This is what spring is called in the Malay language – “the season of flowers”. It is a good name, simple and like many Malay terms so understandably descriptive. I suppose one would need a good, evocative name for a season which, in the form known to us here in the temperate world, is nonexistent in tropical Malaysia. As I write, musim bunga is upon us here in Indiana.
My aged aunt has been abandoned by her short term memory. Now she is left to tread the familiar ground of old remembrances. Inevitably, when the conversation turns to the weather, she will repeat a now familiar refrain. “I like all the seasons,” she will avow. One could argue on behalf of her notion. The seasons here in Indiana do, each in its own way, offer much to admire. Who could not be enthralled to awaken, after a winter evening’s snow storm, to a living Christmas card outside the window? But sadly, at least in my mind, such winter mornings in Indiana are offset by day upon day of gray, sunless skies and barren fallow fields of uninteresting character. Unfortunately, as I have aged, I have noticed a concomitant inability to tolerate being cold. These days the winter winds seem more brisk, more bitter, more capable of penetrating even my multilayered clothing. I just don’t like it.
What about fall you may ask? Surely this is a season without fault. I could not say that an Indiana fall is without merit. The dry, warm days and the crisp, clear nights offer a near perfect type of weather. Flying, at low altitude, over the timberlands of Hoosier National Forest one is struck by the impression that God has been at work with Her collection of spray paints. The palette contains yellows of every conceivable shade from lemon to gold. There are reds of scarlet, merlot, cherry, blood, and mahogany. The somber oaks offer browns of chocolate, umber, peanut, and penny. The paints have touched the leaves with apricot, tangerine, carrot, and yam. Some of the trees are reluctant to surrender their chlorophyll to the coming cold. And so, passing below are miniature solar collectors of emerald and sage, parakeet and olive, pear and pickle. Yes, it is indeed a wondrous site. But, in the back of my mind, always lurks the recollection that winter is to follow. The days of warm sun upon the back will soon turn to virulent blasts of icy wind down the shirt collar.
Summers in Indiana can be a Jekyll and Hyde season. To be sure there are those days, when the humidity is low and the temperature moderate, that are glorious. Late summer brings the luscious fragrance of new mown hay. With this perfume comes the remembrance of teenage summer times spent toiling in the hayfields. It was brutal work for sure but it was tempered by the vigor of youth and the carefree comradeship of the youthful haying crew. Summer brings lovely pastoral scenes of grazing cattle, fields of wheat rapidly turning to gold, corn speedily reaching for the sky, and a zillion leaves bartering CO2 for oxygen. The bluegills are biting; the water in the old swimming hole is warm. The evenings are lit by lampyrid beetles and made richer by the trilling of amorous Fowler’s toads. There is lightning on the horizon and a summer thunderstorm comes on with the sound and speed of a rapidly approaching bison stampede. A pillar of fire flashes in the nearby forest. The thunder booms, the windows rattle, the trees sway. There is the smell of ozone in the air. I gaze out and am reminded that we humans best not get too big for our britches. There are still plenty of things greater than us.
But there are those endless days of summer during which the temperatures soar toward the century mark and the humidity causes one to believe they are in the tropics. There are stretches of days upon days without rain during which farm folk look skyward with desperate hopefulness in their eyes. The persistence of the mosquitos makes each trip into the yard an unwinnable skirmish. Deer flies orbit my head like so many electrons whirling about their nucleus. A bite from one is sure to endow me with a large, itchy welt. Lone star and dog ticks prowl the land eager to hitch a ride on a passing leg and partake of a blood meal. Late summers brings an onslaught of chiggers. Remembrance of the maddening itch from an infestation by these little hitchhikers will stay with one awhile. As a boy prone to wander the oldfields in search of adventure, I recall that the chiggers had a disconcerting inclination to head for the most vexing or inaccessible parts of the anatomy. A horde of chiggers encamped abundantly upon one’s scrotum is a most unpleasant infestation to be sure. Yes, summer here in Indiana is not all peaches and cream.
