Throw open the windows. Spring is here.
August 28, 2008 · Updated 5:48 PM
Change is in the air. In spite of the soggy weather activity is picking up at the Ebey Slough Boat Launch. Coatless children shiver at school bus stops, hoping the clouds will part. Truckers off-load racks of bedding plants and hanging baskets at Freddy's and Wal-Mart. Given the growth-rate of lawns, it's a good thing that skiing is on the wane because spring chores can claim all the outdoor time householders have to spare.
A cosmic signal was struck back in mid-March when the sun, on its northward course, stood straight above the equator at noon. That phenomenon, called the Vernal Equinox, is supposed to mark the beginning of spring. Well, that depends. Look at our weather. While gardens near Eugene, Ore., are readied for planting, we know better than to push the season up here in the Pacific North West.
It pays to wait for conditions to be right. Plant peas too early and the seed rots, a shameful thing among competitive gardeners. Don't think for a moment that those gentle tillers of the soil aren't cutthroat competitors. Points are scored for healthiest plants, earliest crops and the biggest, tastiest vegetables.
Though the sun's northward course is the underlying eraser of winter, other players influence the changing of the seasons. Factor in the possibility of an El Nino year, the Pineapple Express or the Puget Sound Convergence Zone taking up residence over Marysville all these can and do upset temperature, precipitation and any year's true arrival of spring.
Spring is a traveler. Moving northward, it covers about 17 miles per day across level ground. Like most travelers, it gears down when climbing slopes toward chilly highlands and speeds up going downhill. At 17 miles per day, spring should arrive in Spokane six days after touching Walla Walla. Wenatchee should receive spring 3.3 days after it passes Yakima. In the south, seeds are already planted and germinating. To the north, snow shovels are still held ready for freak storms.
April has been telling its usual story of muddy lowlands and snowy peaks. It offers a totally unpredictable mix of stormy tantrums and mild days when we first throw doors and windows open to draft away the staleness of winter and invite the outside in. It balances its dark moods with displays of tulips and early rhodies.
Spring has truly sprung when clutches of neighbors gather outdoors for no better reason then that they're all drawn out to celebrate sunshine and fresh air. Songbirds, blue skies, blossoms. We had one day like that: Saturday, April 12. It was a day when the sun drew freshets from sodden hillsides and carpeted roadsides with dandelions.
Though conventional wisdom links spring's arrival with increasing hours of sunshine, another point of view might imagine spring welling up from underfoot. It takes a gardener to sense this. No dirt-farmer lives who, when standing beside his year's first furrow, can resist stooping to crumble a clod. Crumbliness is the litmus test of soil's readiness to host new life. A closer look opens a microcosm of humus, protozoans, free ions, random seeds, diatoms, gases, worms, grubs, egg-masses, insect hatchlings and burrowing animals. It's a jungle in there.
We are allowed, if we will, to participate in springtime mysteries of soil and seeds. By the end of April, those who are so inclined simply must get their hands in soil. A natural compulsion to commune with the seedbed of life asserts itself. Something more elemental than calendar dates and seed packets and soil chemistry is at work here.
Judging from the average gardener's age, it takes most of a lifetime to absorb enough wisdom to prepare for this primal satisfaction. Either that or it takes aging to set free the primitive brainstem circuitry that is somehow wired to the rhythms of nature. Whatever, participation in the business of spring soil is both humbling and exhilarating. It is nothing less than partnering with the elements to personally enter into the Rites of Spring.
Gardeners and non-gardeners alike sense that, with an unusually deep snow-pack lingering, flooding is likely. Soon-to-be sunny hillsides along the Old Arlington Highway will ooze trickles of winter water. Freshets and breezes sweep their courses clean to leave May a clean month. A vibrant month. For many, a month of choices. Lawnmower or hiking boots? Fishing rod or paint brush? Tennis or window-washing?
May's freezing level rises to above 3,500 feet, pushing the snow-line to 4,500. At all but the highest altitudes, daily melting thins the snow-pack, firming that which remains. Boulders, bushes and downed trees on Mt. Pilchuck remain buried which makes easy trekking for early season hikers.
Spring woods wear a hundred delicate shades of transluscent green. Tips of evergreen sprigs sprout soft bundles of new needles, tingeing each branch's end a paler green while among limbs, bird voices chirp of matings and nest buildings and predator crows. Red-winged blackbirds cluster in marshes to tear nest-building fluff from last year's cattail heads.
It is no wonder that snowbirds return from the southland in April. This is where and when the action begins.
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