I am big fan of spring. I love the unpredictable weather, the reemergence of plants and beasts, the frisson of reproductive potential and have long enjoyed watching for signs of the vernal world. Recently, I have been inspired by an unlikely source: George Orwell. (I plan on writing about him in the future so won’t say much now.) In a splendid little essay titled “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” he wrote (in April 1946):
The point is that the pleasures of spring are available to everybody, and cost nothing. Even in the most sordid street the coming of spring will register itself by some sign or other, if it is only a brighter blue between the chimney pots or the vivid green of an elder sprouting on a blitzed site. Indeed it is remarkable how Nature goes on existing unofficially, as it were, in the very heart of London.
Orwell then asks if it’s “wicked to take pleasure in spring,” considering the challenges of the world, which were certainly epic and severe in post–World War II London, and sadly still are now. Shouldn’t people be more focused on more serious issues than whether a toad appears and pursues his or her life? He categorically rejects those who hold such a view and offers a wonderful sentiment:
I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and—to return to my first instance—toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.
Here then are a few observations reaffirming the beauty, resiliency, and healing power of spring, in my fair city of Seattle.
Varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius) – For the past few weeks, I have been thrilling to the trilling of varied thrushes. These orange-necked, black-bibbed cousins of robins typically start calling at dawn in a haunting, monotone whistle suffused with the mysteries of a mountain forest. Summer residents of higher elevation, they migrate down to hang out with we lowland dwellers from late fall to spring. Oddly, this year is the first that I have noticed varied thrushes in spring—they typically visit our yard in autumn—so it has been an exquisite joy to hear them. The trilling notes feel not only like a rejoicing of spring but also a call to turn one’s thoughts to the mountains.
Crocus (Crocus sp.) – Found in hundreds of locations around the city, these lovely irises are one of the first to provide a nourishment of early season color. With a name derived from the Greek term for saffron, crocuses come in scores of species and originally grew from Portugal to western China. Horticulturists have cultivated about thirty varieties of which five are considered to be commercially important. The best known, saffron (Crocus sativus), comes from the three thread-like stigmas, between 5,000 and 12,500 of which produce an ounce of the fragrant spice. Cultivated by Egyptians and Romans, saffron reached China in the seventh century, and by the fourteenth, it had permeated England, France, and Germany. By the way, you can grow C. sativus in Seattle, though you will more likely encounter one of the many cultivars heralding spring in yards across the city.
Camas (Camassia quamash) – Many years ago when we bought our house, I planted a few camas bulbs. Since then, they have spread across our yard, emerging in spring like green signposts of the bounty to come. I am not the first to encourage the growth of these edible roots. For generations, Indigenous people of Puget Sound burnt the prairies south of Tacoma around Nisqually and Fort Lewis and on islands in Puget Sound to foster camas growth, which they harvested in spring. One had to be careful though. As botanist David Douglas noted in April 1825 about camas bulbs: “assuredly they produce flatulence: when in the Indian hut I was almost blown out by strength of wind.” In contrast, botanist William Fraser Tolmie of the Hudson’s Bay Company wrote of the “rich and level prairies . . . [their] surface enamelled with a profusion of blue flowered kamass.” Our camas certainly don’t compare, but I still rejoice when the flowers blossom and blue ponds of shimmering light grace our yard.
Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) – Noisy, territorial, and garnished by vivid red epaulettes, red-winged blackbirds have been out chattering of late with their distinctive konk-la-ree calls. They are denizen of watery locales, such as Green Lake, the Center for Urban Horticulture, and Echo Lake, where males flaunt their garish shoulder patches as a sign of territoriality. Studies have shown that if the birds intend to fight and protect their turf, they will display their badge of red, but if they are merely “visiting” or “testing” a new territory, they may not display and wait to see what the present owner does. Perhaps we could take a lesson. Be patient and sport red epaulettes but only flare them when necessary. Otherwise, chill out.
David B. Williams is a naturalist, author, and educator. His many books include the award-winning Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography, Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City, and most recently Homewaters: A Human and Natural History of Puget Sound. Subscribe to Street Smart Naturalist: Explorations of the Urban Kind.