But I haven’t spoken of spring and, for quite some time now, I have harbored the conviction that this is the season I most unabashedly love and anticipate. I have pondered why this might be so. Perhaps, I’ve thought, it is the release from winter’s icy grip. Maybe it is the hope of sunny days rather than leaden skies. Or could it be that, as a retired teacher, I subconsciously yearned for the academic year’s end? The promise of several weeks of reduced stress and less than ten hour work days was alluring. But lately I’ve been more inclined to believe that my love of spring is very closely tied to a discipline that has been both my vocation and my lifelong avocation – the study of biology. It is, I’ve finally decided, the springtime explosion of activity within our biological world that so enthralls me with this time of year. After months of waiting, a prolific rebirth is about to begin.
Here in Indiana, spring officially begins in March. In the northern hemisphere, the vernal equinox (autumnal equinox in the southern) marks a time of equivalent hours of daylight and darkness. From this time until late June the hours of daylight will really begin to outpace the nocturnal periods. However, in my biologically oriented mind, spring actually begins in February. For it is during this month that the large raptors begin to nest. Surely I tell myself, in spite of frigid evidence to the contrary outside my window, the presence of hawk and owl eggs means it is spring. True, there is no more miserable sight than a barred owl doggedly incubating her eggs while a mantle of snow drapes her head and shoulders. But the promise of new beginnings is there. Like Phoenix from its ashes, new life will arise from the frosty February forest.
The next signpost of spring I eagerly await is the emergence of the amphibians. One of the first, and often most noticeable, members of this cast is the chorus frog. This little frog is only about 25mm in head and body length. Thus it is often mistakenly identified as a baby frog. But, of course, “baby frogs” are tadpoles. My field journal shows that from 1977 through the year 2000 the average date upon which I first heard this species calling was February 20th. As noted, that’s a pretty early date for “spring” in Indiana. There is still plenty of time for a bitter cold snap or several inches of snow. And yet the breeding imperative of this little anuran is strong. Barely has the ice melted from the surface of every small pool and pond than the plaintive croak of this diminutive fellow is heard. The voice of the chorus frog has been described as sounding like the rubbing of one’s thumb across the teeth of a comb. With the water temperature near freezing, it is often a very sluggish rubbing of the comb that occurs. Nevertheless, for millennia this voice has bespoken the release of winter’s grip and the onset of warmer weather. “Here I am,” says the little croaking. “This is my breeding territory,” the sound affirms. “Ladies, I am worthy,” croon the pint-sized singers.
Soon after the chorus frogs begin their wooing of mates, the spring peepers commence their chorusing. Sounding like a high-pitched, whistled peep, their mating calls are highly cryptic in regards to finding their source. Wade into a shallow pool of chorusing spring peepers and try to pick out an individual. You’ll see what I mean. And yet the females unerringly find a mate and soon fill the breeding pool with masses of eggs suspended inside their gelatinous coverings. From here on a riotous explosion of anuran voices fills the night air. The chorus frog and spring peeper are joined by wood frogs, leopard frogs, , green frogs, crawfish frogs, gray tree frogs, bullfrogs, Fowler’s and American toads in mixed choruses of wonderful variety.
My neighbors have a large pond just over the hill from my house. In late spring it is a favorite haunt of a multitudinous number of Fowler’s toads. I sit upon my deck reveling in the ability to be clad in short sleeves and watch darkness descend upon the surrounding forest. Serenaded by the peculiar, strident trilling of the toads, I suddenly feel an aboriginal peace of mind. It becomes very clear that the vocalizations are meant for me too. “Here is the world as it once was,” they say. ” Take note of the ebb and flow of the seasons,” they shout. “You are a creation of the natural world as well,” they remind me.
