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In Our Own Backyard...Spring - or Twilight Zone?

It all started with the butterflies. Last Thursday I strolled down a country road, swaddled in my winter coat and boots. Only the day before, clumps of snowflakes had fallen from the sky as big and fluffy as goose down feathers. But as I picked m...

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It all started with the butterflies.

Last Thursday I strolled down a country road, swaddled in my winter coat and boots. Only the day before, clumps of snowflakes had fallen from the sky as big and fluffy as goose down feathers. But as I picked my way through the partially frozen slush and mud, I suddenly saw something whiz past out the corner of my eye. I wheeled in that direction and much to my surprise, I spotted a butterfly. A butterfly - only one day after the snow had fallen so thickly we could hardly navigate!

I recognized the familiar dark brown wings, edged in a lighter shade of cream, as a Mourning Cloak. One of the most common of butterflies in the summertime, I was astounded to see one out so early, when the earth was still frozen and the air was chilly. Then I remembered from a long-ago 4-H project that the showy butterfly actually hibernates over the winter beneath tree bark, in tree cavities or sometimes even under dried leaves on the ground. It has a chemical in its body that acts as sort of an anti-freeze that keeps it from icing up, and at the earliest opportunity, it breaks loose to welcome the spring. Last Thursday, as unlikely as it seemed, was that day.

When my husband and I walked the following day, we saw two more Mourning Cloaks. Unlike the carefree fluttering of summertime, flitting from flower to flower, the newly unleashed butterflies seemed to fly quickly and determinedly from place to place, working their way high into the treetops before briskly descending toward the underbrush. I didn't once see one actually land. Perhaps they were working the kinks out of their long-dormant wings, or perhaps they were simply sampling the overdue spring, as we were.

And though there were still several feet of snow in our woods, spring seemed to show a dogged determination that we hadn't seen during the months of March or April. The red squirrels seemed to be everywhere and, unlike their industriousness in the fall, they seemed to spend more time leaping from treetop to treetop and playing.

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Each day of the weekend got a little warmer, and the juxtaposition of the frozen snow banks with the soft mud and rivulets of water running down our driveway seemed more than a little ironic.

A walk down a neighboring dirt road on Sunday revealed a flock of small sparrow-like birds bathing with great abandon in a mud puddle created by the melting snow. The warbling cry of a red-winged blackbird took me back to the days on the boat landing as our family headed out on the opening day of fishing when I was a kid.

At home, I noticed a pair of bumbling house flies bouncing dazedly along the warm glass surface of a south-facing window.

The pent-up spring seemed to be taking hold with a vengeance before our very eyes. The ice on our lake went from white, to gray, to purple and then to yellow, like an aging bruise. I was forced to abort my walk down to the lake to check it out, however, because I sank into snow over the tops of my knees. I recalled that by this time last year, the ice on the lake was entirely gone and the loons were already back. I wondered where "our" loons were now, and how they would cope with returning to a still-frozen lake....

The nights over the weekend remained cold, and we even had a fire in the fireplace one night to drive away the chilly dampness in the air. It seemed that spring was still having a heck of a time making its debut, though the birds, animals and butterflies seemed to know something we didn't.

I saw a pair of Great Blue Herons teetering on the ice around a small strip of open water on a lake I passed on my way to work on Monday morning. Every once in a while one of them would skewer something with its beak (probably a minnow swimming too close to the surface) and gulp it down hungrily.

On Tuesday morning, we were snuggled down into our flannel sheets when we were awakened by the unfamiliar sound of thunder, interspersed with violent flashes of lightning. I couldn't shake that feeling of being somehow caught in the Twilight Zone - "the middle ground between light and shadow," as the host of the old television series, Rod Sterling, would say.

"Which will it be, Mother Nature?" I thought angrily to myself. "Which will it be?"

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Between the rumbles of thunder, I heard the faint sound of a robin singing the familiar tune it sings just before dawn. And then, just as a tremendous crack of lightning flashed outside our bedroom window, I heard the solitary yodel of a loon....

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