(Originally posted here on February 2, 2009.)
As I walked into my yard early this morning, I saw a giant moving shadow. No, it wasn't a groundhog. It was the shadow of a flock of hundreds of blackbirds that rose up from my lawn and flew off down the street.
Never mind that I don't have a groundhog - the blackbirds are a more reliable predictor of mid-winter and the coming of spring. When they start gathering in huge flocks and descending on our yards to scrounge birdseed or whatever else they can find to eat, we know that winter has reached its peak and it is all downhill toward spring from here.
And now, as we head into this downhill sprint over the next six weeks, we gardeners will be in a race with the sun, as it heads back north along the horizon after a winter in the southern skies. As our planet's wobbling orbit slowly begins to tilt the northern hemisphere toward the sun, our days get longer and warmer and one morning we will wake up and open our front door to a blast of hot air. Then we'll know that summer is here - probably around April Fool's Day!
But from Groundhog Day until April Fool's Day, we gardeners of Southeast Texas have a window of opportunity. These are the halcyon days of pleasant and calm weather when we hurry to try to get our major projects of the year completed before we are immobilized by the summer heat.
It is the busiest and, in many ways, the best time of the year to be in the garden. The days are mostly of tolerable temperatures and humidity except when a chill wind blows, or we are wrapped in a foggy mist for much of the day. It is a time when it is possible to work hard in the garden for most of the day without being uncomfortably drenched in sweat and perhaps having to change your tee shirt a couple of times during the day. It is a time to just enjoy being outside and playing in the dirt.
Working outside today, I could hear the sounds of spring coming all around me. Cardinals, mockingbirds, wrens, chickadees, and robins were all practicing their spring songs. And the woodpeckers were practicing their drumming.
Once, as I was transplanting some foxtail asparagus fern to a bed under the red oak tree, I heard a very faint sound of a woodpecker drumming. It sounded as if it were coming from a great distance and yet the sound seemed to be emanating from somewhere on my tree.
I squinted up through the bare branches and finally located the source - a tiny Downy Woodpecker drumming very gently, almost as if he were humming to himself, practicing his chops before the big show. Very soon, he'll be onstage for real and will be drumming hard to attract a lady woodpecker and to proclaim his territory, but today he just seemed to be playing, enjoying himself in the sun.
It made me smile to see him there, and especially, it made me glad that I was there to see him. On days like this, it is good to be a gardener.