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First Day of Spring March 20 09

Guess what day this is.

If you answered, “Friday, March 20,” you’re missing the point. It’s the first day of spring!


It’s finally here! Exuberance! Emancipation! We’ve made it through another cold, snowy Michigan winter, and now comes the payoff—because nothing can beat springtime in this beautiful state of ours.

By now you’ve no doubt seen your first robin and very likely tasted your first seventy-degree day. If you know what to look for, you may also have seen your first wildflower. Pushing up its odd, purple cowls through the ice and still-frozen earth in the swamps and wet woods and by the streamsides, the lowly skunk cabbage leads the pageant of native spring flowers.

Tear off a piece from any part of the plant, give it a sniff, and you’ll see why the skunk cabbage—also known by the equally unflattering appellations polecat weed and fetid pothos—is aptly named. But Symplocarpus foetidus is remarkable for more than just its pungent, burnt-rubber-and-onions aroma. The plant is a miniature heat engine, generating temperatures that average 36 degrees higher than the surrounding air—enough to melt through the surrounding snow and create a microclimate in which the new year’s first pollinating insects thrive while the rest of the world shivers in sub-freezing temperatures.

This ability to manufacture its own warmth is just one of a number of fascinating traits of the skunk cabbage. Learn more about it and you’ll be amazed at some of the qualities this unassuming little plant possesses. Forget the calendar; once I see my first skunk cabbage, I know that spring has truly arrived.

Still, it’s nice to see the calendar make the official click from winter to spring, as it did today at 7:44 a.m. Eastern Time. That was the time of the vernal equinox, when the center of the Sun crossed the equator. A person standing there would have watched the Sun pass directly overhead, while someone at the North Pole would have witnessed the Sun gently kiss the horizon and then ascend upward as six months of uninterrupted daylight began.

Closer to home, this last Wednesday, south of Middleville, I watched this winter’s next-to-last sunset and thought how different it felt from the last sunset of autumn. Transfigured by the waning light, high veils of cirrus drifted like dragon flames across the deep blue of the evening, their colors mirrored in the quiescent waters of Shaw Lake. On the far shore, a row of pine trees stood like dark sentinels silhouetted against the sky. Autumn’s last sunset had portended a descent into darkness, but this evening’s sunset seemed more like a sunrise, whispering a promise of light, of lengthening days and a return to life.

Spring is here—beautiful, gracious spring. The winter was lovely with the frigid beauty of Narnia under the White Witch’s rule. But now, at last, it is time for the redwing blackbird to sing, for pussy willows to don their fuzz in the wetlands, and for the sleeping land to awaken, stretch, and slip through the coming weeks into her emerald finery.




Written by Dave.