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
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
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,
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
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
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
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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