March sneaks up on me. I still consider it the beginning of nature’s year when the earliest spring birds and flowers appear. But now there’s a somber side to nature’s awakening—an odd, empty feeling, like waking up to discover I forgot to set the alarm clock. Time has passed while I’ve been snoozing. What did I miss and why is it so quiet?
For one thing, migrating grackles and red-winged blackbirds used to pass overhead a week later than they do now. And I used to see many more of them. Titmice, cardinals, and mourning doves once serenaded the dawn while robins caroled softly. Just ahead of sunrise as spring advanced, birdsong swelled across the country like a wave. That daily chorus has diminished into a trio or maybe a quartet. Rachel Carson predicted a “Silent Spring” in 1970. In 2020, that day is nearly upon us.
Insects once heralded the spring. Today hardly a bee buzzes to greet the earliest daffodil or crocus. Where are the flocks of midges that used to dance in clusters on sunny days? I can’t remember the last time I saw that dark spring butterfly, the mourning cloak, open and close its buff-edged wings in the March sun. Where are the ants when I sit in the grass and where are the first chirping crickets?
I miss hearing frogs and toads. As March warms the winter nights, I hear a peep or two instead of a deafening chorus of spring peepers. I’ve lost some of my hearing but it’s not only that. The serenades of toads trilling and frogs clucking from temporary spring pools are fading from memory, like popular songs that are now golden oldies.
Reclaiming Our Role
When I was young, the February story of the groundhog digging out of its burrow to see its shadow became vivid to me when I watched a newly awakened groundhog lumber across a field in search of a mate, weeks before the grass started to turn green. Mention “Groundhog Day” to most people and they think of a 1993 movie. How many people today would recognize a real groundhog if they saw one?
How did we get here?
Too many of us, as a species, believe and act as if we exist outside of the natural world. We cling to the old pioneer ethic of “man against nature.” This outlook has been destructive and self-defeating. It’s natural for us, as animals, to do what we can to meet our needs. Farming, building, manufacturing, and commerce come naturally to us. But we distance ourselves from the negative consequences of these actions. And we talk about “the environment,” as if it’s home for our fellow creatures but not for us. We need to realize it’s our environment too. We’re part of, not separate from, nature. It is arrogant and incorrect to think or act as if we have a superior role in the web of life.
To repair the harm we’ve done to our atmosphere, water, and soil requires us to reclaim our natural role as stewards of the earth. This planet is our home and we’re all responsible for its care. Wake up. It’s later than you think.
— Doug is an artist, writer, and naturalist living near Shepherdstown. He also contributed the artwork for this piece.