Hearken back to your roots, back to a time when you remembered how to read the signs of the changing seasons. Listen. Watch. Smell. Taste. Hearken, Spring approaches!
Spring is just around the corner, around the bend, around the bush, Right? All full of vim and vigor; of bravery and brazenness, like the chickadees. You hear them flirting as they call, perched on the bushes. And like the crocus who is like a teen saying, “I don’t need a hat,” before heading outside into the snow. But spring is also fickle; the sun is shining and you just know that warmer days are upon us. And then… spring spits gropple from the sky and cries freezing rain and you can’t figure out why. So spring seems to hide and you wonder at its approach; is it a tangible thing you can reach out and touch or a sprite evaporating into the sky? Still…
We are all waking up to the promise of Spring
Though snow still covers the ground
Snowdrops, crocuses, and trilliums are preparing for the push
upward and outward into the sun.
Chickadees and titmice are practicing their Spring songs
Serenading the wind
And icicles are weeping in delight
Reuniting with kin who have formed puddles on the ground,
Who are now trickling into streams
and getting rambunctious into brooks.
Spring is heralded in by one thousands ways or more
All expressing the hope renewal brings.
Walking through forest and field still covered in snow one may not believe New England is destined for warmer weather. And yet in so many observable ways, one can see and hear and taste spring’s approach.
In February, you may have looked to the deciduous trees for assistance, noticing buds on new growth. Even in winter the oaks and beeches, maples and aspens, birches and cherry all prepare for spring’s warmth by setting forth their closed buds waiting to catch the sun.
The Spring Equinox marks of the first day of spring. Depending on the year, this date falls anywhere between March 20th- 23rd. This year it is on March 20th (my birthday). Though spring will not necessarily pop out on this particular date, the significance of the date and time is that the split in hours between day and night is equal. After the Spring Equinox the days begin to lengthen. As the days lengthen, the sun has more time to heat the soil and that is when you see spring seemingly to burst forth. Buds open into leaves or flowers and new green covers the landscape.
Late March brings skunk cabbage and when the skunk cabbage blooms, black bears will not be far behind. Though not true hibernators, black bears tend to sleep most of the winter and when they wake up they need something to get their digestive system running and so they eat skunk cabbage. Now if you happen to be constipated in the spring I would not recommend you run out to the nearest swampy area looking for a bear’s laxative. Skunk cabbage though not completely inedible if you are willing to boil it for a day, tastes awful and will numb your mouth, as a colleague of mine will attest to.
Whether or not you decided to sample the skunk cabbage, how about rinsing you mouth with the slight sweetness of birch water? You can make a delightful spring tonic from black birch (Betula lenta) or yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) by tapping a tree. But you only have a short window of 2-3 weeks to tap. Birch tapping is best and when daytime temperatures reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit and nights are still frost-ridden. It usually occurs when maple sugaring is just ending. Be a responsible harvester and plug up the hole after.
That wintergreen taste you are picking up on your taste buds – that is Methyl salicylate and it has medicinal properties – it’s an analgesic and anti-inflammatory, relieving minor aches and pains. And you don’t need to tap the tree to get the healing properties. I will snip off new growth, place in a pot of water, and steep for a good hour or more. Do not boil the twigs as that will destroy the wintergreen chemical compound and that is what you want, both for flavor and to ease the pain you got from shoveling too much snow. Given the low concentration of Methyl salicylate in the sap or tea you can reap the benefits without the toxicity; only in its pure form is it toxic. This chemical compound is in our mint chewing gum and mouthwash and topically as an analgesic cream. I am just giving you a wild option – go to the source – the birch tree.
So as you are sipping your spring tonic and watching the buds unfurl, listen to the change in the chickadee’s song. There will be less “dee-dee-dee” and more gentle “fee-bee” as the male sings to his mate. This is his song of thanksgiving – that he has made it through another winter and has a lovely territory for them to make a nest and brood in. You may want to avert your eyes as they sneak off into the bushes for some afternoon delight.
“Into the Outside” is a bi-monthly feature article in the Ashfield News by Ashfield resident and writer, Arianna Alexsandra Collins, which focuses on explorations of forest and field in Ashfield, MA. Arianna has a background in natural science and natural history.