spring song

The volume’s turned up at William O’Brien as I take a half-day’s walk on muddy trails, ears open to the music of early spring. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers’ rat-a-tat competes with the vibra-slap trill of the redwing blackbird. Ratcheting turkeys interject mirth in between chickadees’ mournful insistence. Wind-up toy robins, two-toned honking geese, a gold finch gushing a string of ‘tweety-bird’ before alighting on a C-shaped roller coaster, riding an invisible air-track. At a flooded stream, a warbler checks me out, coming close on hopping feet before darting out of sight behind a drooping willow.

Staccato scolds, slide whistles, and single peeps follow me through the forest, a carpet of withered oak leaves, dusty hepatica thrusting violet heads up through the thick layer. Mud sucks at my shoes where ferns in fisted scrolls poke up next to last year’s dusty remains. Frogs click maracas in a pond, fresh tracks telling the story of deer soothing their thirst at this very spot. Some kind soul stacked branches over a flooded section where trillium grows, too early yet to see their flowers dressed in first-communion white. I head deep into the woods over another’s scramble. A train sounds in the distance.

At the prairie, a blue jay looks on lazily as swallows dive bomb, like kamikaze swooping within inches of my face. I try not to flinch, but fail completely. Scat in in the middle of the trail is wound tight with fine strands of hair. Twin mallards swim silently in a pond, their wake blurring the reflected birch in shimmery vibration. It’s cold as the sun moves behind a cloud and the wind picks up. A trio of turkey vultures tips unsteadily on massive wings, heads trained on the ground, eyes sharp. Fungus like diseased toe nails covers fallen logs. I snap them and make my own music, a kind of thumb-piano with size determining pitch. 

I reach the top of the hill where a trail runner humble-brags, telling me his wife says he’s crazy running “Superior” and speaking to me as though I’d never heard of it. “Good on you!” I tell him as I walk away into the widest views yet of prairie and forest not needing to brag, thinking my husband says I’m a miracle. Evidence of last winter’s snow is harsh, flattened grasses stretch into marshland. A lone sandhill crane, all gangly wings and legs, floats silently overhead, gifting me just a mordant of his clacking call. I pass bluebird houses built by zealous state park workers. A swallow claims one as his own and trains his gaze on me, his white throat wobbling like an aging soprano, daring me closer and closer until at last he flits away. A bluebird watches from a tree.

At the Saint Croix River far below, the water is high, islands crisscrossed by canals. A swollen stream races down to unload its contents into the river, moss-covered rocks crowded by skunk cabbage and yellow marsh marigolds. The sun is at a sharper angle now and it’s time to head home.

Spring’s ritual is familiar to me after thirteen years in Minnesota. Few things surprise anymore, though I find the sameness comforting, the never-changing a balm for the changes and the unknown in my own life. Life’s renewal at spring offers me a chance to accept renewal for myself, to believe it’s on offer. Walking in the woods and prairie always heals me and perhaps in knowing that fact, I surprise myself that something so simple – so available – can reliably make things right.

I walk to my car, lighter than I’ve been over the past month, happy and whole – at least for the moment. And I wonder, where I ‘ll go tomorrow.

Reader Comments

  1. Thanks, Anita – I took a similar walk through the Hyland Preserve in Bloomington recently, noting the little things which assure us that Spring has, indeed, sprung. I, too, saw a wild turkey, a flock of butter-butts, ferns fiddling, leaves disintegrating, four deer grazing on new grass, and the surprise spot: a coyote intently watching the deer. One doesn’t need to go to an art gallery or even New Zealand to find beauty and amazement on a walk in the woods. And yet, it requires the woods-walker to be alert to the sensory events taking place right there, right then. You do that so well. And thank you for continuing your blog “Out Here in the Middle.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqjAU-z17uE

    1. so true! beauty surround us, but then we have to be alert to it. Thanks so much Marc for sharing your artful day with me. It means a lot.

  2. Al, you are an amazingly wonderful and evocative writer. Your descriptive writing about your thru-hike in New Zealand was brilliant and often made me feel that I was on the trail with you – but the focus was and had to be on the progress of the journey as much as your surroundings. However, when you are just focused on the natural world around you, your writing has, in my view, reached a whole new level of excellence and beauty. You have shown a magnificent talent, and I do look forward to seeing where this talent takes you in the months ahead.

  3. It’s kinda weird (and great!) to now be reading a “local” post . . .but 200 miles south, you’re having a different experience. Spring has definitely sprung on the North Shore . . . . but snow is still part of the daily walk. . .and not nearly the bird/animal/insect activity here . . .but it is CHANGING!!

  4. Wonderful Allison! I loved reading your description of the sounds, and then listening to the audio clip! Doug and I took our grandson to Carley State Park today for a picnic and hike to enjoy the spring wildflowers. Carley is famous for its bluebells, which are blooming now but not quite at peak. Today the forest floor was carpeted in large swaths of wood anemones, with some nice clumps of Virginia bluebells in near full bloom, trout lilies and a scattering of Dutchman’s Breeches. By Thursday or Friday I would bet the bluebells will be at peak. Four or five years ago we hit the right day and the bluebells were so spectacular it looked like rivers of blue in some places.We decided not to cross the river because it was flowing quickly and the large, flat concrete blocks that take the place of bridges were underwater. We thought of you and the rivers and streams you crossed!!!!! We aren’t that brave.

  5. good timing – Spring return with all its Northern Hemisphere wonders – and the awakening which you describe.

    Best of both worlds.

  6. I would love to, but if you knew how inept I am with boats you would reconsider. I’m Fran from Durham NC via Houston. Long time Alison admirer from KUHF, joined MPR even before the awful demise of Houston classical programming because we loved its programming. Retired to NC this summer, which has WCPE for the car, but we still listen to MPR at home. Hopefully you’ll be rejoining them or otherwise contributing to online cultural programming. Still hearing your voice on Symphony Hall!

    1. aha! yes, hello! perhaps need to share a walk in NC foothills! Sadly, my position at MPR was eliminated.

  7. Thanks for update re MPR. I am disappointed. So glad you made time for the New Zealand trek and have that experience and those memories in your heart and mind.

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