The big melt is underway. Heading out to the big oak I am studying at the Harvard Forest this year I saw lots of something I haven’t seen since Thanksgiving: bare ground.

After months and months of solid snow cover all the way up to last week, the ground is emerging. The streams are running. The air smells of earth. The mornings have changed – not only in their light, but in their sound. The birds are back. So are the chipmunks and the squirrels. Even the first bugs. I saw a wooly bear caterpillar saunter across the ground a few days ago.

As the snow melts, secrets of winter are revealed. How lovely to spot the subnivian tunnels used by the small mammals all winter to get to their food caches and to fresh water. There is a stream that runs behind my house and when I looked out the window this morning I saw the tracery of tunnels to water built by animals all winter, revealed as the top layers of snow finally melted away.


How beautiful to see the animals’ subnivian tunnels revealed as the snow melts away. These lead to the stream outside my house, the source of fresh water for many tiny lives all winter.

How busy it was under that perfect white covering all winter. Not only the infrastructure thrumming with travel all winter long, but the food caches! All around the base of the big oak were split acorns and the devoured feasts of a long winter. What seemed like a quiet frozen world was actually abuzz non-stop, under the snow.  Those little holes I saw at the snow surface led to busy tunnels and delectable larders.


What feasting has been going on under the snow all winter! These acorns were from a meal under the big oak I am studying at the Harvard Forest. I finally saw bare ground — and this squirrel midden — for the forest time today as the snow eases back from its trunk, revealing a winter’s worth of meals.

And there was another surprise, too. Last May,  I came out to the Harvard Forest to move some things into the basement of my house to use when I returned to start my Bullard fellowship in the fall. And I brought a secret: an oak tree I had sprouted in a pot that spring, from acorns I gathered in the forest. I tucked it in by the pasture fence behind the house, wished it luck, and headed back to Seattle for the summer to go back to work at my usual job as a reporter in the newsroom at the Seattle Times.

When I returned to the forest in the fall to begin my fellowship, the very first place I went was the fence – where was the tree? How had it fared? But so many wildflowers had grown up in the area, I couldn’t find it. Had it been mowed? Was it gone? I couldn’t tell.


Emerged from the winterkilled meadow and three feet of snow as winter relents: the oak I planted last year, raised on my windowsill from an acorn. I was so glad to see it had survived.

Today, as I scouted out the animal tunnels, I noticed the winterkill had leveled the wildflowers and weeds. I wondered if…I looked long enough – could it be there? Sure enough. Bravely grown to calf height, with new buds set for a new year: the little oak.

Emerged from the snow, and growing strong. Just a week ago it seemed spring would never come. Now its welcome signs are everywhere. 


Snow drops planted under the sugar maple out my window.


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