Here Come the Storms

Driving rain and roaring thunder kept quiet all winter. Finally now, they push the silent snowfalls and feeble drizzles out of the picture. Springtime storms have arrived with a bang.

In St. Louis, we all have a story about a close encounter: a flood in the basement, a tornado in the neighborhood, hail the size of baseballs. We’ve seen it all, and we’re not afraid anymore. Who doesn’t like a good storm every once in awhile? To Midwestern folk, a big blasting thunderstorm is a little bit like a holiday that you can’t plan for.

The birds stop singing. The leaves start to fly as the wind whips up, and you know what kind of storm is coming. People get excited. It’s a special occasion—everybody’s day revolves around the same event.

And we’re stubborn. Even as the first drops fall and the thunder starts to rumble, you’ll see neighbors out and about walking their dogs, just strolling along without a hint of panic in their step. It’s only when the downpour starts that we finally step inside to stay dry. The whole family gathers around the big picture window or pulls up a chair on the front porch to watch the storm. You wouldn’t want to miss it.

Then the lightening bolts flash across the sky and the thunder grows from threatening grumbles to splitting cracks. This is when dad will say “Count the seconds between the lightening flash and the crack of thunder. For every five seconds, the storm is one mile away.” You count and count, and soon the sound and the light are simultaneous. If you close your eyes, the spray of the rain blowing up onto the porch makes you feel like a fisherman at sea.

Even when the sirens come on, most people brush them off. But if the storm gets serious enough, everyone will hide in the basement. Mom is excited to bring out her emergency crank-powered radio. The wind howls. Hail hammers the siding. And when it’s all over, everyone creeps out together, puts their hands on their hips, and surveys the damage.

Sometimes there are branches down over here and shingles gone over there; hail dents in the hoods of the cars who don’t have garages. Other times there’s hardly a sign at all of the storm that just raged. The golden sun lights up the wet streets, and the raindrops on the grass and windows sparkle. The birds start to sing again, and we know that the danger has passed.

Watching a thunderstorm brings a different kind of satisfaction. Tending a garden or walking in the park reminds us that, in spite of our urban environment, the natural world is always there to welcome us back. But a storm proclaims nature’s power. It brings us the story of a different kind of world, a world where nature calls the shots. And it reminds us that that world still exists.

First Flowers

It only took a week above freezing and a few warm rains to coax the ice out of the ground once and for all. Finally, the earth can be turned over and worked. Anyone with a garden can tell you that—they probably spent a giddy weekend with their hands in the dirt. People creep out of their homes and into the sunlight in slowly-growing numbers just to be outside. Just to look.

Still the green holds out on us, but little hints of color are popping up here and there to bring the news of the thawed soil to the surface. The delicate white snowdrops were the first to arrive a couple weeks ago. Now the daffodils and crocuses pop up out of the grass. Violets, tulips, and irises won’t be far behind. These first flowers are a promise: the big blooming is well on its way.

First, as always, there will be more rain. More mud. More cold nights. Spring is still quietly creeping out, and the people in the city are wary. They aren’t gonna greet it ’til its arrival is more obvious. When spring arrives in full sun and full color, you will no longer be alone with nature when you go outside. The bombastic, lively spring that we’re all waiting for could hit any time—and when it does, it’ll bring crowds out in droves. Every restaurant patio will be bustling. Every path through the park will be jammed. For now, let that little bit of light left in the sky at 7:30 be reason enough to take an evening walk. Go out into the quiet world and find those first whispers of spring.

Mud Moon

It’s this time of year more than any other that our four clean-cut seasons just don’t do the trick. Anyone who pays close attention knows that the earth doesn’t change like the flip of a switch. In these strange, soggy weeks it is clear: we are neither in winter nor in spring.

These are the days that are neither too cold to bear nor warm enough to stretch out and sigh. The temperature changes so quick each day that you can’t wear the same coat at midday that you do in the evening. The trees remain leafless, but they’re all budding. Flowers are nowhere to be seen, but the grass is turning greener. This isn’t winter as we’ve gotten to know it, but we know better than to call it spring. This is a season of its own, a totally different thing. This is the season of mud.

Everywhere you look, the earth is in-between. The mud is the one thing you can count on. Beneath the greening grass, the ice is cracking. The cold, hard ground is beginning to give. It softens. Water seeps up and out of the ground almost endlessly. And it rains all the time—even more water, falling always from the sky. Wet, wet, earth. Meadows and soccer fields take on the look of a marsh. You can imagine frogs living in these puddles, herons perching on a dry patch. It is a soggy time.

The gloom of these watery days isn’t dreary enough to hide the magic that they’re full of. The squish of the mud beneath your shoes means a ground chock-full of the ingredients for growth. The water is just the beginning. Life itself began in the waters of the oceans. It only makes sense that this new spring should begin with a flooding of the fields to set off the new round of life. Winter is over. This is the time of the Mud Moon.

