Corrections or additions?

This essay by Carolyn Foote Edelmann was prepared for the March 22,

2006 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Interchange: Premature Profligate Spring

While there may be confusion in certain high places over whether or

not global warming exists, in 2006 in the Princeton area spring "is

icumen in" too soon, WAY too soon. This is true, even if it snows

absolutely every week from now to Memorial Day. Premature spring is

not good for nature, and we have had a very premature spring –

temperatures in the 60s in January, bringing joggers in shorts to the

D&R Canal towpath and luring at least one cold-blooded turtle from his

winter refuge, only to be fatally trapped by plunging temperatures

later in the day.

A hard winter is actually essential for many forms of life. Midwestern

farmers used to call snowstorms "nature’s manure." And foxes, for

example, depend on winter’s deep freeze to kill otherwise virulent

bacteria in their foxholes. Three years ago Island Beach foxes were

decimated by a mange that had bred after several years of warm

winters.

Yet here spring is, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed – as frolicsome

creatures risk life, limb and yes, tails, to meet up with others of

their kind, seriously ahead of schedule. Spring’s official entry is

supposed to be the Vernal Equinox, March 20 or 21 most years, around

which feasts and worship have blustered since time before time. At

this literally pivotal moment, night and day are nearly the same

length. The sun, moving northward, crosses the celestial equator.

To elders of the Olde Way, this equinox was a marker, signifying time

for seeds to be planted to ensure bountiful harvest. In rituals

connected with moon phases nearest this date, people honored the Saxon

deity, Eostre. She stood for a significant passage of time, symbolized

new life and fertility. The feast we have come to call Easter retains

the egg as symbol of new life, new beginnings; as well as the

rabbit/hare for fertility.

On Easter of 1988 in Arles, France, I watched Provencal teens crack

raw eggs upon each other’s heads, then fling flour in all directions.

Not only these kids, but also the cobbled streets of Arles were soon

slick with fertility symbols. Tension crackled in the air. Suddenly

six black bulls of the Camargue thundered into view. Eyes yellow, wide

and wild, they slipped and skidded along flour, eggs, and cobbles.

They were near enough to touch. Boys and girls danced before them,

leaping out of the way of thick sharp horns with varying degrees of

success.

Soon blood itself mingled with yellow and white upon the black

streets. For better or worse, nothing like this ancient ceremony is

expected in our region. But our own spring is proving prodigal and

profligate, in its own wild ways.

Spring is a season for all senses. The most raucous and inescapable

proof is the "peeper" chorus jingle/jangling from the floodplain out

my Canal Pointe windows. These quarter-sized froglets are virtually

invisible. They can waken any time when temperature rises above

freezing for three nights in a row. But peepers don’t usually start

bellowing, belling out their throat sacs before the Ides of March. And

peepers usually begin their mating chorus, one male at a time.

However, in the sudden, inexplicable spring of 2006, peepers woke all

at once – thousands upon thousands rending the air by day and by

night. On March 13 they were joined by wood frogs. Far rarer, wood

frogs sound like Tom Sawyer running a stick along Aunt Polly’s picket

fence. Or, to reach back in time, wood frogs may be the real critters

behind the childhood radio jingle, "Pluck your magic twanger,

Froggie!"

First visual proof of premature profligate spring? A Lawrenceville

yard alongside Route 206, awash in pale lavender crocus. March 10 –

impossible! On the wings of the wind, waves coursed through the soft

blue blossoms, as though ancient inland seas had returned unheralded.

Humblest inescapable spring sign: flat determined dandelion in the

garden of Michael’s Diner on Route 1.

Prettiest symbol: Two varieties of witch hazel – both species spiky

and golden – catching late rays on a March 11 hike through Princeton

Nurseries Lands in Kingston. One species mimicked forsythia; the other

resembled licking flames of red and gold. The latter had "gone by,"

past its prime this early.

Most unexpected: one yellow-rumped warbler vying with a chickadee for

ownership of a berry-laden Princeton Nurseries shrub. Overhead, the

high, shrill keening of a killdeer – not yet announcing its name, but

clearly claiming the sky.

I’m-trying-to-appreciate-it department: about one-third of geese

paired up, vociferously defending. I tell them, striding the towpath,

deafened by goose `plaints, "If you don’t like people, don’t nest

here." They don’t but they will. Come hatching time, males especially

will start literally goosing intruders. If you live near a catchment

basin as I do, you’ll discover that geese defend all night. Where are

the foxes when we need them?

In my spurious pond (if groundskeepers would let grasses grow around

rims, geese would not claim these basins since these birds need clear

sight lines to spot predators) female mallards insist the fake lake is

theirs.

Amazing for early March: two turtles up and sunning in the wetlands

below Quaker Bridge Road [Wegman’s territory]. This stretch

particularly reminds the hiker to open all senses, as savors of

fecundity course across the marsh. Touch is gratified by new rose

leaves; long gold and coral catkins dangling from canalside trees; by

silk-softness of pussy willow.

Robins in flocks arrived weeks ago – alarming in itself. Spring-proof

is that they no longer feed overhead in shrubs, on winter’s berries.

They’re confidently scruffing up ground, scrounging for worms.

After a day-long rain, willows zipped from bronze to green, racing

each other to leaf out. There is usually a post-St. Patrick’s Day

snowstorm, and "what will poor willows do then, poor things?" Tree

silhouettes are suddenly occluded, all of them feverishly budding.

Most delicate sign of spring: "a crowd, a host" of miniature

daffodils, glimpsed alongside a West Windsor road. I first met these

flowers while standing at Dorothy’s sink, looking out her

half-underground window in Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage at Grasmere. That

was late March, but that was England. Back home, I would plant

miniature daffs in my Princeton gardens. Today, March 14, I

encountered an entire parade of regular-sized daffodils plus narcissi

alongside a Lawrenceville stone wall.

It used to be that spring became official when joggers switched from

warm-up suits to shorts. Fashions have, indeed, changed. But so has

climate. Or else the joggers of Alexander Street are a hardier breed:

Shorts have been the norm, many times a week, ever since Thanksgiving.

And Bush says there is no global warming. "And Bush is an honorable

man."

The first place this year that I heard the wildness of wood frogs was

in marshland below Quaker Bridge Road. A jovial man bearing

binoculars, admitted with irresistible European accent, that, no, he

had not heard those deafening wood frogs, mimicking castanets. But the

stranger proudly announced that yes, the deep cello and bass notes

were bullfrogs: "Saw three of them through my glass. Big fellows!"

This convivial birder reported, on March 13, "a week ago, it was

absolutely silent here." We could barely hear one another over frog

cacophony.

A Sarnoff employee, this winter my brief companion, has been treated

to watching Princeton’s mated American bald eagles moving to somewhere

on Sarnoff land. "Those birds were carrying wood the size of billiard

cues!," he exclaimed. No, he couldn’t tell me if there were

hatchlings: "The nest is near a lab to which I do not have access."

But late February, early to mid-March, is the RIGHT time for spring –

for eagles. Some days, this fortunate man sees them "flying back and

forth past my desk over to the Millstone." Between Harrison, near the

Mapleton fishing bridges, in a normal winter, is the place for

ordinary mortals to view our national symbol.

I give up. Only a curmudgeon would protest early spring!


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