Be It Ever So Humble
After a week’s vacation I arrive home to discover a neon orange sign with block letters nailed to an old oak just outside the village: “Mud – Pass At Your Own Risk.”
Living along a back dirt road often seems miles from the renowned information superhighway, particularly in mud season. A neighbor splashing through stops her car, rolls down the window and asks if the mud last weekend was the worst I’d ever seen in twenty years of living here.
“Wouldn’t know” I replied, “I was on a beach in Florida.”
She flips me the bird, laughs and drives down the now-frozen washboard of tire-sucking ruts that is Meetinghouse Hill Road each March.
It’s said that you know a place best when you first arrive and when you leave it for the last time. I was thinking something similar yesterday while idly picking sea shells along a Gulf Coast beach. Each fragile shell is remarkable only in that I selected it from among millions strewn on the sand. Collecting shells at the end of vacation signals a kind of mental returning home, an internal compass needle which points north. A day before the flight from Tampa to Manchester and I’d already begun to think subconsciously about snowy woods.
As the plane banked over Manchester, I almost smiled upon first seeing the snow from the window. One unsung joy of traveling is returning home to rediscover the charms we usually take for granted.
Travel weary and disoriented, I walk in the snowy woods to re-acclimatize to this northern clime with a week to go before the alleged first day of spring. Yesterday’s white sand, palm trees and blue water have given way to white snow, hemlocks and icy brook tumbling at the bottom of a deep crevasse. The snow crust overlies a snow pack which remains too deep to walk without snowshoes. All signs indicate I missed the first thaw and opening day of mud season.
In the woods, more signs of change: wildlife tracks indicate heavy travel since last Monday’s snowstorm that closed local schools for the eighth time this winter. Tracks in the snow are as chaotic as any aviation control tower’s radar screen, busy enough to keep a seasoned air traffic controller frenzied.
I follow turkeys, deer, a fox, a fisher, a coyote, an ermine, red and gray squirrels and dozens of mice. These winter regulars are now flanked by fresh tracks of raccoons, skunks and chipmunks – harbingers of spring. The latter three remained hunkered-down in dens last week when the temperature at 5 a.m. was zero degrees.
After traveling 1,200 miles to navigate condominium canyons, insane traffic and landscaped tropical suburban jungles on “Planet Florida,” I’ve returned to South Sutton to find everything now… different. Even the namesake granite knob watching over Meetinghouse Hill Farm is transformed: now totally snow free on its steep south face. Winter has weakened substantially.
Raucous crows call from wind-tossed pines. The first turkey vulture of spring tilts low over the oak canopy cruising toward the sound. Calling crow may indicate a deer carcass: car-struck, winter weakened or killed by coyotes. No carcass lasts more than a few days; carrion never rots or is wasted in the lean winter woods.
Thawing woodland seeps, springs and widening brooks long-hidden beneath the deep winter snow are now open watering holes which draw thirsty nightlife. Muddy deer tracks cross the white canvas at the edge of a favored oasis. I imagine deer enjoy the first sensation of mud in their hooves as much as I enjoyed the sand between my toes.
Spring is here. I am soon reacquainted with cold, fresh, clean air and the faint earthy smell of mud. My favorite forest, hidden off a muddy back road, called me home from more than a thousand miles away as I picked seashells on an alien beach.
I look at my snowshoe tracks flanking coyote tracks through snowy woods and know that Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz was right as she gushed to her Auntie Em…
“There’s no place like home.”
Naturalist Dave Anderson is director of education for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. His column appears every other week in the New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at email@example.com or through the Forest Society's Web site: forestsociety.org.