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An Irish Spring

“I wake and hear it raining.” So begins Mark Van Doren’s wonderful poem “Morning Worship” and so began many of my mornings last spring. Van Doren goes on to list the wonders of the natural world he would miss were he dead, praising all the “sweet beings” that he knows will outlive him–mountains, huge trees, turtles, sunrise, waterfalls, mosses, owls, trout, deer, butterflies, and more, the kind of list that anyone tuned to the outdoors can empathize with.

Adopting his optimism and joy, especially on rainy days, I set out to praise what I thought of as our Irish spring. Half a century ago, when I was a teenager, I spent a wet Easter week touring Ireland with my parents and three younger siblings. We had only one rain-free morning and that was at Galway Bay. The rest of the time it rained, sometimes hard, sometimes soft. Occasionally we experienced what the Irish call “a bright period,” when the drizzle almost stopped and when the sun almost broke through the lowering clouds. We quickly learned why Ireland is known as the “Green Isle.” I have never forgotten the brilliant, almost surreal green that blanketed the rural landscape.

Ireland was de-forested centuries ago and thus did not have the many shades of green I saw in our forest last spring. Those shades included the ten greens I found in a box of 64 Crayola crayons. Between the prosaically-named blue green and green yellow, were forest green, sea green, asparagus, [true] green, granny smith apple green, yellow green, spring green, and olive green–a list that fell far short of the medley of greens adorning our forest.

The cold, wet weather also held all the vegetation in its tender, gauzy state, and for weeks I felt as if I was walking through one of Claude Monet’s impressionistic paintings. In the rain and fog the trees in our forest seemed larger and more awe-inspiring. What was usually mundane morphed into the mysterious.

It was what Pennsylvania botanist and ecologist Paul Weigman calls a “soft spring” because wildflowers bloom and prosper in such weather. The weather also lengthened their growing season. The bright yellow disks of coltsfoot and pink and white blossoms of the fragrant trailing arbutus bloomed on and on in prolific glory throughout most of April. Beside our stream hundreds of purple trillium flowered for nearly three weeks. So too did the long-spurred violets. The tiny white blossoms of mitrewort lasted a month.

Other wildflowers, such as hepatica, clintonia, Indian cucumber-root, pink lady’s slipper and jack-in-the-pulpit, sent up luxuriant leaves but not many flowers. Since jack-in-the-pulpit “decides” whether to bloom based on the previous year’s weather, I attributed its lack of blossoms to the drought of 2002. Perhaps the other species had been affected similarly by the previous dry year.

The many rains and protracted cold of early spring also lengthened the blooming time for several shrubs and trees. For much of April the lime-green, puffball-like clusters of spicebush blossoms brightened the understory along our stream while the soft red, yellow, and orange flowers of red maple trees dominated the overstory. Shadbush dressed up our forest for weeks on gloomy, gray days with the white of their delicate, five-petaled flowers that trembled in the slightest breeze. Not only did they bloom longer than usual, but blossoms covered every tree, from tiny saplings to full-grown, forty-foot-high specimens. On some of the trees, the flowers opened first, then the clumps of soft, reddish leaves beneath them, while the flowers still bloomed.

According to The Plants of Pennsylvania by Ann Fowler Rhoads and Timothy Block, this species of shadbush is Amelanchier laevis because it has leaves with a distinct reddish hue that open while the flowers are still blooming. Popularly known as smooth shadbush, it later produces dark, purple-red, sweet and juicy fruit. The other species of shadbush growing here–A. arborea–has leaves that remain folded during flowering and produces dark red, dryish fruit. The most familiar of the eight shadbush species growing in Pennsylvania, it is the earliest to bloom and is also called serviceberry and Juneberry. Both species grow in rocky woods, bluffs, and upland forests.

The rain also made it difficult for pollinating insects to do their job, and the lowbush blueberries and huckleberries on our powerline right-of-way produced few fruits. Even though on one sunny day I smelled the acrid, cloying odor of blooming wild black cherry tree blossoms, not a single fruit developed. The many forest-dwelling solitary bee species that pollinate them must have been discouraged by the weather.

Unfortunately, some insects thrived in the wet spring, namely flies, gnats, and mosquitoes. Hordes of them hatched by mid-April, so watching birds on the rare nice days meant fighting off the insects as I tried to focus my binoculars.

Butterflies, on the other hand, were late and sparse although on one sunny morning I watched a red admiral nectaring on our old wild apple tree blossoms amid a frenzy of bumblebees and honeybees. By the afternoon it was raining hard again. Other butterflies, such as tiger swallowtails and monarchs were at least two weeks later than usual. This two week lag held throughout the spring and summer for many returning birds and blooming wildflowers as well. Even the goldenrod blossoms in late summer were two weeks late.

