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Lo, the Winter is (finally) Past

Bill Meredith

"For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
the flowers appear on the earth;
the time of the singing of birds is come,
and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land."
       The Song of Songs.

It is the Ides of March as I write this, but because of the time required to edit, assemble, print and distribute a newspaper, it will be April when you read it. I cannot foretell what the rest of March will be like; it may go out like a lion or continue its present ovine course, and we have seen snow in Emmitsburg in April before, too. But the U. S. Naval Observatory assures us that whether we have snow, rain or sunshine, the equinox will arrive at 1:32 pm on March 20. Finally, the winter will pass and spring will come.

You can see the signs. The time of the singing of birds has come; go outside and you will hear them trying to remember the lyrics of their territorial and mating songs, and the goldfinches at my feeder started molting into their yellow summer plumage last week. The crocuses and pussy willows have appeared on the earth, and tulips and daffodils are on their way. Walking to the post office this morning, I heard the first spring peepers… not turtles, but they'll do. (My wife just told me the turtles in the Bible were doves, anyhow.) Every year these sights and sounds challenge my memory to recite that verse from the Song of Songs. It was not among the verses I had to memorize as a child… Sunday-School teachers tended to avoid that part of the Bible in those days… but at this time of life it always comes back more easily than most of the ones I did have to learn. It has become one of my traditions for welcoming spring.

At the time and place where the Bible was written there were just two seasons, rainy and dry, so while the verse has poetic beauty it doesn't apply very well to Emmitsburg. The rains are not over and gone here; April is traditionally thought of as the month of showers. This year they got started early; we had three days of steady rain in mid-March. In mid-summer that kind of rain would have been soaked up happily by the roots of growing vegetation, but this isn't mid-summer. The ground was still frozen below the top few inches, and nothing is growing yet, so the rain couldn't sink in. It melted the snow that was left on the north side of the mountain and in scattered places where it had drifted, such as my back yard; and then it flowed merrily off to join Toms Creek, which was already in an expansive and exuberant mood. Along with all the other local streams, it overflowed its banks, blocking local roads in numerous places and reminding us how floodplain ecosystems got their name. All of those nice, flat fields and woodlots that developers would love to build on and sell to gullible buyers if we didn't have zoning regulations were under water.

It was a tough winter for a lot of feathered and furry creatures. On the day in February when we got our biggest snowfall a young squirrel decided it would be easier to raid my sunflower seeds than to look for his stashed supply of acorns. The snow was coming down soft and fluffy, already over a foot deep, and apparently he had never experienced anything like it before. When he jumped from a tree trunk to what he thought was the ground, he sank out of sight. He came to the surface with a look of bewildered panic on his face and started swimming through the snow toward the pole with the bird feeder on it, looking exactly like that TV commercial where Michael Phelps was swimming through a wheatfield in Kansas. My wife felt sorry for him, but I knew he wasn't in trouble. Squirrels have an easier time of it in snow than rabbits or deer, which have to stay on the ground all the time and whose food supply may be completely drifted over for days. Likewise, owls and foxes have a hard time making a living when deep snow gets crusted over, as it did here.

About the only animals that really welcome deep snow are the voles, commonly known as field mice. Under the snow, they are shielded from the wind, and since they eat grass and roots, their food supply is abundantly available to them. When snow stays on the ground a long time they will chew their way through the grass, creating a network of tunnels more complex than any urban subway system. The snow insulates them from the worst shifts in weather and hides them from predators. To be sure, some enemies can get at them when the snow is still soft; both foxes and owls can hear them under the snow, and will dive in head-first to catch them, but this becomes much more difficult when the snow has crusted over. Voles are related to lemmings, and reproduce with the same unbounded enthusiasm; secure under the snow, a female vole will produce a litter of six or more every four or five weeks.

When the snow finally melted, Mike Hillman found the field where his horses live had been turned into a jig-saw puzzle by vole tunnels. I suppose everyone has seen them. To me, they look like a network of roads as seen from an airplane, and they give you the idea that the world is about to be taken over by voles. But nature's laws for balancing populations are swinging into action, and the voles are no longer secure. Those owls I saw last fall are hatching their broods about now, and owlets come into the world hungry. The foxes will fill their place in the puzzle too; their litters will arrive before long, and the food chain's demand for voles will go up again. On top of all that, the rain that melted the snow also filled up all of the vole tunnels and nests, leaving them shivering as the spring peepers sing around them, and the new grass they need to eat is just getting started. So, as my ecology professor told me 55 years ago, weather, food, other organisms and a place in which to live are all converging on the voles to keep their population in check.

It fascinates me that while every year is different, the pattern stays the same. Lo, the winter will pass. On St. Patrick's Day the garden will be too wet to dig in, but I will plant at least one potato anyway in memory of my grandfather. April will come, the Icky Tree will bloom, and the Orioles will open the season with high hopes. It will be too wet, too dry, too hot, too cold… or, maybe, just right, as it always is. The Orioles could even win. We will wait and see. That's what makes life interesting.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith