In Spite of It All, Springtime

An early spring comes as a welcome surprise in St. Louis. The past few years have seen cold, rainy winters that stretched deep into April, even into May.

And this year more than ever, we need the welcome color of the greening grass, the fragrant whisper of early flowers. The past weeks have brought nothing but sickening uncertainty for humanity as COVID-19 shuts down city streets, cuts off income, and takes lives.  We hunker down inside with our cellphones and frozen vegetables, but there is nothing more we can do.

There is freedom, though, in realizing that you are doing all you can–the freedom to let go of the rest. To step away from the constant sick count updates and to bake a loaf of bread. To slow your anxious heartbeat and to read a book.  And the freedom to step outside and take a walk and to see, in spite of it all, the fresh breath of springtime.

Already the magnolias and cherry blossoms are in flower, and many will peak this week. Daffodils sprout up in sunny bunches. Crocus, squill, and hellebores are in full bloom. The smell of hyacinths skips on the wind. Birdcalls we haven’t heard in months sound from treetops in the early morning light, and the sun sets later and later in the evenings. The buds that promise summer’s leaves nod in the breeze. Around them, our routines, our jobs, our systems all crumble. But new life marches on: the mourning dove now building her nest; a forecast full of life-giving rain; and the delicate petals of a tulip, just unfolding–each of these is a sweet promise for the dawn of a new morning.

Last Evenings

This weekend marks a point of no return. Until now, you might have been able to go through life hardly noticing just how much sooner the sun has been setting each night. But as we set our clocks back, the end of Daylight Saving Time finally forces us to be conscious of the sun’s schedule–and, for those of us who hate to see it go, to come to terms with it. It was only a couple short weeks ago that the temperatures remained in the eighties and nineties, and perhaps only days ago that it seemed the warmth and the sun might stick around awhile longer or come back for one last hurrah. But it seems that this year, winter is rushing in early to make up for autumn’s tardy arrival.

The loss of another evening hour of sunlight makes it impossible to ignore how quickly the darkness is pushing out the sun and becoming the majority of the day. With the help of the time change, it will only be a few weeks before the shadows grow long at quarter to four and the dark sets in by five. In these months, there’s no true evening to speak of–just afternoons cut short by darkness.

So here we are in the last of the evenings. These long nights are necessary for all the life that lives out in the elements. They stretched and grew in the sun all summer long, and now it is their time to rest. To them there is no time change, only the sunrise and the sunset, the ebb and flow of the seasons. But because our time is named with numbers and packed tight with full schedules, take Daylight Saving Time as a reminder to soak up the last few fall evenings before they slip away.

June Bugs

In St. Louis, the June Bug is an annual summer visitor. When they first arrive, they startle you tapping on the window. They whack and crack on the glass until you get up to see who’s at the door; then you remember the yearly summer flight of these brown beetles.

These bugs are harmless to humans but unpopular nonetheless. In large numbers, they can damage lawns or crops. They make people squirm when they bombard porchlights and screen doors. Their armored little bodies and thorny little legs give them an unsettling prehistoric look.

But have no doubt: they aren’t going anywhere. They were here long before we were. Every year, they will announce their arrival with a buzz straight into a brick wall. And they’ll depart in a lifeless parade, floating down the lazy river and into the filters of the community pool.

The Lightning Bugs Arrive

The nights, too, are warm now, and that brings the promise of life at its swarming peak. The bugs now return in great numbers. Bugs are cold-blooded, so some remain inactive when it’s under 50 degrees. With the chill is gone from the air, all creatures are safe to come out.

Bugs tend to be unwelcome at human affairs, but there are a few for whom we make exceptions. The firefly is one of these special few. Who can resist the beauty of the lightning bugs floating on the mist of a sticky summer night?

Long before they emerge to light up your backyard, lightning bugs are doing good deeds. Firefly larvae–glowworms–are carnivorous, so they feed on the pests and grubs that would eat up our gardens. It’s been said that when they do emerge as adults, it’s safe to plant warm-weather crops. The fireflies know that the cold snaps are over.

Lightning bugs love the humid weather that St. Louis summers are so well-known for. The stickier the night, the more fireflies you’re likely to see. And after a wet spring like this one, they tend to come out on the early side. Some have already been out and about in the daylight, just crawling around and getting familiar with their new world. They ought to be arriving in numbers soon, here to set our backyards twinkling. Haven’t they been there for every summer you can remember? Something about it sets your heart beating. They are tiny miracles, little glowing bugs that embody, perhaps more than any other creature, that simple magic of summer.

Blackberry Winter

Have you heard of a blackberry winter? It’s the name for an out-of-place rush of cold that comes late in the spring to make sure you haven’t forgotten what it feels like. Blackberry winter is spring’s equivalent to autumn’s “Indian summer.” It’s named after the blackberry blossoms that will wither in this unexpected cold.

It has other names, too, depending on who you ask. Some call it “linsey-woolsey britches winter,” and they won’t pack away their long underwear ’til it shows its face and passes. It’s safe to say—to hope—that this wet and shivery past weekend was our blackberry winter, and the cold is behind us once and for all.

The animals seem to think so. As the weeks have grown warmer, the babies have started arriving. Young squirrels are huddled up in their nests, many still too feeble to climb. Opossums ride along safely in their mothers’ pouches. Baby robins are everywhere, learning to fly. Foxes are still tucked away in their dens, as baby rabbits are in theirs. In the coming weeks they’ll all emerge with confidence, ready to take on the world. Ready to live, to eat, and to avoid getting eaten.

For now, most still depend on their mothers. But blackberry winter is past. Close quarters aren’t so cozy when it’s hot outside. It’s time now for us to put away our sweaters and long underwear, time for the critters to step out into the world they’ll learn to live in. This is the moment their mothers have been waiting for all winter long. It’s the moment that millions of years of their species’ survival has come to: the beginning of new lives.

The Last Frost

April 15th is the average last frost in St. Louis. But we know that date is no promise. In the past couple weeks, the temperature sank close to freezing more than once. April rains are unpredictable, sometimes bringing in cold; other times warmth. Days drop 30 degrees without warning.

But the winds are changing. More and more often, the warmth sticks around for awhile. The weather blows over, defying forecasts for thunder and rain. You start to feel bold enough to leave the house without a jacket.

Those who plant peppers, okra, or other heat-loving plants find a little more certainty at the end of April. The seeds of these plants can’t survive the cold and shouldn’t be planted outside until two weeks after the average last frost. With April 15th two weeks behind us, we have made it. And it’s not just the gardeners that know it—every creature has figured out that it’s safe to come out. Early blooming trees like magnolias have already lost their blossoms to the green of their leaves. The bees are back and buzzing in the sun. Birds we only see in springtime are passing through now on their way back up North. Azaleas are in full bloom.

This is spring as we dream of it through winter. Not the uncertain spring of March and April—the flowering, bustling, breezy spring of May.

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.