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Note: This article was originally published in March 2013. It is also the opening chapter in my new book, “Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses,” which is being published this spring.
Crusty snow crunched loudly under my skis as I powered up a hill. My arms burned as I compensated for the chunky, uneven, spring snow. All my concentration focused down on the gray snowpack and inside my core.
Then I reached the crest of the hill and looked up. Blue sky and bright sun filtered through every gap in the trees. My mood lifted.
I am a naturalist, not a philosopher or religious scholar, but it seems to me that in both religion and nature we look to the sky for assurance that rebirth will occur. In springtime especially, prayerful folks are lifting their eyes skyward to thank a higher power for a certain ancient resurrection. When the world around us is gray and cold, and it seems like spring might never come, a look to the sky reassures us. That deep, blue color; the lengthening days; and the intensity of the sun all signal that the ancient rebirth of spring, however slow, is on its way.
Earlier last week, damp cold permeated the silent woods. Dark trees stood somberly, the live ones indistinct from the dead. I trudged on in melancholy monotony. Suddenly I became aware of my mood and the tunnel of gray that had ensnared me. To break free, I looked to the sky and felt hope return.
During these gray days of early spring, when food is scarce for many in nature, they still put all their energy into creating new life. Squirrels, who have resorted to eating bitter spruce buds, are chasing each other in a frenzy to reproduce. Foxes and fishers, who might have trouble breaking through crusty snow to access mice, are traveling widely to defend their breeding territories. Whitetail does and mothers of all kinds are nurturing their unborn young with the last reserves of their own bodies.
I understand the warblers who return in the warmth of spring to feast on our plentiful insects and raise their young in the bounty of summer. It is harder to comprehend the skunk who must rouse himself out of his warm burrow in the early dawn of spring and traipse across a frozen landscape with the intention of creating new life. How can he even be sure that nature will provide warmth and food again?
Animals have this faith built right into their genomes. You might call it instinct or adaptation.
Plants who stored starches in their roots last fall, carefully prepared buds many months before spring, and crafted nutrient-filled seeds in the dog days of summer also have this faith.
Insects are waiting patiently, too. Long ago in the shortening days of fall, they found a protected place to hide. Some overwinter as adults, some as larvae or pupae, and some as eggs. The individual may not survive, but the cycle of life continues.
Underneath two feet of dense snow lies a carpet of aspen leaves with little green islands where moth pupae wait for spring. Inside goldenrod galls, the fly larvae have not yet pupated and still risk death at the piercing beak of a downy woodpecker.
Ticks will soon become active in widening patches of bare, sunny, forest floor.
Wood frogs, still frozen under the snow, are poised to thaw at the first chance. Spotted salamanders wait in their tunnels below the frost line. Their cells contain little bits of algae who are waiting to emerge into the sunlight and begin photosynthesis.
Loons are in their breeding plumage and have started moving north. They will fly to the edge of winter and make forays each day to check on the progression of ice-out. Turkey vultures have already arrived.
If you, too, feel that tunnel of gray ensnaring you, just look to the sky. The cycles of spring restore our faith in the power of life.
For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” will open May 1, 2016.
Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com.