Monday, April 09, 2007

Easter Monday. Ice on the water meadow

"I have that haunting feeling that spring this year again performed all her old tricks and showed me just how life is made and what it is made of, but her hand has such sleight and she so distracts the attention with waving green scarves and birds let loose from the loft that just when you think it is time now to watch carefully, the thing is done."

So writes Donald Culross Peattie in "Green Laurels: The Lives and Achievements of the Great Naturalists." He might have been talking about the New England spring, which mostly isn't, until one day it was and you wonder how you missed it.

The Peattie quote is from his chapter on Jean Henri Fabre, the French entomologist who devoted his life to the study of insects and their near relations. Fabre spent much of his time laying in ditches or crouched in the grass peering in on the private lives of spiders, caterpillars, beetles and ants. Of the naturalists chronicled by Peattie, Fabre spent his life closest to the ground. And maybe that's where spring has been happening all along.

Water striders and whirligig beetles overwinter as adults, which means they are out and about early in spring. Spittle bugs, leaf beetles, tent caterpillars, solitary bees: These too appear early to catch the first saps and nectars of the season. Their increase is slow and steady, unlike the sudden jolt of the thermometer from the 30's to the 70's that deludes us into thinking spring didn't happen. Insects are the steady tick-tock of the season. One thing follows another. No mourning cloak butterflies until sap is flowing at broken twigs. No spider webs until there are winged insects to snare. No caterpillars until there are young leaves to feed on. No nestlings in the robin's nest until the first big hatch of insect grubs.

Jean Henri Fabre had no other ambition than to chronicle the lives of insects, and winter sent most of his beloved creatures to their nests, burrows and egg cases. He welcomed spring for the signs and signals we seldom notice -- the hum, flitter and skitter of ten thousand tiny creatures winding up into activity, teaching us again how life is made and what it is made of. That hum, flitter and skitter is the season's sleight of hand caught in the act.