Counting Towards Spring

Reader Contribution by Laura Berlage and North Star Homestead Farms
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While tulips, hanging flower baskets, hummingbirds, and having lunch outside aren’t here yet, we know they’re coming. 

It’s a ritual.  Breakfast time arrives after chores and opening up the shop, when Mom announces, “Did you hear the trumpeter swans fly over this morning?  Put that on the calendar!”  Up I jump, snatching a pen from the counter.  Amidst notes about the upcoming needle felting class, a doctor’s appointment, and the scheduled delivery of aquaponics lettuce to Northland College, I mark down the observed return of the swans.  I’d heard them too, scooting low over the house on their way dutifully north.

Each year, we watch and make note.  The first robin arrived just the other day, heralding that the snow is not over yet.  “Three snows on the robin’s tail,” the old-timers say.  Some years, it’s been “well, at LEAST three snows…” 

But don’t get glum about not being fully out of the woods with winter yet.  It’s been a beautiful spring—long strings of sunny days with crisp evenings to firm up the ground and our gravel lane.  No huge dump of snow since Birkie season, no torrential rains to cause flash flooding.  The deep snow is slowly collapsing in place, and sometime soon I’ll be able to trounce out to the garden and dig up that bed of carrots mulched last fall for late winter harvest.

I was a little eager to get at those carrots last week, piling all my necessary equipment on a sled (shovel, pitch fork, potato fork, plastic tote) and headed off across the yard.  Crunch, crunch, I kept sinking in over my knees.  When I finally reached where I thought the 100-foot row of carrots should be, there was no discernable markings in the dense blanket of snow.  No mound, no nothing.  Should have put a flag sticking up out of the end or something…a good idea to remember for next year.  So I just started digging.  45-minutes later, I found the bed of carrots, but I was too tuckered out to unearth more than a handful.  I’ll have to try for a rematch once the warm days have shrunk the snow-cover a bit more, and it’s less treacherous to even make it out to the garden.

But these warm, sunny days and crispy chill nights are absolutely ideal for making maple syrup.  In the mornings during chores, I can practically smell the maple sap, even though our trees have stood untapped for years.  Maple season is another way to count the steps towards spring, with its own set of nature markers.  There’s the receding snowline around the bases of the trees, the delicate growth of buds at branch tips, and the songs of returning birds overhead.  Syruping has its end markers as well—the pussy willows pop open and thrust out their yellowy stamens and the spring peepers cry mercilessly from the marshes.

Next in line after that will be the return of the red-winged blackbirds and sandhill cranes.  The farm will come alive with the cheep-cheep of baby chicks arriving in boxes from the Post Office, and folks will start heading north to open their cabins for the summer season.

Then it’s the hummingbirds at Mother’s Day; someone spots the first tiny fawn in the woods; and all the trees leaf out like there’s some big party going on that no one can miss.  There’s daffodils and tulips sprouting out everywhere like hope on stems, and the dandelions parade their golden pollen orbs to the delight of all the buzzing pollinators.

Sugar Time!!

But spring doesn’t start with tulips and green grass.  Spring in the Northwoods has already started—with maple syruping, with the birds returning, with the change in the way the clouds look and move through the sky.  It starts with icy puddles and bare roads and realizing that it’s no longer helpful to use a sled for pulling hay bales around the barnyard.

Springtime in the Northwoods is about weight limits on the back roads, lingering ice patches on the north shadows of buildings, and thinking about raking the gravel out of your yard from plowing season.  There’s mud (oh yes, that old friend) and fresh smells and way more garden work that you feel ready to tackle.  Already, I was able to shovel my way into one of our high tunnels, work the soil, and plant spinach.  It’s not up yet, but I’m keeping the beds moist—hauling the hose stuffed into a Rubbermaid tote into the basement each night so it stays thawed for the next use.

Springtime in the Northwoods is that funny moment when you see the still-white snowshoe hare against a completely brown landscape.  It’s about cleaning out the bird houses before the swallows and bluebirds arrive.  It’s about no longer having to put on 15 pounds of extra clothing before you step outside for five minutes.  And it’s noticing the phoebe back on top of the barn roof, singing his heart out.

The animals notice too.  Soon it will be time for shearing the sheep, massive chicken coop cleanings, and mending fences for pasture season.  The critters big and small are enjoying the longer day lengths, the warming temperatures, and the sense of change in the air.  Belle, our aging guard donkey got to take off her winter blanket.  Water dishes freeze solid less often.  I even got my utility golf cart running this week for hauling water to the Red Barn.

So, instead of being glum because you can’t wear the flip-flops yet or the crocuses aren’t up, savor each step towards spring.  Notice them, count them, write them on the calendar.  Find gratitude in each milestone.  See if it helps to change your mood about the situation.  I like to think that Mother Nature appreciates the attention as she awakens from her wintry slumber.  We’ll keep counting towards spring!  See you down on the farm sometime.

Photo by Laura Berlage

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453

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