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Stirrings

I tapped my maple tree last week. The temperatures had reached the low 50s and the forecast called for a series of days with the right balance of freeze and thaw conditions required to get the sap running. The fact that it was the first day of February and earlier by several weeks than is usual for my two-bucket operation to commence was offset by something deep within my being that is done with this mild winter and responds to the stirrings, however premature they may be, in the world outside.The buds on my lilac bushes are now soft and green. There are daffodil shoots poking up through the earth. Stranger still, my bare backyard is dry, with no melted snow to transform the frosty ground to its usual mire. We could still get heavy snow and bitter cold before winter winds down, but each day has a bit more daylight and sometimes seasonal events arrive ahead of schedule.Elsewhere, though, deep in black water wetlands and high in the pines, the first signs of spring are right on time. Great horned owls are already breeding, and skunk cabbage flowers are preparing to attract the heartiest of the early pollinators. This happens in midwinter, even with snow, even when it doesn’t seem possible for nature’s procreative urge to begin to stir. Some awakenings are linked to available daylight, and others to rhythms of their own. The Kent Fire Department’s annual Housatonic Ice Watch was founded 35 years ago to predict the precise date and time each year when the river ice melts. Last year it broke on the very last minute of March 6. The contest covers the period between Feb. 19 and April 30. On years when there is no ice on Feb. 19, a drawing is held instead. This has happened eight times in the past, and it looks like 2012 will be another one of those years. I respond to light and warmth. This gets me into trouble in May when I want to spade over my vegetable garden and transplant my tender seedlings while there is still the danger of a killing frost. Prior to this year, I have resisted tapping my maple tree when the sap runs early. I don’t want to acknowledge that a warmer climate may be moving the seasonal average forward. I am not ready for these wild fluctuations in temperature and precipitation to become the norm. I am not ready for tapping my maple tree or betting on the melting ice to be things of the past.So this year I decided to go with the flow. I felt the sap stirring and I carefully set two spiles in the flanks of my old sugar maple. With each successive year I have to work more carefully to space my pails at least 6 inches from old drill holes on the sides of the tree that face the winter sun. The first day I got a gallon of sap. Since then it has stalled and the flow has been irregular at best. The larger sugaring operations in our region, though, are poised and ready. We will see whether this early run holds, or we have that six more weeks of winter to look forward to that the decidedly unscientific woodchuck seems always to predict. Tim Abbott is program director of Housatonic Valley Association’s Litchfield Hills Greenprint. His blog is at greensleeves.typepad.com.

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