I always wonder how people who live in cities know when the seasons change. When you live it the country, it’s hard to miss. The changes are almost imperceptible, but something happens every day.
I tend to track the seasons by the solstices and equinoxes — winter/summer, spring/fall — rather than the calendar. It’s mostly a matter of light. After the winter solstice, the days begin to lengthen; true, it’s only about two or three minutes a day, but when you’re outside every day at about the same time, it only takes a week to realize you have an additional fifteen minutes of daylight. Instead of scurrying to get evening chores done before darkness falls, you can slow down a little and enjoy a few minutes watching the sheep play tag with the Canada geese.
Birds give you one of the first signs of seasonal change. The robins and red-winged blackbirds come back early, often when there’s still snow on the ground. A few weeks later, it’s the cranes headed northward, their odd chirring calls audible from miles away. We have a few resident Canadas all winter long, but they start to come back in bigger groups as the days get longer. The chickens begin to lay, especially if they have enough protein to keep them warm when the weather stays cold.
Animals start to shed their winter coats. Brush Maybelle the milk cow and you’ll find a small pile of fine golden hairs on the floor. The mare and colt contribute as well, but theirs are a deep red. The cows are beginning to look pregnant, with only about three months to go. Hershey — who is nicknamed “Tubby” for a very good reason — is already as round as barrel. By the time she’s ready to calve I suspect she will hardly be able to waddle. When you go by the ponds, there will be turtles sunning themselves instead of hiding in the mud for warmth. The spring peeper chorus begins to swell, although “peepers” seems a misnomer — they groan, ribbit, knee-deep and croak like demented dwarves with laryngitis.
Manzanita blooms furiously, the tiny pink and white bells attracting bees (one of the non-nature-related signs of spring around here is the reappearance of the various apiary trucks delivering hives throughout the valley) and hummingbirds. Pussywillows bloom, and the alder trees develop long, thin catkins. The wild plums grow small knobs on the ends of the branches that will soon turn into masses of white bloom. Buds on the oaks swell and redden. Grass — only an inch or so tall — carpets the ground under the stems of last year’s growth.
Listen, look, smell and feel.