At Long Last, March

March! At long last it’s here, and with it comes a feverish itch for spring’s arrival. Even though we should all know that spring won’t really be here ’til the end of the month, something about changing the calendar has changed our outlook, too. It doesn’t feel like winter; it feels like spring is here and any wintry behavior is a personal injustice to us and our March. We’ve all noticed that the sunny days are becoming more commonplace, and we’ve seen the buds appearing on the trees. Now is the time to start thinking about repotting, starting seeds inside for the garden, adding to the houseplant collection.

But even as this last of winter dwindles and we look forward to spring, let’s not forget that on the other end of summer, you’ll be hearing folks saying “I’m ready for fall,” “ready for sweater weather,” “ready for a break in the heat.” Nothing’s more natural than pining for the return of visible, tangible, new, green life to our world. But while we wait, think about the good things about winter: the crisp, refreshing shock of stepping out into a winter morning. The disappearance of biting bugs. The absence of sweat and heat exhaustion. The soft blues and browns of a sleeping landscape. The silver sparkle of frost and snow. Now months into a gloomy winter, these are the beauties we’ve gotten used to and forgotten. Treasure the last of them, for they won’t return for a long time now.

A Feeling Brewing

We got a sunset on Saturday that stopped people in their tracks. Another rainy day was fading without fanfare when the sun broke through. The light turned lavender and late-evening-yellow all at once. Heads poked out front doors at the sight. Neighbors stepped outside into a warm humidity they hadn’t felt in months. They walked down the street and stopped to talk about this welcome change of pace. Some folks tried to take pictures that didn’t turn out. A camera can’t capture a light so peculiar that everybody stops to look.

Those strange minutes faded away with the sun.  A nasty wind howled all night and brought the cold back with it. But we felt spring’s coming. Hints of it are creeping into town: Look outside at 6 p.m. and you’ll see a well-lit world. And the early-riser is just now getting relief from pitch-black mornings—by now, quarter to 7 shines with the full light of day. Listen on a sunny day and you’ll hear bird calls you haven’t heard in months—the mourning doves and the cardinals are singing. The cold weather won’t be leaving anytime soon. But there is a feeling brewing that we have crested the peak. We are creeping now toward spring.

Sweet February

February’s got a bad reputation. It’s wet and dull, and somehow every year it’s colder than we remember. But beyond the grey skies and the dirty roadside snow, new life is beginning in the branches above us and the burrows below. Lots of animals—woodchucks, minks, screech owls, opossums, rabbits, coyotes, American woodcocks, salamanders, flying squirrels, mourning doves—are mating this month as they prepare to bring forth new life in springtime. And there’s life at the heart of Missouri’s sugar maples in February too.

When you think of maple syrup farming, it’s probably Canada or New England that comes to mind. In fact, it’s possible to tap sugar maples in Missouri too, and February is the time to do it here. The thaw of February’s slightly warmer days paired with its freezing nights is the perfect recipe to make the sap flow more freely than it does any other time of year.

maple leaf filledYou can tap trees yourself, but make sure you read up before you dive in. You should know, for example, that you shouldn’t tap a tree that’s less than a foot in diameter. And don’t plant a new sugar maple, either—they’re somewhat of a problem in Missouri because they spread like wildfire and cast too much shade for a healthy amount of forest undergrowth to survive. But if you’re lucky enough to already have one on your property somewhere, February is tappin’ time. Right the middle of winter, tapping a sugar maple can bring you the same satisfaction as tending a summertime vegetable garden. It’s a lot of work, though—it takes around 40 gallons of sap to boil down to one gallon of syrup!

But plenty of people who live in the city don’t have a sugar maple in the yard—if we even have a yard at all. For us, it will have to be enough to remember that new life is on the way, and that even now, at the core of the sugar maples, golden sap runs through the veins of a living Earth.

Frozen Frogs

In the rain and snow, a hush seems to fall over the neighborhoods. The leaves aren’t there to rustle in the breezes, and the stray cats and little squirrels hide away. The people, too, are huddled in their dens, curled up in some quiet corner.

There’s one particular critter who hides especially well: the spring peeper. These frogs are native to Missouri, and they’re strange creatures. They snuggle into winter shelters of leaf piles, logs, and tree trunks, and won’t make a sound all winter. Along with a handful of other frog species, the spring peeper survives winter by going completely dormant–and even freezing through.

During their frozen slumber, the spring peeper is saved only by glycogen, a natural sugar in the frogs’ blood that acts as an antifreeze. This is just enough to keep ice crystals from forming in their vital organs. Its breath and heart have slowed to an almost undetectable rate, and the energy needed to keep these systems running at all comes from the same sugar. It ferments in their bodies and provides just enough energy to keep them alive.

The spring peeper runs out of glycogen stores right around the time that the first hint of warmth creeps into the air. So in the last days of winter, the spring peeper will miraculously thaw and awaken like the pet project of some mad scientist. This is where it gets its name: in that season of uncertainty, halfway between winter and spring, it emerges from its slumber and utters its call—a sequence of short peeps. The call of the spring peeper is said to be a sure sign that winter is relinquishing its bitter grip, and spring is on the way.

In the meantime, they sleep alongside the warmblooded hibernators in their shelters, waiting. And we wonder at a tiny frog who, for all our strength and smarts and stamina, would outlast us on a cold winter night.