Sunday, March 17, 2013


For the last week or so, I’ve been keeping my senses alert for the earliest signs of spring.

In a lot of ways, spring is our most flamboyant season but I just know, somewhere out there, it’s making a subtle entrance.

Despite the cold chill and the last flurries, I know spring is happening, can feel it in my bones.

The race is on.  Spring.  Nature’s first green.

But I didn’t want to catch the kind of spring that makes the news. 

That kind of spring is easy to see, hard to overlook.  It’s a princess.  I wanted to find the kind of spring that doesn’t need to announce itself, the kind of spring that opens the windows for the rest of the season, the trigger that draws back the curtains and calls the rest of the kingdom to rise.

That was my hunt: spring’s modesty.

I wanted to find the meek spring before its gets too gaudy and too flashy.

It’ll take keen eyes, a quiet mind and small hands to notice its arrival but isn’t that always the case when it comes to noticing humility?

There are, of course, the big signs of spring, signs so big that they are beyond my four dimensions, signs that go unnoticed by my own feeble five senses.

Like the length of days.  Beginning on March 17th, the day is now equal parts sunlight and moonlight.  Check the almanac.  Sunrise at 6:52am, sunset at 6:53pm.

The twelve-hour day is back.

We’re seven days ahead of Daylight Savings Time, six days past the new moon, two days beyond the Ides of March and three days away from the vernal equinox.

According to the Medicine Wheel, we’re in the transitional phases between the Big Wind Moon and the Budding Trees Moon.

But look at that calendar.

This March spans five weeks, enough room to squeeze in just a few extra phases.  This is sometimes called the Full Worm Moon, a time when the ground softens and the worms begin turning the soil and crawling back into the sunlight which is, itself, a trigger for the birds to return. 

Up north in New England, they call it the Full Sap Moon because it’s the harvest time for maple syrup.  Go even further north, up there where the new angle of the sun now bounces off the everlasting ice, and they call it the Moon When Eyes Are Sore From Bright Snow.

But all that is just pie-in-the-sky mumbo jumbo.  What really matters?  The world is no longer pointed north.  East has arrived, spring should be here, last moon of winter.

Thank Wabun, last moon of winter.

Now, where you at, spring?


There are five common street trees that are reliably known for early spring flowering: maple, pear, cherry, dogwood, magnolia.

Thanks to all those bright lights and all that heavy traffic, plus all that body heat, the inner city grid is warmer compared to the still wild parts of the city.

So it isn’t hard to see spring’s arrival down here on the mean streets.

That’s the cherry.

Some cherries are even more ahead of the game and have already opened up some flowers.

The maples have also started its spring season.

That’s about as big as those flowers get and, within the next two weeks, the maples will be the first trees to leaf out.

The magnolia flowers are still about two weeks away from their spring show, all that fuss and glory, so while you can, take a quick look at those giant, fuzzy buds.

Remember the magnolia flower?  Those spectacular, showy petals are just churning away inside, waiting to spring out like a jack-in-the-box.

These are the typical, predictable signs of spring and, in the next few weeks, these kinds of trees will dominate the spring show and grab all my attention.


I was hunting for something a little more subtle.

Like this Japanese cypress called the cryptomeria…

….if I walk just a few steps closer, I can catch the budding of their cones.

I can also catch spring flowing from the willow trees.

These young, yellowish branches are called switches.

There are farms out there that produce willow trees just for these switches, harvested and sold to sustain the wicker furniture conglomerates, those bastards.

Then there’s the ginkgo tree, a tree that’s always worth watching… matter what the season, this tree is always working, always moving.

Those weird knobby spurs are fattening up, ready to punch out those prehistoric leaves.

I’ve been watching the ginkgo for years now.

I’ve become more and more convinced that, more than any other tree, the ginkgo’s behavior is tied directly to the phases of the moon.

Last autumn, I noticed that the ginkgo trees dropped all their leaves right after November’s last new moon.  It’s true.

Based on that observation, I am ready to make another official prediction: the ginkgo will leaf out after the rise of the next new moon…which according to the almanac…April 10th.

