“Kitty!,” my two-year-old grandson declares looking out the window. The excitement rises in his voice. Closer inspection by my wife reveals a squirrel bounding through the snow, perhaps lured out of its nest by the gathering warmth and light of late winter.
Unlike groundhogs, squirrels are no prognosticators of spring; but a sunny day will find them scampering about looking for food or enjoying whatever squirrels enjoy on spring-like winter days.
Warm, late-winter days bring hope of spring’s arrival. Meltwater trickles down from Driftless Wisconsin’s steep slopes and heads for the river; a sign of winter’s impermanence. Barren patches of hillside appear, pulling back the blanket of snow to reveal a still slumbering land.
Not for long. The brittle ground cover of dead leaves from last fall, which rattled with every step three months ago, has marinated into a soft mulch from which wild flowers will soon sprout.
In Driftless Wisconsin, seasons defer to the land. Winter hides from spring in the shadowed recesses of deep valleys. Spring pushes back winter on sunbaked ridge tops. Seasons play tricks on this uneven playing field, as if each valley and ridge top was a world and a season onto itself.
We live in the trough of a Driftless Wisconsin coulee; a topographical tributary of the Mississippi River Valley. Our house nestles into the south slope, giving us an eagle’s-eye panorama of the opposing slope, still covered in snow. During the winter, sunlight does not find our windows until late morning.
As spring approaches, our “first light” comes earlier. Like opening the blinds on a sunlit day, the sun peeks over the ridge top around 9 am and washes our home with warmth and optimism.
People emerge from their winter slumber to enjoy a late-winter reprieve from the cold. The trail parking lot fills with hikers. The street busies with walkers. The post office lobby buzzes with sunny conversation.
Late winter presents a fashion dilemma. Do I wear my ear-warming Wisconsin Badger stocking cap or my head-cooling Field of Dreams baseball cap? Do I don my winter coat or my spring vest? Do I accessorize with ice cleats or snowshoes?
On our daily walk in the park, a friend in the parking lot suggests a viable alternative. “Hip boots” she offers with a smile.
True enough. Low spots along the trail serve up a seasonal snow cone of slush layered on water. Yet the sun-drenched day invites me to unzip my vest, making it all worthwhile. Time for squirrels – masquerading as kittens – and people to emerge from their winter nests and celebrate spring a little early. In Driftless Wisconsin.