Unsilent, Unsettled Spring


The Pulse and Politics of the Environment, Peace, and Justice

Bob Musil, President, Rachel Carson Council

“In nature nothing exists alone.”

“The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history… It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.”

“If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.”

— Rachel Carson


Image of Song Sparrow singing in SpringJust days ago, my wife and I were bundled in hats, scarves, gloves, and an umbrella as we walked hunched in a shifting mix of icy rain, crystalline snow bouncing like hail upon the streets, and giant snowflakes like those school kids make by snipping triangles out of folded paper.

Within forty-eight hours, the temperature in Bethesda leapt into the 70s in the midst of February. The Easter Bunny emerges over a month early, bounding from beneath the deck in our neighbor’s yard, sniffing and looking for things to nibble. I see a first, lone crocus and bright yellow lesser celandines among snowdrops in a garden. Blue jays are making liquid, musical calls to each other, while a Song Sparrow sings out, “Hip-hip hooray, boys! Spring is here again!” Spring is not silent. It is unsettled and unsettling.

The next morning, I wheel my Trek onto the C&O Canal above Great Falls. It is a winter scene. The towpath is empty, under repairs, and a long, flat stretch of dirt unrolls before me devoid of plant growth, early wildflowers, or anything at all. Only brilliant white sycamores in stark sunshine call to me with outstretched hands. A month ago a frigid cold snap brought skaters out onto the rarely frozen Canal.

Now, I am without a jacket. Peddling slowly, I pass my first walkers in shorts and tee shirts. The air is balmy, already in the high 60s and moving higher. Then I hear a loud, steady din to my left toward the Potomac. My mind races, confused, to identify this strange, new sound. Geese, ducks, gulls? I stop, head cocked, searching with binoculars. All I can see are flashes of bright, white Ring-billed gulls sailing, gliding, gathering, over the river against blue sky. There are far too few to make the racket that I hear. It is many voices joined together that variously cluck, or quack, or gobble like multiple phalanxes of the wild turkeys I have seen here on rare occasions.

Unsettled by such strong, strange, unknown sounds from unknown creatures, I peddle on. I am surprised at logs full of turtles basking in the sun. These are displays that I associate with May. There are painted turtles, Eastern sliders, and, then, several large ones that seem somehow out of place. A friendly, large woman from a farm with ponds in Poolesville comes up and explains to me that, “those are red-bellied cooters. I got ‘em on my farm. They’re bigger. And see how they’ve got pinkish red underneath and no yellow streaks on their heads?”

As I reach the lagoon above Pennyfield Lock, I am drawn to low, gentle quacking. There is a nice, little collection of ducks – mallards and small green-winged teal dabbling by the shallow, muddy sides. A flash of white catches my eye and then disappears. I search carefully through the ducks until the sun again catches the forehead of a lovely American Wigeon. I move on and hear spring peepers, the invisible high-pitched chorus frogs of spring, not winter.

And, then, again, the same loud, gobbling, clucking chorus that I have never heard before. I search the river and am rewarded by lovely sights of Common Mergansers with long, slender, saw-toothed bills – swimming or standing on rocks — the male with dark green head, the female’s soft red-brown with more obvious feathers swept backwards from her head. It is not these few, graceful diving ducks that are causing such vast commotion. Only when I stop to see what a pair of birders with a spotting scope are watching up close in a leaf-laden small pond away from the river, just after Riley’s Lock, that my mystery is solved.

I approach slowly and ask quietly, “What do you see?” I am expecting some very special bird, perhaps a prothonotary warbler, since my confused mind is associating the now eighty degree temperatures with the glories of spring migration. “It’s just frogs,” they whisper, as if the small amphibians at our feet would fly away with louder conversation. I see rippling water, a few eyes above the surface, and notice some of those clucking, gobbling sounds that have surrounded me along the towpath.

I am looking at wood frogs, an amphibian I have never noticed among the bullfrogs and green frogs common along the Canal, or even the tiny, gray tree frogs I came upon last spring. A smaller, dark frog about half the size of a bullfrog, wood frogs are an amazing northern species whose range includes the Arctic and who are one of the few animals that can actually freeze in winter and still stay alive. They are the first frog to mate along the Canal in spring, although it is technically still winter. Hence, the jumping and leap frogging, roiling waters, and strange noises that I am now seeing and hearing. Although some declines have been noted in wood frogs in recent years, there seem to be thousands of them as I roll homeward along the C&O. The cacophonous clucking and gobbling returns. I know now to look into the closer, leaf-strewn streams nearer the towpath and not in the more distant Potomac to observe and hear the wood frog rites of spring.

I am at peace and happily watch a flock of cedar waxwings — who stay year round and live on winter berries — fly above me on the path. My old friends, winter birds, appear – red-bellied woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, white-throated sparrows scratching in the leaf litter, cardinals whose wings I can hear as they fly across my handlebars.

As I reach home, thoughts of winter have vanished. It is now 81 degrees. I am sweating lightly as I unpack my bike. I see forsythia blooming, a small cherry tree filled with fresh pink blossoms, a witch hazel shrub covered with little, spikey tufts of pale yellow blossoms. What I have been observing, feeling, hearing are the warning signs of global climate change. It is the earliest day to reach the 80s ever recorded; the second warmest day in any February since records have been kept. I read that there is record heat along the East Coast, while in the Arctic temperatures are 45 degrees above the norm. Tomorrow it will drop thirty degrees and bring back gray skies and cold, light showers. Spring, unsilent and unsettling, has come and gone in a single day.