Friday, March 11, 2016

The phenology of Winter's nadir

I spent much of the morning roaming back roads on my way to buy more sunflower seeds for the birds and an annual state park sticker for the vehicle. Benchmarked by the moisture coming out of the gravel township roads and the puddles in the farm fields, we've arrived at the beginning of mud season in my neighborhood. The melt is flowing into local waters where the numbers of waterfowl resting has grown notably over the past week. I've seen a couple of local reports of sandhill cranes in the vicinity. A number of hawks were in the air today. One sugarbush where I anticipated seeing buckets doesn't appear to have been tapped yet but several other woodlots, previously unnoticed, were collecting sap, one using bright blue plastic bags, another, that brought a smile to my old New England face, had metal buckets with their protective "tin roofs." Unfortunately, from my selfish perspective, the Taylors Falls drive-in restaurant hasn't accelerated its opening yet, despite our unseasonably warm weather. The other side of that coin is that it's still something to look forward to.

[UPDATE: thanks to DNR staff, we now know the photo is of a lichen, British Soldiers (<i>Cladonia cristatella</i>).
Photo by J. Harrington

Something else I'm looking forward to is the prospect of getting an affirmative response from local DNR staff that should help to identify the little red plants in the photo above. I took the picture a couple of weeks ago and have been stumped ever since trying to identify what appear to be red mushrooms(?), lichens(?). While getting my state park sticker, I gave a verbal description (not as accurate as would be ideal) and asked several of the staff if they had any suggestions. One kindly offered, if I sent a photo, to check with some of the local naturalists on staff or volunteering there. Since I'd already posted a version of this picture on Twitter, with no success at identification, I'll be emailing a copy as soon as I post this. I've reached a (temporary) nadir in my budding career as an amateur naturalist.

Now, as I'm sure you all know, nadir is "the lowest point in the fortunes of a person or organization." Using some of the powers granted me by my poetic license, while driving around today watching the snow and ice melt, I decided that nadir can also be applied to seasons like Winter and started to think that this is Winter's nadir. But then, this isn't when we experience Winter's lowest temperatures or deepest snows, far from it. Nor is it the time when people's spirits are at their Winter nadir, except maybe for ice skaters, ice fishers, skiers etc. What are your thoughts? Is the nadir of Winter when we're at the "bottom" of that season and the ice is thickest, snow is deepest and temperatures are coldest, say mid-January? Or is it, from Winter's perspective, about now as everything starts to melt? Can phenology help us find an answer, or, does it all depend?

Springtime in the Rockies, Lichen

By Lew Welch

All these years I overlooked them in the
racket of the rest, this
symbiotic splash of plant and fungus feeding
on rock, on sun, a little moisture, air —
tiny acid-factories dissolving
salt from living rocks and
eating them.
Here they are, blooming!
Trail rock, talus and scree, all dusted with it:
rust, ivory, brilliant yellow-green, and
cliffs like murals!
Huge panels streaked and patched, quietly
with shooting-stars and lupine at the base.
Closer, with the glass, a city of cups!
Clumps of mushrooms and where do the
plants begin? Why are they doing this?
In this big sky and all around me peaks &
the melting glaciers, why am I made to
kneel and peer at Tiny?
These are the stamps of the final envelope.
How can the poisons reach them?
In such thin air, how can they care for the
loss of a million breaths?
What, possibly, could make their ground more bare?
Let it all die.
The hushed globe will wait and wait for
what is now so small and slow to
open it again.
As now, indeed, it opens it again, this
scentless velvet,
this Lichen!

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