This gradual increase in anuran activity and diversity is, of course, matched upon the land by the spectacular explosion of diversity among the avian inhabitants of the Indiana fields, wetlands, and forests. The raptors, as I have noted, have gotten a head start on the proceedings. But following closely upon their heels comes an invasion of spectacular proportions. I can see one of my favorite constituents of this incursion just a few short minutes east of my home. For here 9000 acres of restored wetlands have been created – Goose Pond FWA. The response of avifauna to this restoration has been nothing short of spectacular. And now, in the early spring, it is my great fortune to be able to witness the annual northward return of the sandhill cranes. Until Goose Pond was established, I had never seen these birds in southwestern Indiana. What strange, non-human means of communication enabled them to learn of the existence of this new wetland confounds me. But learn they did. Now I am able to stand in enraptured wonder as thousands of sandhill cranes descend onto their feeding grounds or alight at their evening roosts. Since first vouchsafed this spectacle, I have become enamored by sandhill cranes. Their far-carrying bugles seem to me the epitome of wildness. I’m sure that the great conservationist Aldo Leopold, with his unmatched eloquence, has touched upon the source of my fascination with these birds. Says he, “When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.” Yes indeed; there is much fodder for thought in the call of a sandhill crane.
Typically following the sandhill cranes northward through the spring skies comes a host of waterfowl species unseen since last year. Having spent the winter months entertained only by the Canada geese which have learned that migration isn’t really a necessity, I am now regaled by the return of great throngs of their brethren. Accompanying the cranes to Goose Pond are mallards, blue-winged and green-winged teal, gadwalls, northern pintails, American widgeons, canvasbacks, redheads, northern shovelers, ring-necked ducks, greater and lesser scaup, snow geese, and greater white-fronted geese. It is a flamboyant expression of the season of renewal which I now see reinvigorating the marshlands.
Upon land, a similar explosion of arriving bird species can be seen. Now returning to my woodland, some from as far away as Central and South America, are golden-winged warblers, Kentucky warblers, chestnut-sided warblers, yellow warblers, northern parulas, and ovenbirds. Joining them on a list that progressively lengthens day by springtime day are Baltimore orioles, orchard orioles, thrushes and thrashers, swallows and swifts, grosbeaks, hummingbirds, flycatchers, and vireos. The days are made more interesting as I monitor the wood duck box on a nearby sycamore tree. I see a pair haunting the neighboring trees. Will they use the home I have provided them? The female is an expert at surreptitiously making a dive through the box’s entrance hole. Perhaps I will not know of their nesting until the fall when, upon checking the box, I discover egg shell fragments. Now my mornings are made brighter by the piercing, crystalline “teakettle-teakettle-teakettle” of an amorous Carolina wren. The evenings become sublime as the haunting, fluted “eeh-oh-lay” of the wood thrush resonates from the darkening woodland. Is it any wonder that springtime sends the dedicated birder into paroxysms of joy as they again recognize familiar voices, record their “first of the years”, and anticipate the Big May Day count?
Despite the entertaining chaos of returning species, there is one bird which has always verified for me that spring is here to stay. It is the red-winged blackbird. At about the same time that the chorus frogs begin their calling, I begin to notice that some red-wings have left their winter flocks. Going solo now, males begin to stake out a likely piece of terrain. Typically, by the end of February, they have taken up permanent guard duty over the small plot that will become their breeding territory. This early establishment of territory can have its setbacks. Few things connote misery more clearly than a sodden male red-wing hunkered down and waiting out an early spring mix of rain and snow.
But eventually come the warm days when, perched high in a favorite willow, the males flash their gaudy, red epaulets and produce their wonderful liquid warble. It is a sound irresistible to a female red-wing. It is also a sound that instantly transports me, via the vehicle of memory, to youthful days spent eyeing a bobber floating upon the waters of a favorite bluegill pond. Standing water = red-winged blackbird song. Red-wing blackbird song = standing water. The two images are as inseparable in my mind as the notion that male red-wings on territory mean spring.
