Signs of Spring in Nebraska

The first signs of spring in Nebraska are often difficult to discern — even to the watchful, experienced eye.

Seasons On The Farm

"Seasons on the Farm," edited by Amy Glaser, compiles the musings of several rural writers on farm life throughout the year — from the first signs of spring to the biting cold and barren landscapes of deep winter.

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From the first signs of spring to the fireside planning on a chilly winter night, life on a farm revolves around the seasons of the year. The rural music of this seasonal rhythm sounds through the pages of Seasons on the Farm (Voyageur Press, 2007). Writers offer memories of farm life and reflections on its seasonal unfolding, from spring planting through hay baling to harvest suppers in a two-room country schoolhouse. Some funny, some poignant, these evocative essays are illustrated with black-and-white historical photographs and crisp color images that conjure the life of a farm for readers who have known that world intimately, or have only dreamed of it. The following excerpt is taken from the essay “Signs of Spring” by Roger Welsch.  

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My perceptions about spring are determined almost completely by my personal and lifelong geographic orientation. I’ve spent most my life right here in the Middle of Nowhere, the Middle of Everywhere, smack dab in the middle of the nation — Nebraska — and all of the last thirty years smack dab in the middle of Nebraska: Howard County. I’m educated and traveled enough to have strong suspicions that what I know about spring doesn’t translate to other parts of the nation or world, so you’ll have to keep that in mind as you consider my confusion — starting with I don’t even know when it is spring.

It doesn’t help that out here in the middle of America’s Steppes, the Great Plains, spring lasts about three-quarters of an hour and usually comes as a total surprise one afternoon in May, probably when I’ve just eaten lunch and am taking a nap. Or maybe April. Or June. That’s another problem — not only is a Plains spring so short in duration you might miss it altogether, you never know when it’s going to start, so if you’re not keeping a sharp eye out for it, it’s liable to be over before you even notice.

On the Plains (and I suspect in a lot of other places, too) you can pretty much forget about all the conventional, standard, authorized, official thresholds usually cited for the arrival of spring. March 20, the vernal equinox, is when the day and night are of equal length and is used in almanacs and on calendars as the official celestial arrival of spring, but around here, it only means that once again I forgot my wife Linda’s birthday and have roughly twelve hours to get to town and find a gift that suggests I gave a lot of time and thought to it this time. While the thing about day and night being equal and the sun rising and setting dead east and west on this day means a lot to me and the six or eight other druids in Howard County, Nebraska, for people in the city, it means only that they have to face directly into the sun both going to and coming home from work. In my days of teaching at a major university, I was dismayed and discouraged to find out how few young people today even know that the sun comes up in the east every morning, or that the point of its rising and setting moves along the horizon in a regular and cosmically profound way. My own daughter, who grew up in the rural countryside, can’t even tell which direction is east or west, yet notice the sun coming up or setting there.

Moreover, while March 20 certainly comes about the time everyone is sick and tired of winter and more than ready for spring, the fact of the matter is, on March 20, we have at least four, maybe six, more weeks of wet and cold ahead of us. Our worst blizzard this year came in March, and that is anything but unusual. The perfidy of March falsely promising an imminent spring has, in fact, been noted in the folk wisdom of the rural Plains. One old settler told me that it isn’t so much the long winters that make the trouble as it is the seventy-eight days in March. Another opined to me with painful accuracy that, “March in Nebraska is like a Model A Ford — just enough spring in it to make your ass tired.”

I suspect that if we had access to psychiatric records across the nation, we might be able to judge at least the progress of winter toward spring with the increase in cases of cabin fever. They are especially common among women like Linda who are stranded on isolated farms around the rural countryside and trapped with . . . well, let’s be honest about this . . .  guys like me for months at a time. Maybe there is such an index somewhere if we just knew what fancy term head doctors use for cabin fever.

There was a time when I could gauge how the year was moving along by what sports reporters were talking about on television or radio. Basketball, a winter sport, was winding up, and baseball was about to start. That was a sure sign of spring, right? The Stanley Cup hockey playoffs meant the ice was about to go off the ponds of northern climes and spring was just around the corner. Not now. Sometime around the week that the last snows are melting, football shows up on the television screen. Football? In the spring and summer? What the heck is that about? And then everyone stands around scratching their heads wondering why players are falling down all around them with heat strokes. Just as football starts way too early these days, basketball goes on forever. I get the feeling that one college basketball season ends about a week before the next one begins.

Even the vaunted April showers of song, as often as not, wind up piling a few inches of sleet or snow along our fence lines. I won’t take the time here to remark on the science of meteorologists, the only guys besides baseball pitchers who can make a decent living hitting the ball less than 10 percent of the time, but a common comment around here following a botched forecast is, “‘Partly cloudy,’ the man said last night. Well, this morning we woke up to find eight inches of ‘partly cloudy’ drifted up against the barn door.” April showers and dancing in the streets with an umbrella morph more realistically into grabbing the weather radio and flashlight and heading for the storm cellar since any dancing that is done in gravel road country is more likely to be done by tornados.

Easter? Easter blizzards are famous around here.  Besides, the way Easter jumps around on the calendar, it’s even less predictable than spring. One thing is for darn sure, if you plan some sort of big family gathering like a wedding in your backyard for Easter weekend this year, you can pretty much bet winter isn’t done with you yet.

I cannot for the life of me imagine who came up with the whole thing about the groundhog predicting the remaining days of winter on February 2. It may be an Indian joke. Some idiot white settler asked the experienced Native how much more winter he could expect, and the smart-aleck Indian told him that if the groundhog sees his shadow on this day, there will be six more weeks of winter. Not bothering to explain that, well, uh, yes . . . and if he doesn’t see his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter too, because in any event, you idiot, we have a good eight to ten weeks more of winter, no matter what that whistle pig does, shadow or not.

