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Signs Of Spring

( Originally Published 1908 )

The approach of spring is felt, rather than reasoned about. There is that in us which rises to greet the incoming tide of the year before our eyes have apprised us of any change. Winter lies over the world much as ashes are banked on coals for the night, which nevertheless retain their heat and will be found alive and glowing in the morning. In the tropics the fire is not banked and there is no cold dawn with anticipations of the kindly blaze soon to arise, no gradual uncovering of the cheerful coals. Here in New England the dawn is rigorous and spring more welcome. The winter buds are evidence that it is not far away, and it takes but the least encouragement at any time for this latent heat and life to awake and show itself in the high blueberry twigs. Such buoyant faith has the skunk-cabbage it never entirely loses sight of spring, but exerts some spell over its muddy bed, whereby you may see that there, at least, it has already come in November.

The reddening of the twigs is in effect a prelude, and precedes the real spring as dawn precedes daylight, or twilight the night; this is the dawn of the year and these blueberry twigs its first flush. Smilax turns suddenly green as the sap circulates in its spiny stems, and the brown and sear aspect of the earth is relieved and enlivened. This early green is as refreshing to the eye as the first rhubarb to the palate.

One of the earliest signs is the little rosette of bright-colored leaves on the smaller hair-cap mosses, growing in conta t with an outcropping ledge. You may see whole patches in the pastures, varying from orange to deep red, a vivid bit of color next the brown earth and looking like diminutive blossoms. Then come the fruiting spikes of the common field horsetails, poking out of some sand-bank. These signs of the awakening season appeal to the trained eye rather than to the casual glance. Such an one detects the slightest swelling of a leaf-bud, the faint reddening of a twig, the deeper green of another. The sap dripping from the freshly cut limb of a birch, or pendent from the wound in a long glittering icicle, is evidence of the quickened circulation of the earth. Among the thick mat of dry leaves you may perhaps find the delicate shoots of wood anemones, and in the swamps the tightly rolled stipes of the osmunda, like little croziers, while there is ice yet in the leaves of the pitcher-plant.

Deep lying in all men is a poetic vein which now appears on the surface. The first pussy-willows and the arrival of bluebirds arouse sentiments as common to us as the love of music : some suggestion of renewal, of awakening after the sleep of winter, which touches even the rough man and makes him kin for a day to the child. We em-bark each year on the sea of winter, with unquestioning faith that on its other shore spring awaits us, once more to shake the violets from her lap. When, in March, that shore looms in the distance, we feel the joy of travelers in sight of their native land. There may be rough seas, and March winds are blustery, but there in sight, nevertheless, is that faint outline on the horizon.

No blossoming rod of Aaron could appear more miraculous than do the flowering willows. These twigs of brown and lifeless aspect suddenly burst into bloom and array themselves in exquisite silvery gray catkins, while the snow may be still on the ground. Not long after, the alders in the swamp unfold their clusters of drooping aments which have been on the tree stiff and rigid throughout the winter. Thousands of little tails are thus mysteriously hung out on the alder twigs to sway gently in the breeze, turning from a red-dish hue to a sulphur-yellow as they expand and become powdered with pollen. Born into a frosty world when the feeble sun is still distant and cold, the March flowers are a link between winter and spring. But Nature has certainly relaxed her features; there is just the ghost of a smile on her icy lips.

This year I heard the bluebird's warble on the 4th of February, but did not see the bird, and heard no more till early in March, when they came in flocks. Out of the sky comes to us this liquid note, as if the heavens had opened and poured upon us their benediction. How sweet it is to the ear, what music to the heart! And when suddenly a little flock starts up from the wall or fence, how rich and welcome to the eye, long denied its modicum of color, is the blue of their backs ! We have had little but artificial tastes and colors and perfumes for so long that the senses seize with avidity these first offerings we are hungry for them.

It changes the whole aspect of things, when on some raw day the first redwing of the season appears-a vivid bit of color in the bleak swamp, a hopeful and melodious voice breaking the silence of the year. The birds are shy and elusive on their arrival and we have every year to become acquainted again. Even the robins are furtive and silent, flitting in the sheltered swamps; but the middle of March finds them calling to each other in their old jocular way. Drawn by the same subtle influence, the angleworm seems to work toward the surface about the time the robin is thinking of the lawn, till one day they meet as by appointment. If the season is late, the worm re-tires below where it is less frosty, and the robin takes to the sumac berries, or whatever else he can find, and defers his spring relish a little longer.

Round about there is an awakening as from an enchanted sleep ; the drowsy world yawns and stretches. The highhole is in evidence, and his rattling call is calculated to awake the sleepers in that pasture at least. Soon the chipmunk is on the wall, and the woodchuck warily pokes his head from his burrow. This note of the highhole is irrepressibly exuberant and ringing with energy. If it does not prove a tonic to you, nothing else will. He is even more emphatic in his drumming. His. lively tattoo goes well with his vigorous call. Time to be up and doing ! Wake up ! Wake up ! Wake up ! Wake up ! Wake up !