Having an inclination toward zoology, my ruminations upon spring have so far centered upon wildlife. But of course it would be a reprehensible injustice to speak of spring and confine myself to the Animalia. In February I begin to notice that distant tree lines have changed their appearance. Their winter colors of gray and brown are now replaced by blushes of red and green. The colors are an announcement that things are astir in the plant kingdom too. Close examination of these trees reveals leaf buds ready to pop, catkins, and flowers set to explode as soon as temperatures and light permit. Each year I am amazed to see the speed with which plant productivity accelerates from nonexistence to high gear. Tiny leaves emerge and, day by day, grow in size with astonishing rapidity. One day I look out my window and clearly see, through the nearby forest, my much too close neighbor’s house. Then seemingly overnight the solar collectors of ash, walnut, hickory, and maple are too large to allow me to see more than thirty feet into the forest. From then until November I can at least pretend to be living in some degree of isolation from other humans.
There is another event that marks the coming of spring. It involves neither animal nor plant. It is a happening highly anticipated by the rural folk who populate my world. It is the emergence of the morel mushrooms. Successfully finding morels is something of a knack. Hunters who can spot a tiny morel at thirty paces and come home from a quest with bulging sacks of these delicacies are highly regarded in these parts. I dare say that I hold such a person in much higher esteem than a typical member of the Indiana legislature. I love to mushroom hunt but few would consider me an adept in this art. Nevertheless, along with my wife and daughter, we find our share. Weekends spent searching our woodlands for black, half-free, gray, and yellow morels have provided many an hour of pleasant companionship for us.
Seeking morels is serious business in rural Indiana. I recall one outing, on a day particularly hot for an Indiana spring, when this fact was brought home to me most clearly. Having clambered about like a mountain goat on some rugged strip-mine spoils, I suddenly found myself experiencing the symptoms of heat exhaustion. It was either flop down on my back to recover or pass out and tumble to the bottom of the spoil bank. My daughter, initially frightened by my symptoms of course, used her skills as a nurse to conclude that it was the heat and not the heart at fault here. After a half hour or so of lying comatose, I finally felt like rising and trying to walk back to our vehicle. As I got up and dusted myself off Michelle announced, “I found six more morels while you were passed out.” I can’t describe the father’s pride I felt at that moment.
Of course, a morel hunter would rather endure the tortures of the rack than reveal the location of a productive mushroom patch. Knowing where to successfully find morels is a piece of information that disproves the notion that blood is thicker than water. You may be my sibling but don’t even ask where I found all these mushrooms is the rule of morel law. As I said, finding these delicacies is serious industry.
I have already admitted that my morel hunting skills are about average at best. Now I must confess to a serious shortcoming which is likely the cause of my paltry ability. The fact is I just can’t seem to keep my mind on business while I’m mushroom hunting. There is simply too much else going on in the spring woods. For example, I recall one spring day of perfect light and temperature. I had just begun my search when a hen woodcock suddenly flushed from under my feet. Usually, when this happens, I next see the bird rapidly disappearing into the distant forest like a small, brown bullet. This time the woodcock displayed a slow, fluttering flight that carried it no further than just over the next spoil ridge ten yards away. Strange thought I. Then it dawned on me that perhaps I had nearly stepped on her nest. Remaining planted where I stood, I carefully scanned the leaf litter around me. Imagine my delight when I saw there, practically at my feet, three baby woodcocks. Tiny little balls of downy fluff they were. Their coloration was so cryptic and matched the dead leaves upon which they sat so well that I was somewhat astonished to have even spotted them. Not a millimeter did they move. Not an eye blinked. I carefully reached down and touched a down feather. Still as stone the crafty little mote remained. By such instinct do they remain invisible to fox and weasel. I slowly moved away secure in the knowledge that mom, listening intently just over the ridge, would soon return and lead the little brood away. Who could think of morels when bequeathed such a rare glimpse into the secret life of the woodcock?
That was the first time I had ever seen fledgling woodcocks. It may be the last. But there is no dearth of observations destined to distract me from the job of finding morels. After many years, I simply accept this fact. I find myself intrigued to find an eastern box turtle. I encounter it sluggishly emerging from the springtime leaf litter. Its head and carapace are plastered with mud. The orange-red iris tells me it is a male. The mud upon the back suggests this fellow is just emerging from his long winter nap. Likely it’s time for him to think about a post-winter snack and a search for another of his kind; the one having the dark eyes.
