This morning, the spiles dripping from our backyard maple bear silent tongues of ice. I sugared off the last of this nectar over the weekend: three final cups of dark syrup in the annual tally before buddy sap begins. Maple syrup is more winter's parting gift than a herald of Spring. Here on the cusp of the Equinox, the winds of March bear an Arctic chill.
Spring in New England is capricious and resists a steady progression from dark to light. On a balmy day, the cold press of earth may yield wetly underfoot only to harden in our tracks the next. Our native skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), much maligned for the foetid aroma it gives up when bruised, is remarkably adapted to our climate. Despite ambient air temperature it maintains an inner core of 72 degrees that is capable of melting through snow to attract the hardiest of pollinators.
The Equinox is a bittersweet expectancy, as each year I greet the promise of Spring with older eyes. The Mourning Cloak butterfly, the first of its kind we encounter in early Spring, wears its ragged wings like a shroud. Unlike the peripatetic Monarchs -all flash and dazzle and fresh from southern skies- the Mourning Cloak overwinters in these brutal climes. It nears the end of its days when we greet it anew in Spring. How it must welcome a reprise of that old remembered warmth at the last!
Snowdrop, crocus, daffodil: each a welcome burst of life and cheery bloom while our native flora are still asleep. The evergreen of Christmas Fern is a mirage, clad like the Mourning Cloak in last year's raiment. The glorious Spring ephemerals grace our woodlands in May, but only the first brave sheaths of the wild leeks emerge from the old, damp earth at the Equinox. Some of the earliest green in Spring is now the smothering mass of barberry, a greedy sprawl beneath the leafless canopy.
Once Spring is well begun, I shake off my melancholy. Only the hardest of hearts can remain unthawed in the glow of that riotous color, unmoved by the warbling joyful chorus. In the gathering green the days tumble and swirl like dandelion wine into long, luxuriant Summer. But here, balanced on the fulcrum of the vernal Equinox, we have not forgotten the bite of winter and may feel it again before the end. We are too close to its leaden weight to skip lightly on a cold Spring day. It takes light, and warmth, and irrepressible youth to tip the balance. I stand on the edge of that long, quiet field, waiting for the call to step off toward Spring.