On Spring

From Audubon’s Earth Almanac by Ted Williams and compiled in “Wild Moments,” edited by Connie Isbell, Illustrations by John Burgoyne, Storey Publishing, 174 pages. Spring Spring fever manifests itself in all sorts of ways. For Bill Adamonis -- late dean of Yankee “jiggermen” (ice fishermen) -- its main symptom was remorse. “Spring,” he would sigh, as our boots sank into honey-combed ice or the plaintive “fee-bee” of a male chickadee rose from the Cape Cod pitch pines, “always comes so early.” But while I have learned to love all seasons and have come to understand that nothing comes “alive” in spring because nothing “dies” in winter, I can’t profess to be immune to the giddiness that grips my fellow creatures from rodents to lagomorphs to canids to reptiles to birds, all the way down to humans. Spring is a grand time for all who love nature and want to learn more about it. But is also a difficult and confusing time, because everything happens at once. Your senses are bombarded with stimuli. At 4:30 a.m. you’re rousted from sleep by a cacophony of birdsong. Who is saying what? If you look down to admire blooming cowslips, trout lilies or a freshly undenned snake, a mourning cloak will sail by you at head level. But how can you watch butterflies when the crowns of budding hardwoods are rustling with warblers? And how can you concentrate on any of these things when the south wind carries the heady fragrance of wet earth, open marsh, and rambling skunks, and when wood frogs are quacking at you from every vernal pool? Adding to the confusion of spring are the striking differences between its beginning, middle and end. Spring should be at least two seasons. Each plant blooms at its own time. Each migratory bird arrives on its own schedule. Looking at and seeing the natural world is a skill that takes years to acquire. You can learn it and teach it much more effectively if you keep a journal of “firsts” and if, on every expedition, you make a list of notable sightings. Kids respond well to such lists, especially when they’re assigned the task of writing down each entry. A trip in the car that might have been spent playing pocket video games can just as easily become a natural history lesson. “Does that count?” our children would demand, as we passed a gray squirrel. Well, no. It has to be a “notable” sighting. In our yard there’s scarcely a time when a squirrel isn’t in view. Still, this one might have made the list, had it been alive. The crow that hopped off it, however, was eagerly recorded by Scott. Beth got to record the woodchuck that, shortly thereafter, rose to survey the traffic from the grassy median. The lesson they were learning was not wildlife identification but the art of looking and seeing. Never take children on “nature walks.” This smacks of the teaching from which they have just been sprung. Remember, the term is “expedition,” and there should be a stated purpose -- even if bogus. Collecting pussy willows, for example, building a house out of sticks and leaves, collecting chrysalides, catching pollywogs…. And remember, the most indelible natural-history lessons are taught by actions not words. For example, it took me years to unlearn the lesson taught me by my maternal grandmother who, on encountering a large snapping turtle crossing our island road in June, fetched an ax-toting woodsman to separate it from its head. But on June 7, 2003, at Trout Lake camp deep in the woods of Quebec’s Eastern Townships, my five-year-old pal Forrest Stearns dashed up to me, grinning proudly and clutching a writhing garter snake -- the first we’d encountered that year. She had never considered the possibility that someone might recoil in disgust from snakes because she had never seen anyone do such a thing. By stopping to admire snakes, her parents had taught her that they are beautiful and special. Spring bird watching is an exercise in frustration. Most birds, and especially neotropical migrants, don’t hold still long enough to be identified even by people who don’t need to flip through field guides. Forget bird watching, and take up bird listening. Audio tapes of the songs and calls of birds you’re likely to encounter in your area are available from local Audubon gift shops and birding supply stores. You can even download them free over the internet, if you do a search for “birdsong” or “birding by ear.” In our family the most important events of the new year have never been reported by the media. “All news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea,” Thoreau correctly observed. For us genuine “news,” is the first appearance of one of the chipmunks that den around the backyard flower garden. Almost always it pops up through corn snow, stretches, sits erect, and gazes around its property. Almost always I am there to see it because the den is ten feet from my office window. Other major news events in our household are: the first turkey vulture, the first male red-winged blackbird, the first phoebe, the first spring peepers, the first bumblebee, the first painted turtle; later the first catbirds, the first towhee; later still the first Baltimore oriole, the first lady’s slipper, the first firefly…. One fine, gusty March morning Beth ran back into the classroom from recess to announce monumental news to Miss Smith, her second-grade teacher. The first turkey vulture of the year! “No,” intoned Miss Smith. “There are no turkey vultures around here.” Beth was puzzled. She had been taught that teachers know best. On the other hand, she had been taught that turkey vultures show up at this time of year in central Massachusetts, that they are large, black birds with naked heads and dihedral wings, and that they wobble when they fly. She knew what a turkey vulture looked like as well as she knew what Santa Claus looked like. “But I saw one,” she declared. “No,” said Miss Smith. Just before school got out for the summer Miss Smith carefully explained to the class that there was no Santa Claus. Beth was crestfallen to hear this news. While neither she nor Scott had ever met Santa Claus, they had encountered all manner of evidence of his annual visits -- chewed up carrots and ungulate droppings on the porch roof, presents accidentally dropped on the roof and addressed to other children and which Scott and Beth were allowed to play with for exactly one year until the following Christmas eve when they had to return them to Santa with explanatory notes, never to see them again. When Beth informed me that there was no Santa Claus I asked her how she had arrived at this conclusion. “Miss Smith told me,” she said. “Well of course Miss Smith doesn’t believe in Santa Claus,” I responded. “She doesn’t even believe in turkey vultures.” Beth thought for a moment. “Oh yeah,” she said.