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

Version 3

A Harvest of Leaves



December 12, 2016

Oak leaf harvest time—
what seems like so much litter
will be soil wealth

It’s been two weeks since I wrote this haiku, but in that short interval the weather has transitioned sharply to winter.  We are not at the solstice yet, but the ground is hard and snow covered, more snow is falling, and the temperatures have held to below freezing for days.  There is no going back now; it’s winter in central Maine.

The haiku is set in late November—the 28th to be exact–in that brief period when all the leaves are finally down, even from the late-shedding oaks, but there is, as yet, no snowcover.

Knowing that snow is just days away from settling in for good is a strong incentive for getting final winter-prep chores done.  For my husband and me that means gathering in a final harvest of the leaves—mostly oak— that lie strewn about the lawn and drive.  We rake and blow the leaves into piles, shred these piles with a mower, and then spread the contents of the resulting heaps— now much diminished in size—as a mulch on the vegetable and flower beds.  It’s hard, but satisfying work.  Shredding the leaves encourages the decomposition process; when the snow melts in the spring the leaf mulch will be a good compost, in place and ready for turning under.  Working with the leaves gives a feeling of abundance.  Oaks are generous trees.

Winterberry Magic

Version 2

November 17, 2016

It’s mid-November.  Even the oaks have shed their leaves.  Of all the birds that were with us in summer only a few–the chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches–remain to visit the feeder.  The landscape is now a study in beige, brown, and gray.

But this spare, subdued world is not without moments of astonishing vibrancy.  On the verge of a dark, leafless stand of woods, or across an expanse of wizened marsh grass, one suddenly becomes aware of floating, cloud-like clusters of brilliant, red-orange berries.  These are the fruit of the winterberry (Ilex verticulata), small, vivid globes of cheer that cling to the shrub’s smooth gray twigs long after its leaves have dropped.  Their appearance in this season of ebbing life can seem pretty close to magical.

Red winterberry—
Will your fire disappear
if we rub our eyes?