“Only a week ago, we woke to find the surrounding fields pale with frost and the edge of every leaf picked out in white. Today is one of those voluminous days that feel like spring, with enormous blue skies strewn with clouds and playful blasts of wind that are almost warm. There are clumps of snowdrops along the path, and catkins dangling lime green from the hazel. The marshes were frozen solid only a few days ago, but now they are flowing and lapping and rippling, waded by little egrets and sifted by curlews. I am told you can see seals lazing around at the mouth of the creek” (Wintering, Katherine May, 232).
The sap buckets are hung from the giant maple trees that line the front of our southern Maine property. My husband is our sugar master, alchemizing the colorless, mild liquid into a couple of gallons of ambrosia in hues ranging from deep mahogany to tiger’s eye depending on how early or late in the season he works his magic. Although I contribute nothing to this process (save from the original purchase of the sugaring kit), I delight in his enjoyment of this craft, and certainly our family cherishes the fruits of his labor all year long. I can’t remember the last time we bought maple syrup. If you visit us, we’ll be glad to pass along some of the jars lining the tops of our kitchen cabinets for your own sweet tastings later.
There are many reasons I love Alex’s yearly sugaring practice, not least the way it reminds of all that nature offers us just outside our suburban doors: something too easy to lose sight of in the midst of busy lives. I prize the way that it bespeaks of silent depths and inner secrets held within the grand, aging bodies of these trees. They are more than bark and leaves and home for insects and birds: as if all of that wouldn’t be miraculous enough. Somewhere along the way, indigenous people of Northeast America learned of maple’s hidden properties and began producing both maple syrup and maple sugar, and though we do not know a specific date for its discovery, we know native people were savoring maple’s bounty long before Europeans arrived. When Alex practices this art, he is carrying on a tradition both ancient and endemic to our region. There is something that just feels right about that. Even more, when the tools of the trade come out: buckets and spile, it signals that the change of the season draws near. Our family recognizes it as one of the earliest signs of spring, and for that too we rejoice.
I wrote in earlier essays about the importance of ritual, and the transition from winter to spring deserves its share of ritualistic pauses, reflection, and note-taking. Here in New England, we have waited out a generally hard winter, though, as my last essay remarked, it is a rich and necessary season of the soul. Even so, by the time February gives way to March, most of us are ready for the uplift of brighter colors, earthy fragrance in the air, and evidence of new life. Maple sugaring is one ritual that marks the passage of winter to spring.
My daughters and I carry on another ritual first created by my mother: the search for the “first robin of the spring.” When I was growing up, my mother and I would compete for who could spot the first robin. Generally, we’d notice the tell-tale orange breast and black-feathered suit sometime in February, and the triumphant winner would be awarded a donut. I recognize that my mother’s well meaning ritual possibly was creating a connection between food and reward that is less than ideal, but I choose to honor the ritual nonetheless. It’s another way to mark the changing of the season with lighthearted joy. Evangeline is the winner this year, and we’ve decided that a trip to a special purveyor of donuts is in order to add a celebratory extraordinariness to her prize. You might, admittedly wisely, choose a different sort of reward, but a good-natured game of competing for the first robin sighting is a simple, old-fashioned tradition easy to incorporate into your yearly rituals and one we highly recommend.
That being said, I was mildly dismayed recently to learn that not all robins migrate from New England in winter. Some overwinter here, and others migrate from Canada, wintering in New England as a warmer alternative to Canadian cold. To learn more about wintering robins, visit the Mass Audubon. It turns out that our robin competitions might have been founded on a misguided understanding of robin behavior. Those bursts of orange might just as well be seen in late December as in February, although oddly, they never are. It’s almost an inversion of the “frequency illusion” which is our tendency to notice something more often once our attention first has been called to it. Our lack of expectation that we will see a robin in the depths of winter curiously seems to prevent us from finding one prior to February. Founded on a false premise or not, we will continue to practice this ritual since it is something we all look forward to and is another signal of our transition from winter to spring. If, while you welcome the return of birds of spring, you'd like some music to accompany you, I suggest Dan Gibson's uplifting Solitudes album, "Songbirds at Sunrise," and for those of us in New England, start especially with the first track, "New England Spring." It is available on Spotify. Unfortunately, the CD disc is overpriced elsewhere.
My favorite feature of our barn, dating from at least the late 1800s, is the cursive writing etched onto the upper floor beams that indicates that families long before us have been logging the harbingers of spring, as well as the turn to winter with the first snow. The earliest recording dates to April 5th, 1895 and notes the “First Blue Bird” and “First Frog.” In 1898, the sighting of the first frog came earlier, on March 29th. On April 10, 1926, in what marvelously seems to be written in the same hand, we read that there “is a Lot of Snow on the ground and cold.” The barn predates our house, which was not built until 1903, so it’s extraordinary to think that the same person who penned these markers in 1895, when a previous house must have rested on the spot, penned these observances in 1926, twenty-three years after the building of our current house. Whatever family lived here over the turn of the century, they stayed here for a significant time. I wish I could meet and learn from the keen observer of nature who noted these signals of the seasons along the barn beams. Our girls have since added an annotation of their own: "First buttercup 5/20/18."
Gallery Photo Credit: The Blue Flower
A final ritual signifier of spring again was gifted to me by my mother: that of purchasing daffodils as early as they are available in the markets. I recall with such fondness the way that daffodils merrily herald in spring in England, where a true spring is experienced that lasts for a few months and begins in earnest by late February. Mothering Sunday (the U.K. Mother’s Day) takes place in March, and “daffs,” as they often are affectionately called, are traditional for giving out to mothers on that day because they are available, not solely through markets, but growing out of the ground by the time Mothering Sunday comes around. March in England involves swaths of green expense along town and city gardens, punctuated by seas of yellow as daffodils spread their sunny cheer. Trees begin to bud, causing you to warmly register that you are in for the treat of a long, “true spring.” Since, in our chilly Maine climate, we often won’t see our first daffodils poking through until April, we rejoice when we find daffs in the stores in late February or early March and purchase several bunches to brighten our kitchen. The sight of them transports us back to Alex's English homeland, and they recall my mother’s own delight at a simple bunch of daffodils on her humble New England kitchen table.
What are some ways you mark the passing of winter into spring? Are there new rituals you can incorporate to pay homage to nature’s shifts at this time of the year? How does practicing these rituals help you feel in closer connection with nature? Do you feel the way these rituals add an element of celebration and wonder to the normal cycles of the year?