Serviceberry Trees at Blossom Time

May 8, 2017

It’s blossom time in Maine.  In the woods the blooms tend to be of the not-so-showy type, packaged in pale greens and muted reds that make them—at least at a distance—hard to distinguish from the still tiny, emerging leaves in similar colors.  But there is one clear exception, a tree with slender stems hung with pure white star-shaped blossoms: the serviceberry.

There are many species of serviceberry (a.k.a shadbush) native to North America.  The one that charms me close to home in Maine is, I think, the Allegheny serviceberry, or smooth shadbush, a small tree whose non-shaggy trunk and long, elegant branches can take on a surprising range of colors.  It’s a lovely tree that most of the year tends to go unnoticed.

Its grace, always there,
now turns visible to all–
smooth shadbush in bloom


The Rosy Side of Spring Drizzle

April 26, 2017

I know that after the long winters we have in Maine, the days of spring drizzle, even when the temperature is in the fifties, are not loved.  It’s April and everyone is eager for sun and real warmth, the kind of warmth when you feel genuinely comfortable—not just pretending to be ok—in sandals and short sleeves.  We have had that—a little—but these past two days have been all lowering clouds and chilly rain.  Bands of mist have hovered over the lake all day, and everything on land is drenched, beaded and filmed with water.

The view out my study window is gray.

I don’t deny that most of what we think of as spring color—the bright yellow of the daffodils for example—loses some of its luster in the spring drizzle.  But I think some colors gain from the rain, glowing with a subtle radiance that is lost in full sunlight.  This is true of the frothy scarlet of red maple flowers.  The maples are at the height of their bloom now and their crowns have been gleaming in the marsh and in the hills against a backdrop of dark conifers.  It is also true of the color in the hearts of the rain-swollen acorns that fell in such abundance from the red oaks last fall.  This time of year, the husks of fallen acorns crack open a little, exposing a slice of  rose-red flesh.  In subdued light, when slick with rain, this fiery flesh can glow.

Soft gray world of rain—
Old acorns crack open now
sprouting, red with life

Spring Black Ice

April 19, 2017

Although the temperatures are in the mid-forties today and decidedly not balmy, a wind has been blowing since mid-morning and that has been enough to break up and sink the last of the lingering sheets of fragile ice on the lake.  Ice out!

Every year just before ice out, the stretches of ice—granular from repeated thawing and freezing—become thin and porous, allowing the lake water to seep into the grainy matrix.  At this stage, the watery ice absorbs virtually all the sunlight that falls on it and appears almost perfectly black. This black ice has a nubbly texture, with some sharp angles mixed in.  It is completely different from the smooth, clear black ice that sometimes forms in a sudden cold snap in late fall.  It can be hauntingly beautiful.

Spring black ice is short lived, lasting no more than a week. This year the black ice appeared in the seventy-degree warmth of Easter Sunday and ended this afternoon.  At one point during this three-day window, a flock of migrating ducks landed on a narrow margin of open water near the shore.  They cruised and dove, seemingly unfazed by the still closed nature of most of the lake.

Orange mergansers glide
down a thread of open lake
by dark plains of ice

Pussy Willows in Snow

April 2, 2017

Yesterday’s April Fools snowstorm put down seven inches of wet snow on top of a still thick and stubbornly persistent snow cover.  While the daytime temperatures here are reaching into the high thirties and forties and tree buds are certainly beginning to swell, it still looks a whole lot like winter.

Except for one thing: pussy willow buds.

I spotted some in a low, wet patch of land near our house.  Silvery and soft, they are a very early spring flower, appearing this year ahead of the crocuses which need more snow to melt before they can make a showing.  It’s true that pussy willow buds are not flowers in the customary sense of the word.  They don’t have petals or the female reproductive parts.  The buds are the flowers of male plants of some willow species.  Over time the bud matures in the warmth secured by its kitten-soft covering and opens to become a miniature bottlebrush of pale green stamens.  Anyone who has ever brought home a spray of pussy willow, filled a jam jar or vase with water, and set the spray out to admire for a week or two knows of this stage of pussy willow maturation, and of the dusting of yellow pollen that appears as if by magic at the base of the jar. The opened flowers of the pussy willow have their charm, but there are enough pictures and stories from northern countries to make it clear that it is the first soft silver buds–the ones just appearing now–that bring us humans joy.

I too want to sleep
beneath a fuzzy cover of
pussy willow fur

Vernal Equinox

March 20, 2017

It’s true that the start of spring can seem pretty subtle here in Maine, but the steadily increasing light and off-again, on-again rise in temperature have an inescapable impact on everything alive.  It might look a lot like winter out there, but it’s not. Spring is here, it’s just quiet, taking place unobserved under bark or skin, as sap rises or an animal’s hormones shift.  At this point, spring is more something felt than observed, but if you look closely you can see small signs of it.  Buds are already swelling on the maples.  Jackets are not always needed, and yesterday a slim stoat zipped over the snow outside my window in a coat that was mostly pure winter white, but that showed on the back a trace of summer caramel coloring.

Everything says “Now!”
Beamed back from melting snow fields,
twelve hours of sunlight

Pruning Crabapple Trees at the Start of Daylight Saving Time

March 12, 2017

It is the start of daylight saving time today.  We woke to bright sunlight and an outdoor temperature of 3 degrees F.  While that level of cold does not make one think of the start of spring, twelve hours of daylight does.  In the end, the light—not the cold—will win out; new growth, though hard to see, is already on the way.

I figured the spate of cold weather was keeping our crabapple trees dormant for a few more days and that provided a chance for some needed pruning.  While I had to wear full winter gear including snowshoes, this, for me, was a welcomed early-spring task.

Sliced, the fruit tree shoots
drop onto hard crusted snow—
sunlight everywhere

The Colors of Snow

January 2, 2017

Last Thursday we got a big, heavy snowfall, twenty inches or so, the sort of winter weather wallop that we haven’t seen for a few years.  There were strong winds and some underlying ice conditions too, so for some the storm brought the suffering and hardship of travel accidents and power outages. For just about all of us it brought the hard work of cleaning up and shoveling out.  So, it certainly wasn’t unmixed good news for us humans, but the landscape the snowstorm left behind was and still is beautiful.

It’s the kind of snow whose top layer is comprised of billions of intact crystals that reflect the winter sunlight in sparkles, here and there refracting it to flashes of lime green or fiery red. It’s the kind of snow that’s so deep that a hole poked by a ski pole–or, as is more likely for those still busy with cleanup, the handle of a snow rake–will create a small cavern the same otherworldly blue of glacier ice (and for the same reasons too: crystalized water absorbs more red light than blue, allowing the blue light to bounce and scatter back).

These are conditions that can and do change daily as the temperatures rise and fall and new weather patterns roll in. Rain is forecast for tomorrow, so it seems important to notice some of what greets our senses now.

Not our living world,
but I would gladly travel
those blue snow spaces

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