Signs of Spring

Stop and pick the nettles



My daughters and I went for a walk yesterday afternoon. “To look for signs of spring,” I told them. I was surprised they agreed to go with me after school. Typically, no matter how gorgeous the day, they want to hunker in the house, playing with their tiger and unicorn figurines, and I have to beg or bribe them back out the door. This time, they could have stayed behind: my husband’s 19-year-old nephew from back east recently moved in with us and was home early from his job at a fish processing plant at the edge of the harbor. He’s in one of those in-between life phases, straddling high school and what’s next, eager for adventure and cash. The girls adore him, mostly because he always gets down on the floor with them when they ask him to join them in their coloring. They could have lingered at home with him, listening to him strum his guitar. He’s teaching himself how to play “Let It Go.” We really lucked out with him.

But the girls went with me, and so, we donned our rubber boots and walked out the side door up to the road that goes nowhere, edging nine undeveloped acres.

Let me be honest. Early spring here is disgusting. When the snow melts, a winter’s worth of trash and dog shit emerges along the side of the road. On dry days, wind kicks up the grit and dust that sand trucks have been scattering for months, and you feel it in your mouth. Some years, the entire town stinks, a sort of sewage-meets-rotting-carcass stench that is caused, I’ve heard, when last year’s grasses rot in the waterlogged soil, without access to air.

I haven’t smelled the stink this year. When we headed off the road into the gully where I pick stinging nettles with gloved hands each spring to make bright green nettle pesto—“nesto”—or to put in soups, I felt miles away from the mess of the season. The gully is filled with fern hummocks—beach ball-sized mounds in the ground that stick up like the crowns of heads thickly tressed with last year’s fallen fireweed stalks. While patches of grass in town are green—and have been all winter—everything else is brown. I crouched at the edge of one of these mounds while the girls yanked seven-foot-tall hollow pushki stalks out of the ground to use as swords. Beneath the dead stalks, I found what I was looking for: the purple heads of stinging nettles rising up through black soil, inch-tall seedlings introducing their cotyledons to the world, a new pushki pushing into the air, and the tip of a horsetail galloping toward the sun.

Spring is here, even if it was far-off road noise we were hearing and not snipe, golden-crowned sparrows, or warblers freshly arrived from someplace south. Those songs will come. The girls ran over when I announced an earthworm. The three-year-old dropped her weapon, scooped up the worm, and proceeded to gently lay it along the low bough of a nearby alder, “giving it a ride,” they said as they bounced vigorously on a nearby branch. Such is the beauty of spring.

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Miranda Weiss is a science and nature writer. The author of Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska, she also wrote the Northern Lights blog for our website.


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