Outdoors North

Spring rains needed to salve dry forests

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

“Green, green it’s green they say on the far side of the hill; green, green, I’m going away to where the grass is greener still.” — Barry McGuire, Randy Sparks

The clouds rolled in over the treetops, dark and purple. The buds on the trees — yellowish-green and twisted tight — were thirsty, waiting for the raindrops to begin falling.

For days now, the grasses, pine needles and leaves withered and crumpled last autumn, were crackling dry as tinder, like the rest of the forest floor.

One spark might have set the whole countryside on fire — threatening life and limb, house and home and nature’s great forest cathedrals for miles around.

Only a few weeks ago, there were piles of snow still covering the ground, stubborn soldiers of winter who refused to accept, or didn’t know, the war was over.

Consequently, with spring a tardy truant, the arrival of warmer days and rain showers was delayed. But now, they had finally arrived.

With the breeze picking up, the trees knew it wouldn’t be long now. Depending on how high the clouds were, and how big the drops would be, the rain could be here in a matter of a few seconds or a couple of minutes.

When the skies did open-up, the rain came down in buckets – washing dirt and dust from the roads, sidewalks and driveways into gasping, choking storm sewers.

I watched the rain from a window that looked out onto maples and birches, the slicked blacktop road adorned with mailboxes not far off in the distance.

A moment or two into my vigil, witnessing the blessed rainfall, my eye caught a flash spin out from one of the trees in front of the window.

I was surprised to see a hummingbird perch on the rung of a feeder outside the window, under the eave of the roof. It was surprising to me the tremendous downpour wasn’t enough to knock this little bird to the ground, maybe for good.

Apparently, these birds have some of that mystical protective power around them – like when a deer swiftly crashes through the forest and doesn’t get knocked cold by an overhanging limb. How do they do that?

The rain continued in stops and starts for the rest of the day, bringing down enough water to raise the streams, turn them brown and feed all the fish with fresh wriggling worms washed into the current from the stream banks.

Overnight, the rain sounded sweet and soft falling on the roof. I sat inside the front room of the darkened house watching the lightning strike bright and jagged across the night’s black sky. The wind may the branches of the trees sway.

Not long afterward, a tremendous clap of thunder shook the entire house. I slept soundly that night, comforted to be inside, hearing the rain out there.

Go ahead thunderstorm, knock the power out, kick the alarm clock and the lights off, I don’t care. I’m going to stay right here.

What happened next, was for me like that part in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy wakes up in Munchkinland and the film goes from black-and-white to color. It seemed like it had happened overnight, but it couldn’t have, could it?

It was truly magical. Everywhere I looked, everything was so green. The buds on the trees had popped open and leaves were unfolding to the sun and the clear blue skies.

Leaves were not the only thing to pop out suddenly. Blossoms on all kinds of choke and other wild cherry trees were showing off their pretty white flowers.

The same was true for apple trees that often stood behind barbed-wire fences, reaching their limbs out beyond that sharp, rusted barrier to flash a little color and beauty to those passing by along this little country road.

I remember my aunt’s backyard had a big garden, though the yard was narrow and long. There were pretty apple trees back there too. My uncle was a rock collector who kept agates in jars of water that were displayed in a china cabinet in their living room.

My uncle had an old car that my dad liked a lot. They used to go out to the garage, which stood at the head of the garden, to look at it. Sometimes I came along, but I didn’t know or care much about cars, except that I used to like sitting on that big rounded front porch of theirs with my dad.

We’d watch the cars go by on the street below, looking for license plates different than the one on our car.

I remember having to go to my aunt and uncle’s house when he died. I was young then and it was the first time I ever saw a real-live dead body. The funeral seemed strange to me — the whole idea, I didn’t really understand it.

I still don’t know if I do.

In the yards along the lake road, the red and purple blooms of ornamental trees, including lilacs, various crabapple varieties and flowering shrubs were seemingly at an instant, blooming.

The smell of the wind was heavenly.

Within a couple of days, it was time to cut the grass that had gone from yellowish brown and wispy to bright green and lush all in such a very short time.

There were dandelions that had shot up straight and tall, nodding their fuzzy yellow heads, I swear it was just the day before. They had already gone to seed, with their blossoms now whitish-gray and ghostlike, waiting for a breeze to put them in the wind.

Spring is a season of rebirth and renewal, but it also brings a sense to me of how short life is – not only for dandelions and dragonflies, fish and frogs, birds and butterflies, but also uncles and aunts, all of us.

Native American poetry, passages from the Bible, as well as the rock group Kansas, remind me that “all we are is dust in the wind.”

Sometimes life seems so very short, other times, it’s quite the opposite. It’s another thing that’s not easy for me to figure out – like why time seems to pass so slow when you are a young kid and goes by increasingly faster the older you get.

A few mornings ago, I watched a pair of loons on the lake, quite close at hand. They were in courtship display. They swam side by side, glancing at each other, one would tilt its head all the way back onto its back, then dive below the blue surface of the water.

The second loon followed. While they were underwater, I would run on ahead, trying to be at the point where they would surface again. I never got it right in six or seven tries — I wondered if they could see me from underwater.

Such beautiful creatures. They are among our earliest modern birds. They’ve been around since the end of the last glaciation, about 10,000 years ago. No matter how often I think about that, I can’t fully comprehend it.

With June now arrived, it’s hard to believe that soon the woods will be relatively quiet already. With the spring birds having nested, there will soon be no need for them to sing their songs to defend territories or attract mates — except for those that breed more than once each summer.

Meanwhile, the grass I just cut yesterday is now dotted with the bobbing heads of new yellow dandelions. The sunshine is bright overhead and the day is warm.

I hope to see, smell, hear, taste and touch the rain again soon – the winter had taken her away for such a long, long time. I’ve missed her deeply.

I’m like the trees, just before a rain shower. My palms are like leaves, outstretched and turned upward, waiting to be replenished and fulfilled by the life-giving water that falls from the darkened blue and purple skies.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.