Tuesday, February 12, 2008

When spring came to Wisconsin

I grew up in Pennsylvania, and spent much of my adult life in Wisconsin. Winters in Wisconsin, though warmer today, were nothing like the moderate Pennsylvania winters I remembered. During one Wisconsin winter in the 70s, the high temperature didn’t get above 0 degrees F for one month. Yep. The HIGH. Then there was the winter, I think 78, when there was so much snow on the ground, the children couldn’t play. People were shoveling snow off their roofs. Roofs that had been built to hold Wisconsin snows. That winter, I took my two-year-old son to the local mall while his sister was in nursery school. We walked through Penney’s and then, at the opening to the mall itself, I said to him, “Run!” He looked up at me in disbelief. Had he heard correctly? “I can run?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “Run!” He took off, giggling all the way, and I smiled, taking big strides to keep up with him. When he got to Sears at the other end, I told him he could turn around and keep running. I don’t remember how many times he ran the length of the mall that day. I just remember one very tired and very happy boy.

We’d moved to Wisconsin in May of 1975, after 5 years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where memories of shocking crimes stood out more than the weather. We made some wonderful friends there. But by graduation, most of us were moving to various parts of the country.

That first winter in Wisconsin, I took Reading the Landscape, taught by the Madison school district’s director of the school forest, Virginia Kline. For two hours every Monday night through most of January, February and March, I listened to Kline talk about Wisconsin’s birds, plants and geology. I was already a casual birder, but Kline’s class opened up the world to me. During the entire time she was telling us about some aspect of Wisconsin’s natural history, she showed slides. A picture of stunning Eastern bluebird got my attention. She explained this beautiful bird arrived in Wisconsin on March 1, like clockwork. How could I suffer from long winters, knowing bluebirds were about? Another harbinger of spring came later in March or early April when ice went out of ponds and lakes. Ducks, swans and loons would drop out of the sky the very day the ice turned to liquid.

While much of March brought snow, I always knew spring began March first, when I could drive in the country and see bluebirds. 

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