Our mountain range has surpassed the season-to-date snowpack record, and given there’s another 22 inches forecasted for the next ten days, we may well surpass the seasonal record itself. We’re not having what Tahoe’s having, but we’re getting our equivalent. We had to dig out our home’s heating vent pipe twice this past week after our carbon monoxide detector was like, “hey guys? … uh guys? … GUYS.” The snow and the wind kept arguing over who was better at weather, as we (in our snow pants, on our hands and knees scooping out snow) assured them they were both very miserable in their own ways.
I went on a walk up the snow-buried dirt road into the wilderness the other day, and I scolded myself for not having done it more the past couple months. I looked at the great mountains shrouded in their white cloaks and asked myself, “what have I even been doing this winter?”
I’m glad the clutches of grief have become lazy, because for a moment I thought it had just been me who was lazy. For a moment, I had forgotten how relentlessly this year has bored into me and just thought I’d been sitting around for no reason. But of course, I wasn’t sitting around, and when I was, there was indeed a reason. I was skate skiing and dancing and getting injured and writing, and most importantly, grieving. This reminder didn’t assuage the feeling though that I hadn’t really done winter right, that sadness was not a good enough excuse, that I wasn’t injured enough to warrant this many rest days. There wasn’t enough downhill, enough exploring, enough wonder.
Enough. What a slippery little word. She’s a wily beast, a silverfish of the mind. She’ll pop up just about anywhere there’s a crack in your thinking, but only ever a nuisance, only ever mildly gross, never so problematic to call in the forces. Still, she is my worst infestation. When I hear myself say I have not done enough, whether it’s enough texting my friends or skiing or going out or reading books or whatever, I know that is merely the head of the dandelion. The root driving that general disappointment is hidden and it has a death pact with the soil around it. Also, I am allergic to dandelions.
When my enoughs start to appear under pots and in the backs of cabinets, I know what I’m feeling is a kind of stasis. I’m not seeing the growth that I want to, and in my impatience, I mistake still for stale. Also, growth can be a bitch.
Last Spring, in my desperate need for more greenery, I bought a sad looking fern from the Home Depot some 70 miles from here. It was touch and go for a few months as many of its fronds dried out, but her south-facing side is now bursting with life. The north-side, though… It’s sitting in a spot where rotation doesn’t really work, so care and attention have been the remedy. She still gets brown leaves, but it’s my first fern of this variety. I don’t really know what to expect, what the rhythms are. Then, about a week ago, I noticed this tendril coming out of it, climbing our fireplace.
That, as I learned, is a stolon, better known as a runner or an aerial root. It’s a propagation mechanism — its presence means the plant is healthy enough to support new growth. It means that even while some leaves brown and fall, growth is on the horizon. Or in this case, the fireplace.
And why wouldn’t there be browning and decay? Growth is a challenge. We burst through buttons, sprouting in all directions, too big for our pots, our britches, our ideas of who we were, are. Obstacles can knock the wind out of us, sapping us of motivation and in my case ski seasons, but we have backup stores. We were readying for growth, and that readying has depth.
Heather Wall of the newslettertackled a worry that plagues many a learning naturalist: when a hard freeze comes after a tree’s buds are out, how do they survive? First, buds can survive into the low 20s typically. But if a bud does freeze, trees have a back-up plan: they start over.
“These “second-cohort” leaves are miraculously produced by the tree using the stored carbohydrates in their branches. But it doesn’t happen quickly. Scientists have learned that it takes 48 days for a beech tree to refoliate – that’s over a month of lost opportunity for the tree to get its chlorophyll engines running. However, the trees seemed to make up for this late start by continuing to retain their green leaves and produce energy two weeks later into the fall than normal years.”
It’s just a delay! V1 flopped, time for V2. This is final2.pdf, and as soon as any troubled souls start to think hey, aren’t the leaves usually out by n— there they are. The trees get back on track and most humans are none the wiser. Of course this relatively quick fix comes at a cost. When trees need to rely on their stores to produce leaves, there’s less growth during the spring and summer. They used their resources, and because they’re not the “smartest creature on the planet”, they don’t need to “learn to do more with less.” They just do less.
Slow growth, slow accumulation, slow expansions of all kinds give life room to accommodate that growth. That’s as true of us as it is of anything. And that slowness has its benefits. It’s why plant lovers share Instagram stories like “new leaf today!!!” and it’s the tiniest, sweetest of leaves peeking out into the world, checking ever so gently for the position of the sun. That plants grow slowly is what delights us. We would not welcome them so eagerly into our homes if by day seven they were coiling around the arms of our chairs. (Well, at least most people wouldn’t.)