The wild creatures, like me, took advantage of every “bright period.” After one wet morning in May it cleared at noon. As I wrote in my journal:

Sixty degrees and a little sun is a big blessing. Walking up Laurel Ridge trail at 2:00 p.m. I ran into a large aggregation of grunting, chasing gray squirrels–close to a dozen in two separate groups. Lots of squealing and derring-do leaps. Once a squirrel hit the ground. I assume a couple females were in heat.

Two days later, after still another rainy morning, it stopped by early afternoon, and I walked down our road. Immediately, I experienced a sensory overload–sounds, smells, and sights of water flowing down every small hollow, filling up our stream and creating miniature waterfalls throughout its mile and a half passage to the Little Juniata River. This brand-new, scrubbed-clean world so permeated my senses that it blotted out all sounds of our technological society.When I reached Waterthrush Bench, it started raining again, but I put up my umbrella and walked to the bottom of our road to admire the tallest of the waterfalls. Then, still under my umbrella, I returned to the bench to drink a leisurely cup of tea.

Finally, I resumed my walk and watched a pair of common grackles, undeterred by the rain, flying above the stream. About two-thirds of the way back up the road, it stopped raining. By the time I reached the fork in our road–one leading to our deceased neighbor Margaret’s old home, the other to ours–the sun emerged.

I sat down on a large, flat rock seat, listened to a singing scarlet tanager and watched a sodden woodchuck cross the road. Sunlight sparkled on the wet leaves and I felt as if I was living in perpetual April. An Acadian flycatcher sang its explosive “wee-see.” A chipmunk scampered close for a look at my seated form, and a doe grazed along Margaret’s driveway, moving slowly toward me.

Suddenly, I was buzzed by a male ruby-throated hummingbird zipping back and forth low over my head. For a minute I wondered if he would strike me or if I was in the middle of his swooping courtship flight. But when I turned slowly toward him, he flew off. My movement also startled the doe and she moved nervously up the slope and out of sight.

The animals, like me, were taking advantage of the brief sunshine. Within a few minutes the sky had turned mostly blue, and the sun suffused the forest with golden light. By the time I walked the last quarter-of-a-mile home, there was not a cloud in the sky. The sunshine lasted for only an hour, though, and then, just as quickly, it clouded over once again.

Even on the morning of my National Migratory Bird Count I awoke to a four o’clock thunderstorm. But an eastern phoebe started the chorus of birdsong as I lay in bed and before breakfast, despite the light rain, I counted 19 species, including a yellow-breasted chat in the barberry hedge and a Baltimore oriole in a black walnut tree.

The rain stopped and I set out quickly for the Far Field. There I found two singing cerulean warblers, two male scarlet tanagers, the first indigo bunting of the season, and a flock of white-throated sparrows. Best of all, on a whim I pursed my lips and made a pishing sound and a silent Canada warbler emerged from the Far Field thicket. By then the sky had darkened and thunder rumbled ominously so I rushed the mile back home, reaching it just as another storm struck.

I sat glumly inside, my species’ list at 38. When Bruce told me he had to drive into town, I hitched a ride down to Waterthrush Bench and sat in the drizzle listening to a singing Louisiana waterthrush. Later, I joined Bruce at the bottom of the mountain and in a misty rain, we walked along the railroad right-of-way as birds sang and called–rose-breasted grosbeaks, American redstarts, a least flycatcher, and yellow warblers. Once I looked up and watched a pair of chimney swifts sailing overhead.Later, as we sat eating lunch in the kitchen, I looked out the window at two white-crowned sparrows eating dandelion seeds. They were species number 48.

After a short rest, I was out again, this time over on Greenbrier Trail, and wonder of wonders, it had almost cleared. Many more birds were out in the seventy-degree weather and I had some memorable views–of a silent, black-throated blue warbler, a worm-eating warbler, and chestnut-sided warbler–and was serenaded by dozens of red-eyed vireos and ovenbirds.

Throughout the day, in rain and in sunshine, I counted 11 singing wood thrushes, eight black-throated green warblers, three hooded warblers, and five black-and-white warblers. Most of my birding was by ear and I was grateful that I still have sharp hearing. Altogether, I counted 57 species and 224 individual birds.

What a privilege it was that day and every day, rain or shine, to be outside, enjoying the beauty around me. Like the poet Van Doren, I am keenly aware that I am “Listening, living, (Oh, but not forever, Oh, end arriving).” An Irish spring, after all, was better than no spring at all.

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