As the last day of February dawned in central Vermont, I awoke to a wonderland. Every dark branch of every tree was heaped with two or three inches of new, wet snow. The snow coated roofs, cars, the sidewalk, but thankfully not the road. As the temperature warmed above freezing, the snow started falling quickly from the branches, leading to a second snowstorm after the light snow that passed through last night. Soon the snow was gone, the branches went back to their normal bleak winter configuration, and the trees awaited the warming days of spring.
Spring here is both a gradual affair and a series of abrupt steps. A few weeks ago, during a day of cutting frigid wind, i looked up for the first time and noticed a swelling in red maple buds. Even before the temperatures had started to change, the increasingly long days had encouraged the buds to swell subtly. It was the first first in a season of firsts.
This winter was an odd one. Overall, it was a bit milder than average, but in reality it was an exercise in extremes. Brief warm thaws with rain alternated with stretches of several days that mostly remained below zero. One stretch didn’t get above the mid teens for a whole week. But the sun’s stay each day has lengthened, and this shows itself in many signs – not just the swelling buds, but snow that melts when it hits the ground, temperatures that pop above freezing most days, a drive home from work with the sun still in the sky.
Many firsts are to follow in the next three months. I saw a cardinal the other day. They don’t all leave Vermont in the winter, but they tend to lay low. Soon, for the first time this season, I will hear their “pew! pew! pew!” call that reminds me of a toy laser gun. Robins will reappear in greater numbers, and chickadees, and then more birds. I’ll hear the first honk of returning Canada geese (not all leave the state, but those who are traveling seem to have a more wistful call than the yearlong residents). The first salamander will emerge from hibernation to breed in vernal pools during the first heavy nighttime spring rain on thawed ground. Other salamanders, frogs, and toads will follow. Around this time I will get the first taste of this year’s maple syrup, and will hear the first calls of the spring peepers and wood frogs. The first crocuses will pop up around homes, and soon after the spring ephemeral wildflowers will pop forth in the woods. We will experience the first warm rain that is accompanied by a rumble of thunder. It’s not until May that the maples burst forth with new leaves. The new leaves are pink, and while they are less vibrant than fall leaves, they offer their own sort of seasonal color. The first leaves to emerge are from aspen trees, and the first of these that emerge are in the Champlain Valley. Later Montpelier’s trees will leaf out. Lastly, extending into June, the wave of pink and then green will race up the slopes of the Green Mountains until the paper birch growing amidst the spruce and fir of Camel’s Hump and Mount Mansfield finally burst forth with new leaves.
There are lasts, too. The last sticking snow. The last remains of the melting snow piles. The last day that remains entirely below freezing. The last icicle. The last day of skiing. Some of the lasts won’t be identifiable until well after the fact. It is an odd characteristic of life and time that the firsts are gifts that are well evident, but the lasts are often not realized until well after the fact. For that reason it is necessary to pause to appreciate the beauty of each snow and each formation of ice. Everything else too, for that matter. There are some firsts that are also lasts.
Sadly, there are also firsts that are not gifts. The snow piles along the roads and parking lots store whatever is tossed within them, and when the thaw comes, such desirables as dog poop, general road dirtiness, and motor oil emerge from their slumber. Today I found this sheen of oil on a puddle near a snowbank, and the slow flow of the water led to these odd formations. I thought they looked like intestines.
Sadly, this water was pouring straight into the drain, which presumably then dumps into the Winooski River. A rain garden or other constructed or natural wetland would allow this water to be filtered naturally, perhaps removing the oil. Instead, it is bound for Lake Champlain. Winter gives us a break from worrying about the fate of urban runoff, but the lost time is made up in the mad watery slushy rush of spring.