The scent and color of spring


In January, when Arctic air grips the world in an icy fist; when chores are done in swaddled layers of clothing and still the stinging cold bites at fingertips and ears and noses; when gravid cows trade fat for survival…

In January, wildflowers are part of the future. Or perhaps, part of the past. They exist only in memory or in anticipation. Oh, the seeds and dormant plants are present, hunkered down against the winter, husbanding a tiny spark of life.

In January, wildflowers are only potential wildflowers. New roots, stems, leaves, buds, petals, stamen and pistil, aroma glands, tiny seed-factory ovaries – all of these are safely locked away in molecules of DNA. But they’re there.

In January the landscape is dull and monochromatic. Sometimes the white of snow predominates, but usually it’s a sea of brown everywhere you look. The earth is frozen and at some level it’s hard to believe that the prairie will ever again be green. The air is cold and sterile and smells like, well, nothing.

In January it’s hard to remember what spring looks and feels and smells and tastes and sounds like.

Finally one day, after months of imperceptible change, full spring arrives. In this part of the world that day usually comes in mid-May, a full two months into calendar spring. Brown has become green as new grass energetically reaches for the sky. The sun is more nearly overhead, and its warming rays illuminate splashes of wildflower color across the carpet of grass. Yellow and blue and red and white and every hue in between. The air is no longer sterile and tasteless. It’s warm and thick and filled with the scent of growth and new life, as well as being filled with springtime birdsong. The sky is deep blue and tufted with wispy white clouds in the morning, which promise to thicken and darken into thunderstorms in the afternoon. The sun is bright and warm and feels indescribably wonderful as it chases the last of winter’s chill away and finally delivers on the once impossible promise of rebirth.

On Tuesday I hiked out on a parcel we call the South Googie, which is a thousand acres of prairie just south of Kimball. I-80 runs right through the middle of it. The landscape is broken by a couple of major north-south running canyons, and I started my hike in the easternmost one.

It was quite warm, with air temperatures pushing into the mid-80’s. The canyons I hiked were awash with the springtime colors of hardy native forbs, most of which are in bloom just now. There are also abundant shrubs such as current, chokecherry, and sumac, each of which is also in flower. Skunkbush sumac, which greens up and flowers a couple of weeks behind smooth sumac, was just beginning to unfurl leaves. As the sun warmed those new leaves the air filled with their pungent aroma, which is a favorite springtime smell of mine.

Along the way I stopped to check on a Say’s Phoebe nest I discovered last week, and it was now filled with a clutch of eggs. A bit deeper into the canyon I found a Mourning Dove nest with a single fledgling chick in residence.

Continuing my hike, I crossed under the interstate and made my way west. The prairie was alive with the color of wildflowers. Hiking up and down the many slopes along my path was a good workout, and the day’s late-spring heat was eased by a light westerly breeze. There were lots of early season insects out and about, with nearly enough gnats buzzing around to be irritating.

After a mile or so I came to a second interstate underpass and crossed back to the south side of I-80. These underpasses are concrete tunnels which provide a perfect nesting location for cliff swallows. As I approach the swallows boom out into the springtime air. Inside the tunnel their nests show new mud work and tufts of grass and fluff. Inside there are eggs which will be hatching soon.

When I returned to my pickup I’d completed a refreshing, vigorous four-mile hike. The remainder of the day was filled with good physical labor, mostly fence repair and thistle digging. These are the days I dream about in January.

In less than two weeks Nebraska Wildflower Week will begin. You can read the story about planned events elsewhere in this week’s paper. Whether you attend a formal event or not, I hope you kind readers can find the time to pause, look about, and enjoy nature’s springtime beauty.

Be well and embrace the blessings of liberty.

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