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Searching for spring.

Dandelions bloom unexpectedly along March roadsides. But these are aberrations. Non-native, genetically identical, asexual byproducts Of European agriculture. They need no insects for pollination. They have become detached from nature. They are inbred, glorifying in their own genes. They do not wait for spring, nor do they mark its beginning.

Yet each yellow blossom brings a smile to my face. Stubbornly self-serving, these golden wayside shrines to their own genetic material also shout fiercely the boldness of life and the inevitability of each returning spring. Life will proceed straight forward along its course until something stops it, and then it will find another way.

Try to kill a dandelion. Pull it up. It will sprout anew from its underground stem. Chop it to pieces. Each severed rhizome will exude a new stem. Douse it with herbicide but do it quickly before its cohort of self-fertilized seeds are loosed to the wind to drift across the winter landscape and burst forth as golden suns in the green fields of a distant May.

Dandelions have broken from the pack. They charge alone, without restraint, toward a golden vision of sunshine-drenched fields constantly churned by the smooth impassive blade of modern civilization. When the entire earth is paved over, dandelions will be the last vegetables to take root in the cracks.

I see them even in the winter woods, miles from the nearest road or garden, sprouting along the uphill margin of a foot track blazed along the contour of mountain valley. But even here they are alien. They don't follow the rules. They persist a few years, diminishing in vigor in the shaded woods, unleashing clusters of identical propagules, unable to evolve, waiting for the plow. Life will try any strategy to survive.

So I smile as dandelions right up the late winter landscape, but I continue my search for the beginning of spring. I do not find it in the augmenting warmth of a sunny afternoon. I do not find it at all in the light of day. Appalachian spring arrives as an evening apparition, leaping from the hollows of a rain-drenched moonless night.

Often in late February, sometimes during the first weeks of March, I see them in mid-flight. Leaping hysterically across a gravel roadway. Arching eighteen inches into the saturated midnight air. Always heading in the same direction: downslope. I see them singly, rarely in pairs. If I am silent, I can here the soft thud of their landing, like a wet sock being tossed to the bathroom floor. Although I have witnessed it many times. I am always started by the sudden appearance of these ardent creatures as well as by the fierce vitality of their purposeful motion. The mass migration of Wood Frogs to their vernal mating pools marks the beginning of the natural year.

Follow a Wood Frog downslope. It will leap repeatedly, pausing briefly at each landing to sense its new surroundings, until its last leap carries it into still water. Perhaps a pond. Perhaps a roadside ditch. Ant body of water will do, as long as it is several inches deep and not moving. This is the breeding ground. The amphibian will stop, blink its huge golden eyes, and begin to sing. "I'm here! I'm here! I'm here!" The Wood Frog calls as loudly as he can. He may soon be joined by other masculine singers, for the first frogs to arrive at the pond are inevitably males.

Male Wood Frogs risk everything in their mad dash to the breeding pools. They risk raccoons and foxes. They risk automobiles on the highway. But their biggest risk is the weather. Moving during a mild night in late winter, these cold-blooded amphibians lay themselves open to the return of sub-freezing weather, to ice on the vernal pools, to snow covered mountain slopes and frozen soil. They risk it-all to ignite another Appalachian Spring.

Males will call if the temperature exceeds fifty degrees Fahrenheit. Females will join them on the next mild and rainy night. And then a new generation of Wood Frogs will be ensured. But what if it snows?

Wood Frogs are not as mad as they appear. They possess remarkable, almost magical metabolic defenses against the return of winter. If the temperature suddenly drops, they release prodigious amounts of glucose from their rivers, flooding their internal organs in a sugary syrup, greatly lowering the freezing point of their body core. As the temperature plummets, ice may form in the watery layer beneath their skin, between their muscle cells, within their stomach cavities. Frozeri Wood Frog skin may actually turn blue as ice crystals build up above and below the pale brown pigments which naturally camouflage the skin of this forest dwelling frog. Unfrozen Wood Frogs are the color of dead leaves, except for a darker brown band around their eyes, which makes them look like hopping amphibian bandits.

Wood Frogs may freeze solid, and remain frozen solid for several days, while waiting at their mating pools in answer to nature's call. But spring will come. snow will melt, and amphibian ice cubes will thaw. The frogs will reabsorb the excess glucose that has preserved their vital organs, restart their pickled hearts, and get on with the business of procreation. With the next warm rain they will depart, leaping uphill to their forest refuges, where they will spend the summer eating bugs and hiding from predators. Such is the life of the Wood Frog.

Meanwhile, I am humbled. How can the resonance of the Life Force be so strong in a four-inch frog, in a yellow-flowered weed no taller than my ankle? Spring has begun again. Now there is no stopping the emergence of grasshopper, caterpillar, and Tiger Swallowtail, the unfurling of Bloodroot and Trillium petal, the greening of mountainside, the birth of fawn, the return of Scarlet Tanager, carrying the fire of the Amazon on its back, Filling the woods with its sweet exotic call, "I'm here! I'm here! I'm here!" Spring is simply a celebration of life. Excuse me if I buzz, chirp, leap, sing. and attempt to fly.

Dan Lazar is an Asheville naturalist and instructor in UNCA's Blue Ridge Naturalist Program. He is also co-host of Nature News, a weekly radio hour focusing on natural events in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, broadcast Saturday mornings at 7 a.m. on WISE Asheville and WTZQ Hendersonville.
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Title Annotation:DEPT.> digging in
Author:Lazar, Dan
Publication:New Life Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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