The lesson in winter's last hurrah

I know when I hear the first peepers that winter still has a trick or two up its sleeve, but it's a sound that stops me in my tracks anyway. I was halfway to the barn the other evening, lulled by the misty warmth of the air, when the high trills wafted from a little cypress swamp up the road. I stood there, pulled the hair back from one ear to fully attend, and let myself be teased once more into thinking that this March spring had come early and might be here to stay. It's a kind of game, because I know better.

Sure enough, two nights later the frost fell hard, the early crocuses drooped, and the peepers fell silent. The greening pastures that had smelled so rich with promise all week lay locked and dormant as the sun rose, every blade in its own sheath of ice. The scene was brilliant, but completely at odds with the thrust of things the peepers had primed me for.

There is something poignant about winter in its final days, if you don't let its sharper edges get you down. Just when you will yourself to believe it's over, there it is again, hard and defiant at dawn, shutting everything that is just coming alive right back down. But ultimately, it is itself doomed by the unstoppable progression of the days, their steady lengthening, the earth's more sunward tilt - and the sheer insistence of living things to get back to business.

A few years ago, winter had its last word on the first day of spring in the form of a wet and heavy all-night snow that snapped branches, limbs, and lines. We lit candles in the half-buried cocoon of the milking parlor and tended our 20 cows by hand for two days before the power returned, something our wrists weren't used to and remembered long after. The storm left a mark the farm has never forgotten either, inscribed in the dozens of dead cedars mulching back to soil, and in the survivors, whose new branches shoot straight up from permanently bowed trunks.

But by March, winter, even at its woolliest, seems frayed about the edges; its fabric is weak and unravels with almost heady speed. The odd snow melts away in a rush, and the pasture comes on stronger than ever, as if the moisture and insulation had done more to incubate than discourage its greening. The peepers pick up their song, the woods bloom, and the morels push themselves up for the plucking.

In upstate New York, where I was raised, snow this time of year is a given, not an anomaly. I used to go skiing in shirt-sleeves in April, my tempered downhill speeds and sluggish turns more than compensated for by the bright freedom of moving without a parka. It may be a rare storm that blankets us here in southern Indiana in March, but winter may have a thing or two to dish out to us yet. In fact, I hope so. I have always had a weakness for the underdog, however much I welcome the ascendancy of spring.

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