By Dave Simonett
Recently I made a mistake. It’s one I make every year. It was early March and my dog Hrbek and I were walking through a strip of woods along the Minnesota River. I smelled something unexpected: wet exposed earth. Dirt is made purely of death but somehow it smells exactly like life. Its scent is rarely paired with snow and ice. I heard something unexpected, too. A female cardinal was in an ancient elm tree singing a song that had nothing to do with darkness and snow. It was not sad. It was not “Waiting Around to Die” by Townes Van Zandt. For that time of day, the sun was higher than I remembered even a couple weeks before. The snow was melting under my feet.
I was feeling the early pangs of Spring.
Almost as soon as the thought fully materialized in my winter-tattered brain I began to scold myself. Don’t be an idiot. Sure, the birds are lustful and the average temp is on the rise. Sure, the cracks on the river ice are saying “no longer shall you walk on me!” But I should know better. Anyone who lives here in Minnesota can tell you March is the great tease. Around here, winter doesn’t end in March. Hell, it barely ends in April. I know that I still have at least forty days and forty nights of snow and ice in front of me before the dark earth thaws out and sends forth musty dreams of morels and ramps.
As Hrbek and I walked the icy path next to the sleeping river, visions of gobbling turkeys and rising trout danced through my head. It was too late. I had spring fever. The cure was soul numbingly far away. I allowed myself to travel past the bounds of logic and believe the gentle, lusty song of that little bird in that big tree. Mating and life and passion and mud, that’s what I wanted. I would’ve even taken a mosquito; the mourning halls of winter be damned. But my daily life was still governed by the bounds of winter and would be for several more weeks. Patience can be a harsh lesson and, in my repeated ignorance, I somehow must learn it every year. Every day, even. As a human being the last thing I should be wishing for is to speed up the advance of time. We get so little of it as it is. I made a promise right then and there to that old elm tree that next year I would revel in early March’s subtle mischief.
I feel lucky to live in a place with four distinct seasons. I genuinely love them all. That being said, my favorite time of any season is the very beginning. I love the shifting phase between the identities; nature’s wardrobe change.
The first whispers of Spring after a long winter.
The first hot and humid day of Summer.
The first chill of a September wind.
I love the first snow and frost of Winter just as much. There’s something regenerative in the change of season humans have celebrated for thousands of years.
The earliest records of New Year’s parties go back something like 5000 years. Spring festivals, harvest festivals, and solstice celebrations have marked humanity’s vision of the passage of time since before we thought to record such things. In Babylon they marked the new year by the first visible crescent after the first new moon of the Vernal Equinox. That’s a mouthful but it seems to make more sense than January 1st. I know a lot of places in the world do not have the stark difference in seasons that we have here in Minnesota, but even in the deserts of Mesopotamia it seems they celebrated the end of winter and saw the rebirth of a new year in the coming spring.
Apparently, Julius Caesar came up with the idea of the new year beginning in January to honor Janus, the Roman god with two faces: one facing towards the future and one towards the past. A year is a circle, so I guess whoever is in charge can pick the beginning, as it really doesn’t matter. Our concept of time throughout our history has certainly changed more than we can know. Even now in this seemingly advanced age there still exists more than one calendar. Even now in this seemingly advanced age we are still beholden to the whims of the seasons, regardless of what the calendar says. That old elm tree housing that lying cardinal is a couple hundred years old. When that tree was young there were Dakota camped here next to this river fishing and hunting, loving and parenting and learning and dying. I can imagine they also walked around here in what we now call March (The Moon of Sore Eyes) and wished for spring before spring was ready.
The changing seasons and their various celebrations connect us to an incredibly long line of past travelers. Each succeeding culture or religion has coopted previous versions of the spring fling or the harvest festival, giving them new names like Easter and Halloween, but the need to mark the changing of the seasons persists. If we strip away the names and the superficial cultural distinctions, we can find in those markers an unbroken line of humanity reaching farther back than we probably know. We can visualize and empathize with our ancestors and realize that for them, for us, for the cardinal, for the elm tree, life on Earth is a cycle repeating upon itself over and over until the great light of the sun someday goes out. In the span of a single human life, the couple weeks between desire for Spring and actual Spring are but a blink of an eye. It seemed painfully long on that frosty Monday morning, but sometimes when something seems like it’s taking long time, it’s good to remember that after eons of walking on two legs, we still haven’t figured out how to measure four years without adding an extra day in February.
There’s an immediacy to spring that I don’t detect in her three siblings. It’s a buildup of raw and passionate energy that’s been sleeping through months of dark and cold. Spring is the classic country song of seasons; it’s short and sweet with no room for anything but the truth. Someday soon, as we watch the returning geese fly overhead, Hrbek and I will walk to a secret spot I know near our home and hopefully find a large patch of ramps. I’ll dig up a few and that night’s dinner will taste like the beginning of a new year.
About the Author
Dave Simonett is a songwriter and lead singer of the band Trampled by Turtles. He's an avid upland bird hunter and a mediocre to poor fly fisherman who also enjoys a spinning rod now and again. He serves on the Board of Directors for Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters and on any given day he would prefer to be wandering around a patch of woods with his wife and kids and dogs.