Next to the box turtle is a patch of spring beauties. How appropriate their name. After a winter of barren, brownish leaf litter the delicate, white flowers with their pink venation and yellow anthers are among the first forest plants to announce that musim bunga has arrived. Digging into the soil I retrieve a filbert sized corm from one of the plants. Brushing away the soil, I pop the morsel into my mouth, crunch down, and am rewarded with an earthy, potato flavor. Nearby stands half a dozen specimens of toothwort. This small, white-flowered herbaceous plant is quite common in the woodlands of Indiana. I recall that the name refers to use of the plant’s segmented root as an herbal remedy for toothache. This in turn causes me to ponder upon the fact that practically every plant I see around me was likely used in some way by Native Americans. Whether it be food, fiber, or building material that was needed, a plant that fit the bill could be found in their environment. The pioneers who displaced the native inhabitants were also aware, likely to a lesser degree, of the natural pharmacy and food larder that surrounded them. Sadly this is a knowledge and skill that is as nearly extinct among modern Hoosiers as the passenger pigeon. My guess is that the vast majority of modern humans are cerebrally disconnected from their continued reliance upon the plant kingdom for our survival. I dig up a small, two inch root of a toothwort and sample its texture and taste. Yes, very crispy as I had heard and it does indeed taste like horseradish.
Of course I am not distracted by only a plant species or two. If my morel hunt is done in a species rich, older forest the visual feast I am offered will be delicious. There will be the exquisite simplicity of trillium to behold. The lovely white pantaloons of Dutchman’s breeches will catch my eye. Likely there will be Virginia bluebells, Jack in-the-pulpit, mayapple, blue violet, trout lily, and bloodroot. Of course I can’t neglect consideration of the woody plants. Redbud, my favorite, dogwood, and spicebush transform the nearly leafless forest into an impressionist opus. There is so much to see and muse upon here. How could anyone keep their mind on morels?
Once, meandering along while searching the forest floor for Morchella esculenta, my eyes fell upon a small russet lump lying quietly in my path. Liberally sprinkled with white spots and sporting eyes and legs that were far too big for the tiny body rested a white-tailed deer fawn. Like the tiny woodcocks the fawn instinctively made not a move. As the sunlight played through the canopy and fell in white dollops around and upon the fawn, the little deer became virtually invisible although lying only a few feet away. As I moved closer, the breathing of the little one slowed and not a hair stirred. I reckoned in another week or so my coming nearer would result in the sight of a white flag held high as the youngster bounded over the nearest hill. But for now I was free to casually and carefully inspect the diminutive wonder that lie before me. Even at this tender age the fawn exhibited the graceful symmetry of torso and limb which causes us to associate the terms elegance and loveliness with this animal. What would be this little creature’s fate I wondered? Many hazards lie ahead. Coyotes are predators of deer fawns. Should it survive these wild canids, there are harsh winters and hunting seasons to come as well as dangerous roads to cross. Good luck little wonder thought I. Thank you for bringing beauty and grace into my world. As I moved away the fawn remained as inert as when I had first encountered it. Doubtless the doe would soon return and together they would move off into a realm alien to me. Only a brief peek into this world was I granted. But what a delightful glimpse it was.
Perhaps these short vignettes have given you an understanding of why there is little chance I will be crowned the Sullivan County Mushroom Hunting Champion. Doubtless if morels were the only things to be found in the spring woodlands my odds would be much better. But, it has been my good fortune to find that they are not the sole occupants of these timberlands. I would be willing to bet that others hunters suffer the same weakness as I. The forests of April and May are simply full of diversions of wondrous variety. They are there for you too – bird and beast, flower and frog, art and adventure, homage and history. All it takes is some time and the pretense of going afield in search of a nice “mess” of mushrooms.