gifted member of the tribe. I don’t know if he grew up next to a busy highway, and thus was unable to learn the full nuances of his species’ song (a documented phenomenon, by the way), or was simply too tired from the migration to give it his all, but this was a bare-bones version of that famous thrush call.
But I’m sure there will be more thrushes – possibly as early as this evening. And it served as a reminder to me to get out more often and listen for the other thrush species, which sometimes sing on migration. In past years, I’ve been lucky enough to hear both veerys and hermit thrushes, and once, about five years ago, a Swainson’s thrush – far outside its normal breeding range – sang through most of June at one spot down in the hollow.
I was happy when temperatures got cooler over the weekend. To my mind, spring is best when it is long and slow, though I know a lot of people who seem to regard the season primarily as foreplay to summer. Some years, it stays cold through late April, and then an early heat wave makes the flowers leap into bloom, the trees leaf out and the songbirds return from the tropics all in a rush – a southern spring. My parents traveled to Arkansas last month, and were confounded to see hepaticas blooming alongside wild geraniums. I’m sure it’s all in what you’re used to, but to them, it just didn’t seem right. Spring should come gradually, almost imperceptibly at first. Not for nothing did Aaron Copland set his ballet Appalachian Spring in Western Pennsylvania; there’s a kind of choreography to spring arrivals and blooming dates here in the north, a certain order and cadence that’s practically synonymous with spring in the minds of most northeasterners. As in any dance composition, there are many high points along the way, as buds burst in mid-air and flowers relax into nascent fruit. High spring, as I conceive of it, climaxes in mid to late May, when the pink and yellow lady’s-slippers bloom. By then, all the trees except for walnuts and locusts have fully leafed out, but insects and air pollution have yet to diminish that first, fresh, startling green.