The Beautiful and Terrifying Arrival of an Early Spring
NASHVILLE — At first I thought this winter’s strange weather was merely part of the boomerang pattern we contend with more and more frequently in these climate-troubled days — warm spells that might rightly be called hot spells, hard freezes that descend so quickly the plants don’t have time to adjust. On one January day, the temperature fell so far so fast here that many nonnative evergreen trees and shrubs froze to death. On one February day the high hit 85 degrees, destroying records and causing my woolly-haired dog to stretch out on the hardwood floor, panting. I hadn’t thought to schedule the groomer so early in the year.
But the uncommonly warm days of winter turned out not to be a warm spell, or even a hot spell. The uncommonly warm days of winter turned out to be spring.
The wildflowers collectively known as spring ephemerals emerged all over our yard last month: violets and spring beauties and early buttercups and henbit and two different kinds of speedwell. These tiny woodland flowers make their appearance in the first mild days of springtime to take advantage of the abundant light in a forest still bare of leaves. In sunnier yards than ours — if the yards have not been drenched in landscaping poisons, at least — spring beauties can grow so thick they take your breath away.
Before long the trees and woody shrubs were waking up, too. At our house, the redbud is just budding out, but across the street our neighbors’ tree is already in full bloom. The sugar maples and oakleaf hydrangeas and northern spicebush trees are just past budburst, and our red maple has been in full bloom for more than a week. For the first time ever, one of our young pawpaws is blooming. Pawpaw seedlings don’t bloom for years, and it lifted my heart to see those little flowers on our tree for the first time.
But everywhere spring was unfurling its annual magnificence weeks ahead of the norm, even the recent norm. Last year I found the first spring beauty in our yard on March 10. This year it was Feb. 16. Last year the first buds on our redbud showed up on March 24. This year it was Feb. 23. Same story with the early buttercups: Last year they bloomed on March 23. This year it was Feb. 25.
The songbirds are equally confused. Before the winter visitors had even packed their bags, the residents were choosing nest sites. Every time I walked out the back door, I startled a Carolina wren investigating the mesh bag of clothespins hanging on the line. Carolina wrens famously nest close to human beings, often in potted plants but sometimes in bizarre places like old boots, winter-idle gas grills and the pockets of potting-shed aprons. I would gladly cede my clothesline to a wren family for the spring, but so far no domed nest has appeared among the clothespins.
I figured the wrens were only doing what wrens normally do on any warm day in February: scouting out the options for a nesting season that would commence some time hence. Most songbirds seem to understand that warmth in winter is unlikely to last, that another Arctic blast is bound to stomp in before true spring finally shivers into green. Or maybe it’s just that winter always comes back quickly enough for them to give up on the idea of nesting.
This year it didn’t. Every day now a pair of female bluebirds arrives to investigate the nest box in our front yard. They take turns — one will climb all the way into the box while the other hangs in the doorway and peers inside. Then they switch places. I’m puzzled by this behavior, for in a normal spring they would be fighting for territorial rights to a prime nesting site in a rapidly changing neighborhood with fewer and fewer places to nest.
Perhaps they are mother and daughter, or sisters still together from last year’s final clutch. Perhaps they are as puzzled as I am. I keep waiting for one of them to start a nest anyway. Some of the wildlife rescue groups I follow on social media have already had their first calls about young robins in trouble. Baby birds! In February!
Out in the marshy woods of Radnor State Natural Area, the great blue heron rookery is in full swing, too. I counted four nests in the still-leafless sycamore, each in full view of the bald eagles that are also nesting at the lake. The forest is cooler and shadier than my yard, so the spring ephemerals are just emerging there. I was happy to see the little stand of toadshade trilliums and cutleaf toothwort that I look for every year, but I was happier still to see that spring seemed to be a bit slower to arrive in the woods.
It’s impossible not to be terrified about all this. I worry that winter will come roaring back to blast all these flowers and all these baby birds. I worry that this early spring is the harbinger of a brutal and everlasting summer. I worry most that careless human beings continue to be so careless and that profit-mad corporations continue to be so mad. For the life of me I cannot understand the politicians who keep behaving as though what is happening to the climate isn’t an existential threat.
But I also can’t help delighting in these tiny flowers reaching for the sun, and I make no effort to beat back my pleasure in this season of beginnings. I surrender to the thrumming promise in the springtime air. The birds sing, and God help me I sing too.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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