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.

First Signs

Winter’s still got a pretty tight grip on St. Louis for now, but there are signs everywhere that the thick of it has passed and we are on our way towards springtime. This year there’s even hope for an early one. Some of the signs that are popping up now aren’t unique to this particular year–the furry buds of the magnolia tree, the sunlight slowly stretching into the evening hours…

But some of what’s happening now isn’t always around this early. Green shoots have already broken through the soil of bulb gardens. Delicate snowdrops bloomed weeks ago, looking like little white bells on their stems. They hang their heads on cold days but perk back up with the touch of sunlight. Purple and yellow crocus dot the still-brown grass. Red-winged blackbirds have already appeared in St. Louis, making their migratory journey a little bit earlier this year. The groundhog predicted an early spring, too, and after a few days of single-digit temperatures, it’s feeling like a good year to be superstitious.

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.

A Warm Rain

There’s something different about a warm rain. It always feels like the earth is welcoming it. In March or April the rain is cold. It might kill little blossoms or shrivel early sprouts. We curl into our raincoats and wish the last whispers of winter would leave us alone already. But a warm rain is different. You can sense the life that it brings.

A warm rain slaps the leaves, wets the earth. It brings out smells that you forgot about after last summer—the fresh smell of wet dirt, the soft smell of wet pavement. It fills the air with freshwater mist.

A warm rain might grow violent—loud with wind and thunder. Angry with a thrashing tornado. It might overstay its welcome and fill up the rivers—as it is doing right now.

But these rains are breathtaking. They demand that you stop what you’re doing, if only for a moment, and pay attention to their sound, their smell, their show. A sunny day might be taken for granted, but a warm rain puts your mind on nature. It turns your eyes towards the window and sends your feet towards the porch.

 

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 Bees Are Back

The sun returns with a buzz. The buzz of the weed-whacker. The buzz of your neighbor’s lawnmower waking you up on a late Saturday morning. And the buzz of the bees, zipping through gardens and bumping into bushes.

You might wish you could banish stinging bugs from your yard entirely. But bees aren’t aggressive. They’re just fuzzy little fellas minding their own business and working the day away. They might give you a sting if you don’t respect their space, but that’s not so different from a house cat.

Unless you’ve had your head in the sand for awhile, you know that for quite some time there’s been an effort to educate the public on bee benefits after some alarming numbers came out about declining bee populations. Now the general consensus seems to be that the bees are on the upswing, but there’s a lot of uncertainty. Overall, it seems that the commercial honeybees that we use for agriculture are doing fine these days, and, in Missouri at least, our native bees are doing better too.

Still, it doesn’t hurt anything to give them a little extra help. Yards and gardens will benefit from having more bees around, too. You can help them out by laying off the pesticides. If your vegetables are being attacked by pests and you have to use some, it helps if you wait to spray until dusk when most bees are back home inside the hive for the evening.

If you have a yard or a balcony, you can also give native bees a boost by planting native wildflowers. A few of their favorites are butterfly milkweed, blue wild indigo, aromatic aster, and purple coneflower, among others. They tend to like bright colors—so much so that you might even find them landing on your shirtsleeve if you’re wearing something bright blue or yellow. Don’t swat them when they do! They’ll figure out where they are in no time and buzz off to the next flower, then the next, and back to the hive, where every worker bee supports the life of all the others, and where the colony together supports the life of countless plants.

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.