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!