Another spring: Big deal

March 03, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE de GRACE -- On the last morning in February, Leap Day, there was ice on the spring-fed water troughs, the ground was pavement-hard, and a sharp penetrating wind cut through several layers of clothes and made me pull the hood of my sweatshirt up over my cap. But I felt like whistling, and almost did.

That was because whatever the forecasters and the thermometer have to say about it, this long winter's done. Whether March comes in like a lion, a lamb or a surly old groundhog will make no significant difference at all. The new season won't be official until the equinox arrives in three more weeks, but it's already under way.

As the great naturalist Hal Borland notes in his ''Book of Days,'' this is part of a process much bigger than weather. ''The really important thing about the first few days of March isn't the temperature, or the wind, or the rain or snow, or the clear blue sky -- when it is clear and blue.

''The important thing is the sunlight, almost eleven and a quarter hours of it now between sunrise and sunset. Right there, in that sunlight, are the potentialities, the beginnings, actually, of spring and summer and autumn, of sprouting and growth and ripeness.''

The early March light is different from that of a month ago in quality as well as quantity. As the sun moves north and the angle of its light changes, what days before had been a winter landscape suddenly looks different. Plants sense the change. So do animals. So does a man in a sweatshirt, shivering but wanting to whistle.

Of course the warm spell that preceded this Leap Day's chill helped the change along too. A couple of days of sun and wind had dried the muddy fields, and last weekend those of us who had been waiting impatiently for the chance to get out onto the ground with farm machinery were finally able to do so.

It was welcome weather for spreading fertilizer, for discing corn stubble, in some places even for plowing. On our farm, we took advantage of it by spreading two huge piles of semi-composted manure, and then crossed that annual job off the early-spring list.

Everywhere you looked during those windy days, but especially in the sky, there was more evidence of seasonal change. Gulls soared inland, looking for worms on top of the soft ground. One afternoon when I was up on a shed roof nailing down flapping sheets of tin so that they wouldn't blow away I saw the first big group of migrating robins. Bluebirds have been checking out nesting boxes.

A flock of northbound mergansers spent several days in the Susquehanna off Havre de Grace. Soon I expect to see loons, and by the middle of March the ospreys will be back. One morning this week I heard the whistle of tundra swans overhead, but only a few. When they start passing over in great numbers, we'll know for a fact that March is here.

A reasonable question

But why make such a fuss over it, you might reasonably ask.

Spring's arrival isn't even unusual. It's not a once-in-a-lifetime happening, like the O.J. trial or the introduction of Windows 95. It's more like Mothers Day or the State of the Union address, in that it occurs every year, or maybe 70 times in what's supposed to be a normal human lifetime.

Sure, there are minor variations from time to time, but by and large every year it's the same old thing, like all those other seasons. Every year by early summer the days begin to get shorter, and then in about six months they start getting longer again. Ho hum.

It's no mystery. We know exactly why and how it happens, or at least Science does, which is close enough. There was something on public television about it, wasn't there, or was it in the National Geographic? The earth goes looping around the sun, sort of wobbling, and the amount of daylight comes and goes. Big deal. Are we supposed to sit outside staring at the sky, like the druids at Stonehenge? Hey, get a life. Come indoors, have a brew, watch ''Melrose Place.''

Well, with all due respect to the hospitable Melrosers, let's have that brew outdoors. We might just sit here and watch exactly where the red sun drops into the woods, and then we might come back tomorrow at about the same time and see if we can tell how much it's moved. Maybe while we're sitting we'll hear the sound of swans.

Seventy springs seems like quite a few, but as A.E. Housman observed when he was still a young man, ''Take from seventy springs a score,/ It only leaves me fifty more.'' And if you've watched more than 50 of them come and go, it only leaves you -- well, not as many as you'd like. And unlike ''Melrose Place,'' they can't be taped for future use.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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