Sunday, January 16, 2011

Subtle Signs of Spring

This Sunday morning we woke to pounding rain on the roof, and sheets of water slobbering down the street in front of our house. It was 53 degrees at 7:00 am, which for the maritime Northwest in January can mean only one thing: a Chinook is blasting through.

These are warm weather events wherein the jet stream entrains plumes of warm moisture straight from tropical Hawaii, shooting them northeast and aiming them (in the classic meteorologist's phrase) like a fire hose on Cascadia. These Chinooks often follow a period of landlocked cold and ice and come as a welcome relief to all living here.

So when the fire hose took a brief sun break at noon, I hot-footed it down to the Deschutes estuary, to take one of my favorite walks through the wetland along the river.

Here, if you look closely, are many signs that winter is losing its hold; the earliest native plants along the estuary are breaking dormancy and getting ready to grow leaves. The Indian Plum is one of the earliest: here the bud sheaths have fallen away and there are tiny green furled leaves, getting ready to unfold. Soon they will produce long chains of delicate white flowers. The first spring I knew this plant, I brought the flowers into the house, but I only did it once: after a few hours inside these flowers left the lovely scent of skunk, permeating the entire house.

The Oregon grape also looks ready to bolt: here the tight buds of flowers are poised to open into early spring sunshine, providing a rich source of nectar eagerly sought by our native pollinators, such as the earliest bumblebees. Notice, too, the prickly evergreen leaves, their flat surfaces turned up to take in every possible bit of sunlight, to photosynthesize and rebuild their carbohydrate stores.

In late winter, sap begins to run up the branches of the woody shrubs and trees; some of them are thin-skinned enough that you can see the color changes. Here the whippy branches of a (non-native) Weeping Willow are showing bright yellow, a clear sign of sap moving up and out.

These Chinook events bring with them inches and inches of rain; as I walked along the river, the nearby hillsides were bleeding out gouts of water. All around me I could hear the sounds of running water, pouring down the hills and into the river. This is a noise that triggers the beavers: they emerge from the winter lodges with a powerful urge to DAM EVERYTHING!! BLOCK IT! STOP IT! MAKE A POND! So all along my walk, I saw evidence of mid-sized deciduous trees sacrificed to this urge; in this picture you can see the typical pointy stump of a beaver chew, and large chips scattered at the base. This is one cherry tree that will not see another year.

My favorite tree ever is willow; each spring I eagerly anticipate the showing of the first pussy willows. My walk was complete when I saw a native willow with some pussy willow catkins; in this picture you can see them, fresh & rain-speckled, behind the sap-filled branches of Red-osier Dogwood.

Then I reached the point where the Deschutes river flows out from under the I-5 bridge. The water here is thick brown with muddy sediment, washed down by the Chinook rains. Here we are at sea level; these are the warmest places in winter, where the maritime influences moderate the icy grip of winter. And here is a Red Alder tree, leaning out over the river, showing its catkins getting longer, getting ready to produce clouds of February pollen. I checked one catkin; it was turning from brown-green to red, and was softening up. Signs of spring, indeed.

Finally I turned around to head home. Looking north I saw some blue sky- YES! A break in the weather! And in the distance a faint half rainbow, trying to find its way through the clouds. It was a much-needed sign of hope that the season of winter is losing its dominion; soon we will see the light and the life of spring return once again.

Janet Partlow
Resources: "A Field Guide to the Common Wetland Plants of Western Washington and Northwestern Oregon" by Sarah Speare Cooke

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