There must have been a certain amount of Native tipi and lodge fever because Plains Indians did their share of speculating and anticipating the arrival of spring even without a calendar hanging on the wall. The Omaha Indians marked the arrival of spring with the first thunder of the year. The Pawnee considered the kind of thunder that seems to come from all directions at once as a confirmation of spring, relying on astronomical signals first — the first sighting of two small stars they called “the swimming ducks” near the Milky Way and the positioning of the Pleiades.  Having heard thunder all around during every month of the year at one time or another, I can’t put any more trust in the Native traditions than those of the homesteaders.  However, like most non-Natives in this new, light-polluted world, I consider myself perceptive if I notice the disappearance of Orion in the spring sky, let alone “the swimming ducks.”

The first robin sighted is often thought of as a sign of approaching spring, but, again, I find my faith betrayed. I don’t know how often I have been out on a tractor moving deep drifts of heavy snow off our lane while shivering robins sat above me on the power lines, hunched up and wondering why they thought coming back north this early was a good idea. Sometimes I see them in pairs, the female of the couple apparently yelling something into the male robin’s ear. I don’t speak robinese, but I can pretty much tell from the tone that it’s something like “I told you it was too early to leave Mexico and head north, but noooo, Mr. Red Breast says his no-good buddies are all leaving, so he doesn’t want to be late, and besides, this year we’re going to California. So when we get lost somewhere in central Texas, does he stop and ask directions from the bluebird who obviously knows where he is and where he’s going? Of course not. ‘We aren’t lost,’ says Mr. Smart Aleck, ‘we just don’t know where we are.’”

Slightly better indicators here seem to be the cranes and geese headed north over our place. But even then I sometimes look up when I hear them and have to chuckle because they have obviously figured out they are a bit too early and the Vs of honking and burring birds are headed back south, not north, having turned around and retreated for at least a short time to wait for more favorable and warmer winds.  More reliable are the birds that come to stay, like goldfinches and house finches. They, after all, are not just passing over and headed somewhere else to enjoy spring but are relying on that season being here. Mourning doves are more dependable signs of spring for us, because even when we can’t see them, we can hear and easily identify their cooing. That sound says to us that spring is darn close if it isn’t quite here yet.

My own favorite avian indicator is the brown thresher with his insane song. It is one of the first we hear in the morning, always identifiable, and sure to put a grin on my face. The robin’s endless, manic squawk drives me nuts, but the brown thresher is to me like the ratatat delivery of a fast-talking stand-up comedian. If you don’t know the thresher’s song, you have to stop and listen to it sometime. His patter is constant and unrelenting. The thresher says everything twice, but then never repeats the couplet. To the best of my ability to take shorthand, this is approximately my own thresher’s recitation as it went this morning outside our back-porch window:

Cincinnati! Cincinnati!
Bleu cheese? Bleu cheese?
Thirty weight! Thirty weight!
Pickle juice! Pickle juice!
Beer! Beer!
Pledge allegiance! Pledge allegiance!
 

Etcetera, on and on and on and on until sundown, every day.

While we’re on the topic of biological reflections of an approaching spring, we must consider botany, which most certainly does not include the brilliant flora that explodes everywhere not long after the first of the year in the form of garden and seed catalogs. I have devoted a good part of my professional career as a folklorist to studying the history and form of the tall tale, but every year I find myself utterly outclassed in the science of mendacity as I thumb through seed catalogs. Not since the invention of the Wonder Bra has anything promised so much but delivered as little as the garden seed catalog. Not to mention the cruelty of them arriving not even remotely close to springtime but in the very bowels of winter when the contrast between the warmth, color, and beauty they guarantee and the ferocity of the Plains winter howling outside the window is at its most vivid.

Forget that nonsense about first dandelions.

Dandelions are the robins of the weed world. Dandelions know zero from spring. Don’t get me wrong, contrary to almost everyone else you know, I like dandelions. I think they are pretty. But, in fact, one of the things I admire most about dandelions is that they refuse to be bullied by things like seasons any more than they bow to the lawn worshipers’ warfare against them. To me, the dandelion is not a sign of spring but a sign of tenacity in the absence of spring. Every year, just about the time I have surrendered to the inevitable and admitted that winter is indeed here — sometime around the first of December — I am walking out to the shop or machine shed and there it is, that little button of brilliant yellow, shining from the middle of the browns of winter dormancy or even peeking up through early snows. A dandelion, not just insistently clinging to life, but actually blossoming. I always pick it and take it in to Linda. For me that little flower beats the florist’s finest orchid. Around February, it happens again, this time not so much a reminder of the summer that was but a promise of a spring to come, but not yet here. Not by a long shot.


 Roger Welsch can best be described as a cross between Erma Bombeck and Dr. Ruth, except male and living in Nebraska with his wife and dogs. Before turning his talents to canine psychology, Roger was best known as “the fat guy in overalls” on CBS’ Sunday Morning, where he offered up essays on rural and small-town life on the Plains. 

Many also know him as the fat guy with the fetish for old tractors, an advocate for Native American interests, and the second-most prominent citizen of Dannebrog, Nebraska (population 352). He’s also the author of numerous books of fiction and folk humor, and he writes for publications such as Successful Farming and Reader’s Digest. 

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Seasons on the Farm: A Celebration of Country Life Through the Year; edited by Amy Glaser and published by Voyageur Press, 2007. Buy this book in our store: Seasons on the Farm.