Turkey tails on a log in the spring woods. Watercolor and pastel by Carolyn Newberger

Illuminating the Hidden Forest, Chapter 37: Is it spring yet?

Yet March brings the cruelty of delayed anticipation, of yearning for signs of new beginnings, of suspension between the end of one thing and the beginning of the next.

To read the previous chapters of ‘Illuminating the Hidden Forest,’ click here.

March 12, 2020

A few days ago, I ventured into the wild forest behind my house. In winter I don’t go into these woods much: The snow is too deep, the woods too dark, the going too rough. Mostly I stick to the trails in Kennedy Park, where we encounter other hikers on the trails; where the snow is packed down by human and canine feet; where we encounter the fat wheels of the rugged bicyclists who pump up and down the hills in all weather. But on this day, though brisk, the sun was shining, so Lily and I headed out into our forest to look for signs of spring.

We have had a warmer-than-usual winter, a harbinger of our changing climate. But even our warmer winter feels long, and I am eager for the hopeful signs that the earth is awakening and sending out new life. Hard as I searched, I did not find signs of spring in these woods.

As I trudged through the forest with Lily, what I noticed most was winter’s destruction. Huge trees had crashed down, obstructing my path. I can no longer pick my way across the hillside to the giant downed hemlock where, last season, I found shelves of choice reishi mushrooms. Unless I find another downed hemlock sprouting reishis, I will not be enjoying those mushrooms this year.

Almost 100 years ago, in “The Wasteland,” T.S. Eliot wrote,

“April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”

But March is cruel, too. March changes are subtle as the snow gradually melts into thick, muddy puddles. Rosettes of turkey tail fungi revive on old logs. The greens of last year’s mosses seem to brighten. Yet March brings the cruelty of delayed anticipation, of yearning for signs of new beginnings, of suspension between the end of one thing and the beginning of the next.

On the other hand, the forest offers many solaces in long wait for spring. We can savor the spaciousness of the winter woods and bathe in its quiet. The natural world never ceases to be beautiful and surprising even as it changes in ways that we neither anticipate nor desire.

Lily and the beaver. Photo: Eli Newberger

And signs of spring are here, even though not in the ways we might expect. Two days ago at the water’s edge, we startled a young beaver nestled in a cavity beneath a bush. Lily went bananas, barking and circling, sniffing furiously in a perimeter about 12 feet around the beaver in its hollow, rushing back and then darting forward to that invisible line, where she would go down on her elbows, rump in the air, tail wagging. Was she inviting the beaver to play?

At first the beaver fled the hollow, leaping into the water with a thwack of the tail, then swimming in narrowing circles, assessing the barking dog and the stock-still humans. Slowly the beaver returned to water’s edge, trundled back under the bush, and calmly resumed chewing twigs and grooming its fur with its hind claws. It had apparently decided that Lily was all bark and no bite.

We gathered Lily and left the beaver in peace, awed that we had been privileged with such a close encounter, and heartened by the beaver’s capacity to thoughtfully assess the risks and carry on.*

Meanwhile, back home, I found spears of wild iris pushing through the soil. The first red-winged blackbirds and starlings of the season arrived this week at our bird feeder. The mourning doves seem to be showing each other extra measures of attention.

The beavers, the birds, they are all thinking ahead, courting mates, creating nests.   In the plant world, spring may not be showing many of its signs, but in the animal world, the juices are stirring.

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*For more information on young beavers seeking new homes in the spring, check out this link: https://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2011/04/wildlife-in-spring-beavers-on-the-move.html