“I still fear that the cold will return. I am still full of uncertainties.”
When Toni Alioto wrote that line, she was imagining a whimsical conversation between Spring and Winter as they negotiated the vacillating weather patterns common in a Northwoods March. It’s the same fickle weather I’ve been writing about lately in the context of wood frogs and fat bikes. She crafted this line as part of an assignment for “Writing the Environmental Essay,” a class I’m teaching in a condensed and totally virtual format for Northland College this semester.
Toni assured me during class discussion that her personification of spring was focused purely on the weather. But with her mention of fear and uncertainties, my mind jumped straight to the pandemic.
By the time you read this, all Museum staff members will have received both shots of the vaccine. Many of you already know—or are anticipating—the incredible sense of relief this protection brings. A weight is being lifted from our shoulders. As I watch the bright sun and gentle rains release the landscape from a burden of heavy, restrictive snow, I can’t help but compare this stage of the pandemic to this moment in spring.
With the snowdrifts shrinking back into the shadows, the Museum staff are letting tentative hopes and plans emerge. We’ve set a date for when the Museum will open to the public for the first time in months. We’re dreaming up ideas for summer programs. I’m giddy at the thought of tramping around the woods with other humans there to share my joy and amplify each other’s curiosity.
And yet, we all know that winter could return at any moment. Late spring blizzards have left ice in the corners in our collective memory. Previous surges of the virus, and the lives and livelihoods they ended, have left pain in our collective heart. While some news looks hopeful, the meteorologists and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) both pepper their sunny forecasts with that cautionary “unless…”
So, with hope and fear doing battle in my chest, I made a few clicks and watched Toni’s essay fade from my screen. That warm rain I mentioned had just tapered off, and I wanted to see what nature could teach me about life emerging into a tenuous spring.
The twig of a serviceberry bush caught my eye first. Tiny, wrinkled leaves were bursting forth from the pointed clasp of burgundy-colored bud scales. I worried for a second, tugging my jacket closer at an unexpected gust, and thinking that the leaves were emerging from their protective isolation too soon. Looking closer, though, I found a thick weave of white hairs. Surely this cottony coat will protect the serviceberry from a freezing swing back to winter, just like our masks protect us as we emerge into uncertainty.
Next, I looked down. On the shady cut bank of my driveway, the lush patterns of moss rest on the high, angled slope like artwork displayed on an easel. The contrast of their vibrant green leaves with the dark browns of decay pulled me closer, and closer, until my knees were wet and my camera invaded their Lilliputian personal space.
Even at close range, the moss looked unfazed by winter.
There are several secrets to moss’s resiliency. Most visible, perhaps, is their tendency to lie low. Mosses find a good place and stay there. They don’t need to flit about like butterflies—braving air filled with dangers like freezing temps and hungry mouths—in order to find food or companionship. When the snow comes and seals them in, the mosses take full advantage of the protection it provides from cold, dry air.
Mosses are not immune to the challenges of a long winter (or drought) of dormancy, but they do know how to prepare. As their leaves dry, cell membranes shrink like a vacuum-sealed freezer bag. Essential functions shut down. And, with amazing “forethought,” the mosses synthesize and store away the enzymes of cell repair that will manage the damage of desiccation. And how would these mosses fare during that late spring blizzard? Their willingness to stay small and their stockpile of specialized chemicals will bring them through unscathed.
It’s not hard to see the parallels between moss in winter and humans in lockdown. We stayed put and tried to get cozy. We made hard decisions about what functions could and could not be shut down. And we also created and replenished the stores of medicines that help prevent and repair damage. Even as we enjoy the current freedom from the heavy snow, those tools will need to remain at hand.
I took a deep breath. Going outside hadn’t resolved all uncertainties, but it did loosen the knot of worry in my chest. Nature itself is a tool we can use to stay healthy and happy. While the weather may do a wild dance on its way toward summer, it can also remind us that being prepared for the unexpected, whether that means having fuzzy buds, laying low, bringing an extra jacket, or continuing to wear a mask, is something a Northwoods spring has already taught us all to do.
Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books. Or order it from our friends at redberybooks.com to receive free shipping!
For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.