April – the Cruelest Month?

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DSC_0769getsmallAPRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing 
Memory and desire, stirring 
Dull roots with spring rain.
 
    So begins TS Eliot’s famous long poem The Waste Land. And certainly this April is being very cruel! There has been lots to see and hear but the “one step forward, and two steps back” nature of it has been trying. Nevertheless those of us still willing to don gloves and a warm coat have been regaled with the wonders of nature opening to a new year of life and growth.
     I’m sure for each of us it’s a different sight or sound that means spring is here. For me, several sounds mean spring and my heart stirs in recognition and gratitude. The Song Sparrows are back and singing their heads off. The male often sings from the top of a shrub or small tree, the notes bubbling out of him. The Red-winged Blackbirds are calling as they set up their breeding territory. Our earliest frog, the Spring Peepers, began calling on the 15th. And finally, but certainly far smaller and much less obvious, there is the sound of earthworms as they come to the surface and pull dead leaves and other sources of humus down into their burrows. I heard the earthworms first this year on the evening of April 6th. I’ve never quite figured out how they can move through soil that must still be somewhat frozen!
    But perhaps for many of us it’s the first signs of colour that really stir the heart. In my garden the retreating snow revealed snowdrops and crocus already in bloom on March 31st. Earlier than this I had been enjoying a neighbour’s sheltered south-facing garden where the first snowdrops appeared on March 15th. I admit that I was hopelessly optimistic in an earlier column where I had expected some early colour from my daphne and witch hazel in late February or early March. But those buds that showed colour so early managed to survive through many weeks of very cold temperatures and have now fully opened to reveal a small shrub covered in starry purple bloom. The Cornelian Cherry that sported fat buds throughout the winter has now opened to flaunt balls of many tiny yellow blooms. These shrubs are not yet large enough to yield fruit sufficient to make jam; but I’m sure that’s only a year or two away.
    One of our earliest spring flowers, not native but so widely scattered as to seem native, is Coltsfoot. Its small yellow daisies shelter very near the ground in this cold weather, while the stems elongate come the warmer temperatures. I first saw them braving the elements on April 8th around the millpond and along County Road 10. The botanical name, Tussilago, supposedly means that it was once used as a remedy for colds. Remember your high school French?: “tousser” means to cough.  I wonder if any of our older readers have any experience with such homey medicine?
    On the first warm days of spring I am always amazed to see insects out already. At my earliest crocus I was fascinated to see honeybees as well as other flying insects. How do they find enough to eat at this time of year? Rightly, more attention is being paid to our pollinators. Worldwide the alarm bells are going off because of problems with honeybees dying. But our native bees, the kind that don’t live in colonies and don’t produce honey, are by far the most important pollinators. Solitary bees, or mason bees, are more and more being encouraged because of this important function. Solitary bee houses are now offered for sale in many places. I was very interested to see one just last week that was constructed using reeds–the female bee lays an egg in the hollow reed and then seals the “door” with mud. I just collected some suitable reeds from Phragmites to experiment making some houses. Sarah Higginson in an earlier edition of the Times warned us about this alien invader. I was sure to put the seed heads in the garbage before they could disperse! If this experiment works perhaps some good can come from this invasive plant.
    On the millpond for the last couple of weeks we have been privileged to watch beautiful ducks. Both the Hooded and the Common Merganser have used the millpond as a place to rest and feed on their migration northwards. “Common” seems such a putdown for these lovely birds. The male is startling white below with a gorgeous glossy green-black neck and head; while the female sports an attractive rusty head and crest.
    Oh the ospreys fishing on the millpond, and the swallows twittering away! Even during this “cruellest month” there’s so much to write about! But I really should bring this column to a close.
    When I first conceived the idea for this column I was only thinking of it as a way to help people realize what we have right outside our front door and to get people out to enjoy it more. A friend stopped me the other day to compliment the column and she very perceptively said that it was also a wonderful way of allowing people who are no longer so mobile to continue to enjoy the glories of nature. I hadn’t thought of that! I modestly hope this column can, in its small way, help with that.
Get out! And enjoy!

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