Life on the Rocks | The symphony of spring

By Steve Ulvi

Journal contributor

As mostly refugees from other places, our perceptions here of the parade of spring are all over the map; shaded by ingrained life experiences or wildly wishful thinking or both. Weather weirding makes it even more interesting! Many also think that our short winters – even in strong El Nino patterns greatly eased by the magic of rain shadow – are to be escaped, one way or another, just to maintain sanity. Like socio-cultural views grounded in a sense of community elsewhere, then transplanted here without necessary PNW re-education, “southerners” especially view our lengthy, gloriously fickle spring as a glass half empty.

I have always ignored the calendar demarcations of the seasons – amusingly far out of natural synchrony at 64 plus degrees north in Interior Alaska – preferring to observe the adaptive cues of the natural world. I admit to unfailing optimism at the first signs of petal and leaf, the soothing warmth of sun on my now grizzled cheek, and feeling the ancient thrum of forest reawakening.

Yes, three decades of outdoor-oriented life in subarctic Alaska and later regular all-season travel into the arctic fastness of the central Brooks Range has warped my sense of seasonal proportion. Winter-dominance; midnight sun summers are sublime, the short-lived equinox seasons exhilarating. The breakup and gnashing flow of the deeply-frozen Yukon River is the spectacle of spring and heralds the later summer. With everything but living flesh and water running under thick ice-cover frozen solid for months, the amazing thaw of spring break-up is an awesome display of the cumulative effects of rapidly increasing solar energy and angle of incidence.

In the maritime lowlands, 48.5 degrees of latitude, buffered by cool water, I have come to revel in the lengthy, multi-part symphony of change building from March through June finally conveying the settle of a sweet summer. Spring is a cycling gift of reluctant winter release; whispered, then wind-lashed, cleansing showers and rain shadow protection that keeps surprising as in no other theatre of spring I have known. But it is a crapshoot to pick windows of conditions right for human activities while watching spring unfold week to week, month to month. Clouds change, billowed by increasing thermal heating while familiar landscapes green-up and are in turn colored by slanting light, then shadowed by dark bellied clouds.

The delight in seeing returning birds seems mutual – soaring high or in noisy flocks tree-top to tree-top, waterfowl arrowing northward, the contagious exuberance of swallows checking the eaves, then away, hungry shorebirds in quick-legged search along the edges of water and beach, then swirling in murmuration to keep going – all seemingly unconnected but actually choreographed by daylength or temperature and genes, the invisible baton of an ancient conductor.

It is an inspiring story of spring, again and again, building tempo like the varied movements of a huge and complex symphony affecting all our senses. For avid nature observers, our spring parade of incremental surprises is one of the most fascinating and lovely aspects of living here.