It’s been really quiet. Humanity holds its breath, and whispers. The woods and waters await the growing season.
There are exceptions. A feathered vanguard comprised of sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans, and countless Canada geese have advanced into my part of the St. Croix Valley. Their croaking, calling, and honking have sounded the season as they restlessly chase open water north and out across the landscape.
Maple sap started running weeks ago, and a stretch of ideal weather reportedly made for a good harvest. You can find skunk cabbage poking its pointy head out of the wet soils around springs and river banks, creating its own heat to get a jump on the rest of the vegetation.
Way up in the Namekagon River part of the watershed, in northern Washburn County, a DNR officer reported hearing a wood frog calling this week. “It sounded slow and cold, but it was calling.”
Sensing the season
I was walking along the base of an east-facing bluff the other day, a place I had scrambled to reach. It is a new part of a place I know well. I scramble up and down the soft soils, which lay at a distinct angle sloping from the base of the bluff to the water.
When I pause, my heart pounds in my ears, sounding like a distant ruffed grouse drumming, another timeless spring sound. But it’s just blood and muscle.
There aren’t any signs of modern humans, no litter or even initials carved in the soft sandstone, until I spot a small piece of bright red plastic on the ground. When I bend to pick it up, I realize it is not litter at all. I have mistaken the first fungus of spring for something synthetic.
It’s Scarlet Cup (Sarcoscypha coccinea), a brilliant red mushroom that pops when there is little other color to be seen. I’ve mistaken it for something man-made before, same as Scarlet Tanagers and Cardinal Flower.
Squirrels and mice love to eat it, which means it is usually gnawed off when I see it, but also the critters tend to scratch away the leaves around it, making the stubs easy to spot.
Scarlet Cup is an indicator light for the inevitable sweep of life north. Natural cycles, ancient routes, uncounted generations of breeding, feeding, migrating – it’s happening despite humans losing a hold on some of our most trusted routines.
There are signs of life, but the best is yet to come.
Owls and open water
Later in my walk, on a nice level path now, rather than a steep sidehill, I hear hooting ahead. A barred owl calls once, and I pause, and then it calls again. “Who cooks for you?”
It’s their nesting season, their time for defending territory and genetics, their time for heightened alert.
Owls are a symbol of wisdom and intelligence, but they also represent a certain stillness, a firm but fluid presence — both hyper-aware and nearly invisible. When I hear one, I can’t help but pause and consider the big bird perched on a high limb, seemingly immobile but aware of everything happening nearby.
When it drops off the limb and spreads its wings, flies off through the trees, it makes no sound. You don’t know if it was there, or if you are really there. There is in fact only the forest and the land — creatures like us come and go.
The river’s main channel is mostly open above Stillwater now, but the backwaters and side channels are still locked in softening ice. I have paddled during such conditions, and it’s a funny feeling, confined to the big water that heads downstream as directly as possible.
On summer days, I can follow meandering sloughs and extend a trip by increasing the distance and decreasing the speed. Now it is a matter of going at the current’s pace, on the river’s path. But it’s always a good ride.
The waterfowl find refuge on the open water, too. Most lakes are still frozen, so this is where they can sleep at night, safe from predators, after days foraging in the nearby cornfields.
When I take our dog outside before bed, I can hear the honking of what must be hundreds or maybe thousands of geese roosting about a half-mile due east from my home. There was still ice there not long ago.
The quiet season is closing. Spring is starting to speak.
St. Croix 360 is now 100% supported by readers.