I was listening to Nicole Antoinette’s The Pop-Up Pod this week, and in an episode from October 5, 2022, she interviewed Sarah Von Bargen who helps people better understand how they’re spending their time, money, and energy. Around the 20-minute mark, they talk about the gratification that can come from a drastic overall. Here is Von Bargen:
“We’ve all had the experience where we’re like “today is the day that I furnish the living room!” But then you blow through all your serotonin in one fell swoop. Whereas it’s much more fun to like— I can ride the joy of a new throw pillow for like two weeks, so why not spread it out? One new item every two weeks, and ride that instead of all at once.”
This is spending advice, but it’s also just a note on existing. Give it a minute. A classic “trite because it’s true” swell of the obvious. But patience isn’t cultivated in cliches however much they try. In fact the only potions I know for patience are replacements: gratitude, distraction, novelty, and my least favorite, doing the work. What a lip coiler, that one.
I have this vision in mind of summer: I am hiking every morning at dawn, there is a litter of kittens, there is a book finally coming together, there could even be a puppy if the right one stumbles in. And oh right, I’ll be pregnant. In my stillness, I am fantasizing about what could only be described as exhaustion. Many people would not even recommend two of these at once let alone five of them. Did I mention I’m also going on a 7-day pack trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness? How bored do you have to be to think all of this is a good idea.
In my own anticipation, or desperation depending on your take, I scrolled back through my photos to see when hiking and camping and trail running and mountain biking and that feeling of fresh air wildness would return. I took this picture last year thinking the birds! The birds are coming back!
This picture is from May 6 — some 42 days from now. I saw that date and felt like a dog thinking they’re going to the park only to arrive at the vet. My visions for shedding my skin suddenly so much further away. I felt affronted. There won’t even be leaves in May? For fuck’s sake.
And so, as winter labors on, I think of the trees, counting the hours of daylight in their way to decide when to release the buds, knowing even those may not make it. Impatient trees like myself do themselves no favor. By attempting to rush into the next season, they’re at risk of saddling themselves with more work and, in the end, less growth overall. This is the only threat that works on me, but it does little to manage the sparky restlessness that’s shooting embers all over my house.
In an early edition of this newsletter, I wrote before about the validity of giving yourself your own off-season — something I find easier to do after the slingshot of summer through the annual return-to-school productivity surge. Embracing a slow down heading into winter just feels right. Outfits get cozier. Drinks get warmer. I wrote about a personal off-season because in late October into November, an off-season is forced upon us. Every restaurant over the ridgeline shuts down. People leave. Town is ghostly. You can actually find everything bagels and half-n-half at the grocery store. It is big quiet.
But there are two off-seasons here, and November just takes the glory because it’s wrapped in the guise of family and food and fall colors. The other off-season is Mud Season.
I couldn’t find the thread behind “give yourself a mud season.” But now, considering the idea of giving myself a season when I am unmanageable and gross actually sounds kind of amazing. It’s not about rest. It’s about mess.
Those living in Maine and other New England states, as well as places like Colorado and Montana, know this weather better than most. That’s because mud season occurs in places like these, where the ground freezes in winter and allows large amounts of snow to accumulate and cover it all winter long. As winter wanes and air temperatures warm above freezing (32º F), the ground thaws from the surface down, triggering the snow on top of it to melt. But because the ground’s lower layers deep underground don’t warm as quickly and remain frozen, water from melting snow and chilly spring rains aren’t able to seep down very far. Instead, this water “sits” near the surface where it waterlogs the top layer of soil and creates a sea of mud—sometimes up to several inches thick! - What The Heck Is Mud Season?
Mud Season is meant to be out of order, out of whack. This is Spring’s messy product launch where no one had coordinated anything. Birds arrive ahead of schedule. Buds come out in the frost. The ground can’t warm up fast enough to accommodate the water — it is a mess! But it’s a mess that leads to wildflowers and running rivers and baby beavers. Sure an orderly kitchen is nice, but if the pie is good, no one’s worried about the flour bomb. (Well, most people aren’t.)
That I am impatient and demanding and feckless and myriad other unpleasant things at the tail end of this mammoth winter is actually right on season. I am a spring, overflowing and uncoordinated and ripe with the energy of the coming melt. And if that means I start and stop and start over? Good. And if that means I make lists and dreams and abandon them with that very abandon? Great. And if it means things feel like a total mess?
Perfect. Because how else should a person enter mud season but in their own delightful disarray?
Mud season is when you can smell the earth again, instead of just the snow.
Here in southern Pennsylvania, there are no leaves on deciduous trees and won't be for weeks yet, but flowers + flowering trees are out. The witch hazel bloomed first, as it always does, such tiny stars of flowers that most people don't even notice. Spring will come to you--it's inevitable!
"How bored do you have to be to think all of this is a good idea."
*checks her own unhinged summer plans/fantasies*
DRAG ME, KELTON.