Okay, maybe right after the next full moon, March 27th.


Seeing spring on the street was great and all…but it kind of felt like cheating.

After all, these are street trees and street trees have a different sense of timing than the trees out there in the woods and the wilds.

Down here on the mean streets, the spring show is only a week or so away.

Out there in the woods, trees are a little more patient and a little more apprehensive about starting the growing season.  One look at the ten-day forecast and you can see why.

It’s a long season and there’s no need to rush out those delicate flowers.

But still…there must be some signs of spring out there in the wilds.

With that in mind, I drove out to the northeast to walk the trails of the Pennypack Creek.



If I took my time, if I stayed alert, I was sure I could hunt it down.  I was certain that somewhere in this stark, dormant, gray and silent woods, I could find the arrival of spring.

My hunt didn’t start out that promising.

Turns out, it wasn’t going to be so easy, leaving winter behind.

Right at the beginning of the trail, I stood face to face with one of nature’s most fearsome trees, a tree that just screams out winter.

That’s the prickly ash.

It looks like it belongs in some medieval torture chamber.

Or it should be the inspiration for some legendary, long lost king's deathblow weapon.

It’s known around the world for its formidable defense.

These thick, sharp prickles grow out of its tender branches…

…and then, as the tree gets older, the wood around the older prickles grows thicker and thicker…

 …eventually forming the rocky, stumpy trunk that gives the tree its other name…Hercules club.

The Native Americans called it the toothache tree because its bark contains zanthoxlyum, a chemical that causes numbing when reacted with saliva.  The Indians used to chew on small pieces of the bark or twigs when they were battling toothaches and, on the other side of the world, their seeds are harvested under the name of the Sichuan peppercorn.

This isn’t what I was hunting for.  Not at all.

This tree belongs to winter.  I was done with winter.

The trail continued and so did I. 

I could tell I was getting closer and closer to spring.

There.  Hidden among those fallen branches, that smitch of yellow creeping under that green cover above that fresh layer of late snow…

…that’s the lesser celandine, part of the buttercup family.

It’s a famous flower, actually, in the history of English literature.  William Wordsworth wrote three poems about this little flower alone.

The celandine also appears frequently in the novels of D.H. Lawrence…going down the hedgeside with the girl, he noticed the celandines, scalloped splashes of gold…and it’s also one of the most frequent flowers found in the Elfish kingdom of Lothlorien in The Lord of the Ringsgreat ilexes of huge girth stood dark and solemn in wide glades…about them lay long launds of green grass dappled with celandines…

I felt like I was getting closer and closer to spring.

On the trail, I found broken twigs, decked with maple flowers…

…new branches not yet strong enough for the final assault of winter winds.

And then…just a few bends of the trail later…

…growing in a tight colony called a clump, drooping those bright white heads of flowers…

…that’s spring.

Thank Wabun, here’s spring.

That’s called the common snowdrop. 

Its Latin name translates to milk flower and, in the field guides, it’s often described as having a bell-shaped flower but I’ve always thought they more resembled lanterns.

Maybe they were officially named before the invention of electricity, when lantern-light wasn’t yet so white.


A lot of times, Mother Nature is portrayed as a generous mother, wise and ancient yet never wrinkled, with long hair full of flowers and outstretched arms with open palms, maybe wearing a homemade dress with a train of dried leaves.

Citybillies, nature writers and tree hunters, we usually see it as something else.

Pure machine.

Everything great and small is just a moving part.  One thing moves another, an interlocking series of triggers and cogs.

Some people see it as a Wheel.

Whatever.  It’s an incomplete picture if it doesn’t contain a sense of humor.

That’s right.  Mother Nature, benevolent and tender, shrewd and practical, has a great sense of humor.

You know how I know?

Because the first sign of spring is a little flower called the snowdrop.

Nature’s first green isn’t green at all.  It’s white and yellow, red and pink.

Soon, it’ll be all blossoms: maple, pear, cherry, dogwood, magnolia.

Can’t wait.

Soon, there’ll be leaves, sprouts and strawberries.  Lots and lots of strawberries.

And long days full of potential.

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