Field Journal: Spring

by Jerry Dennis

First of March. Woke with the certainty that something has changed. Seemed atmospheric. Might explain why everyone I know has been headachey, dull-witted, sluggish. Lassitude creeping across the land like a virus.



For weeks the clouds have sagged low and the temperature hasn’t climbed above freezing and hasn’t dropped much below it and the snow on the ground has remained a graying pack of crust, crud, corn. We need cataclysm. Bring on the tornados! Bring on the barbarians! Bring on the Chinook winds hurtling down the Rockies and over the plains, roaring across Lake Michigan, flattening the trees on the shore and heating the wind fifty degrees in five minutes! I want floods of snowmelt sluicing down every road and valley. Instead we get a gradual softening of the air, clouds lifting slightly and allowing some light through. I stepped outside into puffs of breeze from the south. A patchwork of winds: land breeze smelling of turned soil; lake wind, refrigerated with the scent of big water; micro-gusts trailing sweet-fern. The wind is a snow-eater nibbling the last foot of crud.



The sugar maples are dripping. A few degrees of warmth in the afternoon and the sap climbs from roots to trunk, branches, and twigs. Already it’s swelling the tight-fisted buds.



The scent of spring: like the pool of mossy air at the bottom of a well.



March 23 — Gail and I the dress the boys and hurry to the field at eleven pm. Cold (20 degrees) and the snow frozen hard and crunching beneath our boots. A trio of rare astronomical events tonight: Hale-Bopp glowing fuzzily like a flashlight through fog, Mars bright, faintly red, in close conjunction with the moon, the moon itself in eclipse. We watch the earth’s curved shadow climb across that pocked face like a Death Star, a bird of doom. As the moon darkens the comet brightens and suddenly the field around us glows with strange light, as if lit from under the snow. We watch until we’re giddy with cold, then run back to the house laughing.



March 30 — 60 degrees. Three days of warmth now. Snowdrops in blossom; honeybees and robins; shirtsleeves and sandals. Most of the snow gone, except patches of crumble in evergreen shadows. Saw starlings mating. A pair of kestrels swooping in synchronized flight.



March 31 — Colder today. Powerful wind shoving the ice up the bay. A half mile out it’s piling into heaps the size of motels. You can watch them changing shapes, like glaciers calving. They peak and crumble, climb and slough off. Groaning in the battering wind. Close to shore a few gulls hunker on the ice, waiting for open water.



The quality of light: in spring at this latitude (the 45th North) it’s glancing and contrasty. It lights the land with a harsh brittle clarity that sharpens green of grass and blue of sky but causes us to miss everything else.



April 15 — Winter won’t release. The bays are still frozen, big patches of crusty snow still lie in the woods and on the north slopes of hills, and an inch of new snow fell last night, smothering the ground. Wet flakes are falling and robins hide in the cedars.



April 30 — Up early, in the dark, urged out of bed by the certainty that there’s not a moment to lose. The air heavy with fragrance and freighted with promise. The dawn chorus! Bird songs ring from the treetops. Then the scarlet edge of dawn cracks the horizon like a distant fire. It is a distant fire.



May 2 — Two inches of new snow this morning. We’ve had snow on the ground for eight months.



The magic of the prosaic: of leaf and stone, of breakers on the shore. Nothing supernatural about it. Just the ordinary existence of one thing in the universe, one moment in time. So ordinary that I’m shocked every time it visits me. So that’s what a wave looks like. When it’s gone it’s gone like a vision.


(Jerry Dennis lives near the shore of Lake Michigan in northern Michigan, where he earns his living writing about the natural world. His essays, stories, and poems have appeared in more than 100 magazines and literary journals, and his books have been translated into five languages. His most recent book is The Windward Shore: A Winter on the Great Lakes. Visit