Jim McGuire: Signs and seasons

February has long been viewed as winter’s midpoint. “We’ve crossed the hump,” an old uncle of mine liked to say—usually about the time the groundhog was being consulted for a vernal prediction.

Not that anyone expected passing this waymark meant it would be easygoing thereafter.

Sometimes winter’s second half proved to be the season’s coldest and snowiest portion. And not too long ago, when February rolled around, it was common practice among rural folks to tally-up their reserves and question whether or not they could make it until spring.

“Have half your wood and half your hay, and you’ll come safely through to May,” was not merely a folksy proverb, but a cautionary reminder that nature was still in charge and winter’s end would follow its own schedule.

Your great-great grandfather might well have muttered this adage as he headed out to check things in the barn and woodshed. Back in the house, your great-great grandmother would have appraised her root cellar and pantry shelves with a need to ease her similar concerns.

For the ill-prepared, complacency and insufficient resources could prove fatal.

In fact, winter’s latter portion was always considered the most problematic half. The weeks when struggles began…and turned grimmer as days progressed.

Which is why I’m rather disquieted about the way this iteration of winter has gone.

Compared to most winters past, we’ve so far had a remarkably mild time of things. Not much snow and no sub-zero nights. Nary a single howling blizzard or sleet-pelting ice storm.

Perhaps a few more than the usual number of days have been cloudy and dreary—though I haven’t actually checked the records.

Yet for the most part, daytime temps have generally ranged a few degrees either side of freezing. I haven’t needed to bundle up as if I were outfitting myself for an arctic expedition to make a run to the grocery. My sessions at the woodpile, sawing and splitting a fresh supply of firewood, have been governed more by rain and mud than snow and cold.

Nope. When it comes to what I consider a true Buckeye winter, we’ve pretty much enjoyed a pass!

Then came February—which began with two days of bright-sun and blue-skies. Temperatures lofted into the low-60s! Fahrenheit! Right here in Ohio!

How can such a balmy midwinter weather phenomenon not cause your hopes to soar?

Practically everyone I knew suddenly began asking and talking about the possibilities of an early spring.

Moreover, I’d already started to notice certain indicative signs—hints and signals the seasonal clock had skipped ahead.

The week before January ended, I’d been astonished to see the east-facing slope of my neighbor’s yard spattered with snowdrops—a hundred or more cheery white flowers in full bloom! I hadn’t expected them for another month.

A few days later, I made a point of checking out a woodsy site up the road. Soon after those snowdrops appear, winter aconites appear here to cover this patch of rich ground. They weren’t quite in bloom, but were up—heads and a portion of stem poking above the duff, ready and waiting in multitudes. Within a day or two, I knew their flowers would open—a dazzling yellow carpet blanketing the little glade’s leaf-litter.

I just don’t know what to make of all this. But I desperately want to believe an early spring is in the works.

Along the river, Canada geese are becoming fussier and noisier, starting to pair up. Behavior I recognize as their first procreative stirrings.

Fox squirrels on the island across from the cottage are working high in the tops of maples, nipping off branchlet tips and lapping the sweet nectar which oozes out. This mean’s the tree’s sugar-water is flowing—which means maple syrup season is at hand.

Earlier this past week, I watched a red-tail hawk poking about an old nest in a a backyard sycamore. A pair of hawks nested there last year, so this was probably one of those birds. The big red-tail seemed to be critically checking things out, seeing how much work it would take to put the old nest back into working order.

The following day, that same red-tail—or possibly the mate—returned, again poking and prodding at the mass of weathered sticks.

Yup. There are definitely positive signs out there. Are they irrefutable harbingers pointing to a seasonal foreshortening? Will spring arrive early?

I just don’t know what to make of all this, though I desperately want to believe such a miracle is in the works.

But frankly, I’m hesitant to speculate. The weather gods may be reading and decide such impertinence needs punishing…and you’ll never forgive me if we end up shoveling snow until April!

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By Jim McGuire

Contributing columnist

Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at naturalwanders@gmail.com.