That spring doesn’t arrive early here, 8900 feet up in the Colorado Rockies, probably seems self-evident. I’m in the habit of saying that Groundhog Day is a worthless barometer for the changeover from winter to spring, because in my experience winter simply doesn’t end in February. If I adjust my expectations, though, and stop focusing on winter’s end or spring’s arrival, things are less cut-and-dried. Our last frost date might be in late May, but it’s not pure delusion to begin watching for signs of spring in February. And then keep watching, because the signs keep coming.
The earliest evidence that winter isn’t permanent emerges when we’re still likely to get severe winter weather. Between surges of arctic temperatures, smooth yellow-tinted ice bulges up from the snow (or, in dry years, from the dessicated ground) in certain spots, revealing the locations of sub-surface springs.
Also in February, our horses start shedding their long guard hairs, the sparse threads that fluff beyond their dense winter coats. The shedding is triggered by longer days and the horses can’t do anything about it, but I always tease them that they’re going to want those winter coats for a while yet.
I usually start seeing mountain bluebirds kiting in the horse pasture on sunny days in March, although I spotted one this year on February 10, the day before a three-week run on intense winter weather kicked in. The bluebirds are just day-tripping to start; they won’t get serious about claiming one of the nest boxes on the fence line for six or eight weeks.
By mid-March, the lengthening days and gradually rising temperatures start warming the ground. On the local gravel roads, snow melts as it falls, creating mucky tracks instead of flawless white ribbons. Once the snow starts sticking, it’s challenging not to plow the top layer of gravel road base off along with the snow.
Those lengthening days also put passive solar gain into overdrive inside the house, with low-angle sun pouring through the south-facing windows until I close some blinds or open a window for a few hours to moderate the heat.
The winds will gust in days-long blusters in March or April, sublimating the moisture out of crumbly snowdrifts and drying the brief surge of mud to dust. The ponderosa pines sway desperately in the aggressive air, as if trying to uproot themselves and move someplace more serene. For a few days, a haze of dirt blown in from the desert Southwest will fuzz the view, screen the distant peaks.
Now, in the second week of April, we’re seeing and hearing and smelling the classic milestones of springtime: currant bushes swelling with buds, miniature cinquefoil leaves unfurling in the dark brown crinkle of last year’s growth, robins singing, Northern flickers hammering their seductive rhythms on dead trees and metal chimney caps, pine sap perfuming the evergreen woods with a spicy scent. Scattered like Easter eggs left in undisguised hiding places for the littlest kids, the fuzzy lavender cups of pasque flowers decorate the still-dormant grass, where a tint of green is beginning to show from underneath. On the shady north-facing slopes, plump pads of emerald-green moss glow in the chilly dampness left by receding snow.
And so it will go, in this slowest of the seasons: each species budding or flowering or nesting according to ancient patterns. A sequence of seasonal “firsts” each taking a turn with seeming deliberation.
Summer and winter arrive with weather-forecast fanfare—heat and thunderstorms; frost, snow, and blizzards. Fall seems to start and conclude on a tighter schedule than spring—or is it just that I don’t notice all the nuances of senescence when they start in August and proceed through the hard freezes of November? Autumn is a slow release, a time for making note of details, rather than actively seeking them out.
By midwinter I’m on alert—desperate, sometimes—for signs the universe hasn’t gone off its rocker and the winter will, indeed, eventually, come to an end. Is that the difference, then? Do I think of spring as the slowest season because it is, high up here in the temperate zones, the time of year when I am demanding newsworthy events from my surroundings? Because I am wheedling the grass and the trees and the animals for reassurance that the warmth and vitality and the bustle of summer are at hand, or soon will be?