Presently the first flock of fox-sparrows drop down from somewhere and go to scratching among the leaves, like so many chickens. The present season a flock of perhaps fifty settled in and around a thicket on March 24th. Their bold clear notes could be heard some distance away, and drew one in that direction. Numbers of them were hopping about, and occasionally a bird would rise to a branch overhead and sing, looking like a hermit-thrush as his back was turned. The place was given over to the sparrows, and never was thicket more tuneful. There was the sound of unceasing revelry —a sylvan and melodious revelry.

At this season the impulse to expression is natural and daily becomes more evident. Even the crow begins to affect music and to show off his accomplishments. But it is Mlle. Corbeau, and not M. Reynard, that incites him to this exhibition of vanity. You may hear him in the pine grove, apparently gargling his throat, which is meant for a gay roulade to please the ear of some dusky beauty lingering near and perhaps affecting indifference. This is only a prelude to the astonishing falsetto that sometimes follows, and which, be it hoped, may prove more acceptable to Mlle. Corbeau than to our more critical ears. It is very evident something is going on. The large flocks of winter have given away to small and excited bands which keep up a perpetual clamor. It is no surprise, then, some day in March to detect a crow carrying twigs.

At no other time is there such concerted singing among the song-sparrows as in these first days of the arrival of any considerable flocks. From bare fields and brown hedgerows arises this simple and spontaneous expression of joy, a primitive in-vocation to the goddess Spring, fresh and clear and innocent as the morning itself. As they hop about among the dry weeds, one will now and then pick up a straw and hold it meditatively a moment with some premonition of the nest. Presently they will be flitting among the still leafless brambles and briers with an air of secrecy and importance. Some bright morning in March there comes to the listening ear the song of the purple finch a wild sweet strain with the abandon of gipsy music, which thrills with its very wildness and unrestraint. Anon Phoebe arrives with dry little voice and familiar swoop after the first incautious fly.

Every season has its characteristic song. More than all others is the voice of the hyla, essentially springlike and to be associated with no other time. For several days there has been an occasional desultory chirp from the woods, when of a sudden, some clear evening, there comes out of the stillness that wonderfully sweet piping of little frogs. Fresh and ringing as child voices, it has, at a distance, a certain rhythm, a soothing cadence, which lulls the ear like the musical patter of rain-drops in summer showers. Put your ear close to one if you can find him and the sound is deafening, so loud and shrill it pierces to the very marrow. The small creature sits in some low shrub in the swamp, grasping a twig on either side as with tiny hands, while it inflates its air-sac from time to time and sings the love-song of its race. Heard afar, how soft and pleasing are these answering calls of the hylas which are the very voice of the evening itself.

About the time the hylas begin to sing in chorus, you may look for the appearance of the leopard-frog. He is to be heard at midday in his pond uttering a most deliberate and prolonged snore, evenly and smoothly drawn out, as if his sleep were dreamless and content. Presently there is an answering snore, full as deliberate and serene, from across the pond, followed by long intervals of silence. Very different from this somnolent song of the leopard-frog is the shrilling of garden-toads. Not every one would recognize the solemn and dusty toad of the flower-beds, that flops from under the feet in the dusk, in this brighter colored creature, floating at full length in the shallow water, his air-sac inflated before him like a parti-colored bubble. The shrilling of toads fills the air ; they are under a spell, a witchery, which has set them all to chanting this single strain — high-pitched and subdued — with a sort of mild frenzy.

April brings the twittering of tree-swallows, and spreads a tinge of color like a faint red mist over the swamps. This flower of the maple is one whose virtues are seldom sung, as though the blossoms of trees counted for little. Surely the bursting of silver-gray rods into this vivid bloom is an event worthy the muse. It is not only in autumn the red maple graces the swamp. These modest blossoms of the early year -- willow, alder, poplar, elm, maple— must have their place in the flower calendar, are worthy a Festival of Trees, to be associated with the song of the hyla.

Anything like an exact flower calendar is out of the question, for much depends on the locality and the season. We look for bloodroot and hepatica to follow arbutus, and yet I have on occasion found bluets several weeks in advance of these. The saxifrage is perhaps quite as early as any, though I have seen the buds of the marsh-marigold about to open on the 25th of March. Much depends on which has the more favorable spot in any locality. In a warm nook, on the 13th of April, bloodroot, hepatica, spring-beauty, early saxifrage, dicentra, wood and rue-anemones and adder's-tongue, as well as common blue and long-spurred violets, were blooming together in profusion. The saxifrage and bloodroot might, of course, have been seen a week earlier. In the same spot several days later, columbines, miterwort and groundnut, and also sweet white violets, downy yellow and lance-leaved violets, were added to the list and were followed by bellworts and wood-betony. This was in northern New Jersey. Meanwhile I had seen only the common blue violets in the Connecticut Valley, while in eastern Massachusetts the wood-anemones were not in bloom, and the leaf of the columbine had just appeared above the soil. This particular spot was evidently a sort of natural forcing ground where the columbine was made to bloom with the blood-root. What becomes of your flower calendar here? Looking still for signs of spring, I came full upon the fickle goddess herself.

Before we know it, the migration of warblers has begun and the keen ear detects their thin wiry notes. But this is not so much a sign as it is the fulfilling of prophecies.

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