Our first hike

To quote George Harrison, “it’s been a long, long lonely winter.”

Two weeks ago I took a dozen cub scouts out on the Nature Trail to help them work on their Forestry merit badge. It was hard staying out for even an hour. I offered to help them with their first-aid/frostbite merit badge, too, but they weren’t interested.  It was numbingly cold. This past weekend, there was a much welcomed break in the winter deep freeze, and Deborah, Kozmo, and I took advantage of the thaw to get out on the trail to try to find the first signs of spring.

The red maples are leading the way. They are covered with red, swelling flower and leaf buds. Whole hillsides are taking on a red sheen because of the incredible abundance of this consummate, “generalist” tree species (see my “Roaring Run: “Up and Over” hiking narrative for a discussion of this tree species.

The robins are in the area. Deborah spotted one as we drove to campus Friday morning. For ten out of the past twelve years, the robins have returned to our Kiski Township neighborhood on February 14. We are watching for them carefully! Robins can, and do, overwinter in Western Pennsylvania as long as they can find an adequate supply of food (Lori Hensel told me about a berry-rich, holly thicket on her property that has long been a hangout for “winter robins”), but most of the flocks stay south (sometimes very close by in a protected valley) until the winter eases up and the soil warms enough to let the earthworms get active and crawl up to the surface.

skunkcabbage_small.jpgOur mission on our hike this weekend, though, was to see if the first plant of spring had made its appearance yet. And sure enough, just downstream from the trail bridge we found it, pushing out from a cover of snow, about a dozen, brownish-purple spathes of the “first plant,” the skunk cabbage. There is a species page on the skunk cabbage out on the Virtual Nature Trail.  The skunk cabbage is able to grow and even flower in frozen soil often surrounded by ice and snow because of its amazing ability to rapidly oxidize some of its stored polysaccharides and thus generate large quantities of metabolic heat. It is the only “warm-blooded” plant that I know.

It may be warmer than it was, but it still felt great to get back home to a bowl of soup. More spring is coming, though. I’ll keep you posted.    

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4 Responses to Our first hike


    This time of year on the old and long-gone homestead, it would have been right around the corner from teaberry time. If only we could all keep track of the sun by what edibles (or inedibles) are lurking up through the ice! Thanks for the link, Doc–it’s nice to know that even skunk cabbage folloes the general property law of all things being adorable while still a baby.


    I just wanted to let everyone know that there are signs of Spring on the farm! The horses are beginning to shed their winter coats, just a little, and the cows are beginning to rub. This is a good sign. This usually tells us that it will still snow, but the bitter cold will be moving out! Not very scientific, but usually reliable!


    Bill and Deborah,

    It is great to see nature through your powerful magic eyes because if I use mine homeomorphism reduces nature to only one kind. Thank you for letting me see further than my natural bounds. Javier.


    The bees were out taking “cleansing flights” this weekend and it’s heartening to hear that the red maples are swelling to bud. The bees will need their pollen soon. Though I know we have several more weeks of winter, your signs of spring cheer me up, Bill!

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