Spring, summer, fall, winter ... and now, mud

Of all our 50 states, only Vermont has a fifth season of the year: mud season. A season not known to visitors or touted by travel agents, yet it is one of Vermont's many dramatic and beautiful wonders. Pictures of it are not chosen for calendars, nor does it inspire poets. To year-round residents it is aggravating, quirky, and joyful. Let me explain.

Our winter lasts a long time, a beautiful season where our whole world is white. Snow-covered fields coated with ice glitter gold in sunshine. Snow sports delight us. We wear long underwear, thick socks, heavy boots, layer upon layer of clothing, and warm mittens. We look fatter than we are. February, alas, brings cabin fever; but by the end of February, mud-flavored hope seeps in.

The first whisper of spring, while still far away, starts when the men put on snowshoes and attach miles of plastic tubes to maple trees to bring sap downhill to tanks at the edge of roads. The work is hard, high in mountain forests, deep in snow and bitter cold. The tanks are collected and trucked to sugarhouses to be boiled down into syrup. Vermonters are not lazy.

We rejoice when we see the maple-perfumed smoke rising from the chimneys of old wooden sugarhouses. All up and down the Wettawee Valley, gentle white columns reach up toward the sky. Still dressed in our winter clothes, we visit our favorite sugarhouses to sample fresh warm syrup and talk to our neighbors. The beginning of the end of winter.

But winter doesn't give up easily. After a few warm days I saw bare ground for the first time in six months. I felt the same way I did when I sighted land from a sailboat in the Mediterranean after two days of nothing but water. Land ho! The piece of ground I saw was no bigger than a dishpan, dark-brown earth lightly covered with yellow flattened grass, but it made me happy. The next day it disappeared, covered with snow.

The two great forces, winter and spring, create massive changes for miles across the state. Hay fields once deep in snow are suddenly stripped naked overnight. In adjacent forests, heavy snow clings to mountainsides. Slowly, silently, spring finds its way under the trees. The landscape takes on the look of giant-sized modern art with huge irregular swaths of brown and white. It's bold, not neat, passionate and strong. If this landscape were music, it would be Beethoven.

Mud season also brings gentle surprises. For example, the bottom of my birdbath in the middle of the garden was covered with snow and had acquired a tall cone-shaped clown cap on the basin. To see it normal again was a big change. The bench under the cedar tree showed up one morning, bringing back happy memories of sitting on it while looking for butterflies. Tall stalks of milkweed and goldenrod slowly emerged, bowed down, making delicate half-circles all over the meadow.

The downside of mud season has to do with, well, mud. Sticky, crusty, beige mud paints all vehicles whose owners live on dirt roads, covering windows, headlights, and license plates. If washed, the vehicles promptly revert to beige the next time they hit the road.

A few dirt roads become impassible with sensational ruts. Mud can grab tires and skid cars into ditches with no warning. The blessing of mud season is that Vermonters come to your rescue as a matter of course. They are well-equipped and know how to pull people out of trouble. Mud also has an insidious way of appearing on shoes and clothing just as you are opening the door of someone's house for a party.

The temperature takes huge leaps from cold to warm. We shift clothing accordingly. On warm days we are thin again, light of foot. We feel like dancing. We take solace in the fact that mud season is short and will pass.

Yesterday, even though it was snowing, I heard the song of the migrant phoebe that lives on my porch in the summer: sweet music to the ears. The joy of mud season.

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