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Ellen Michaud Headshot

Enjoying The Thaw In Vermont

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Spring in the mountains is harsh.

The heavy snows have finally receded, leaving behind downed trees, crumbled roads, a matted forest floor and now, during the snowmelt, roaring streams tumbling down the hillside to the valley below.

Standing on the deck with my morning coffee, I look out through the woods and down the path that runs toward the compost pile. Yesterday a hungry, 400-lb black bear emerged from hibernation and tore it apart. Now, half-decomposed frozen garbage, black soil and wet leaves are strewn in a 20-foot radius around what used to be a tidy pile.

This is the Vermont tourists never see: Wild storms fling out of Canada and the Maritime Provinces, drowning the hills in icy rain. Temperatures plummet below freezing at dusk only to rise into the sixties or seventies the next morning. The landscape is flattened, sodden, beaten down--except for the roads, which, as temperatures rise again, slowly evolve from rock-strewn frozen ruts into a slurry of truck-sucking mud.

There are no tourists. Inns are closed, their owners either on vacation in the Bahamas or fixing roofs and painting rooms for the coming season. There are no hikers, since walking on sodden trails destroys fragile forest flora, no skiers since the ice turns every run into granular slush, and no cyclists since the winter's frost heaves have left the roads with asphalt moguls, unexpected sink holes, and crumbled edges.

Then in a heartbeat everything changes. A spring snow blankets the mountain, the sun spins high above the trees, and, by mid-morning, the snow melts and the air turns soft.

Stepping off the deck, I can see and feel the change. Here and there, the hardy northern mosses that carpet our forest paths have begun to shimmer with an almost ethereal green. The mists that surround the pines lift far enough to reveal a bear -- smaller than my midnight marauder--leaving her den with the season's new cubs. Peepers begin to move out of the wetlands and slowly migrate into streams that travel the hills. The buds on mountain magnolias swell and begin to show the white tips of their furled blossoms. A transparent red haze suggests that the maple trees are thinking about leafing out.

Overhead, the arrival of migrating flocks of Canada geese and gold finches headed north offer a cacophony of sound -- particularly when a flock of geese takes off from a local pond into the moonlit mists just before dawn, or, at mid-morning, when thousands of finches settle into the tall pines surrounding my cottage for a snack and some lively conversation.

Except for the occasional feathered tea party, silence settles onto the hills as we begin to plant peas, lettuce, spinach and other cold weather crops in the garden, then search for the emerging tips of fiddlehead ferns near the woodshed.

Putting my coffee cup on a nearby tree stump, I check along the sheltered side of the woodshed to see how they're doing, then begin to pull away shredded leaves from their emerging fronds and debate sautéing them in a few days with butter and garlic, or bacon drippings and onion.

Up here in the mountains, the distance between winter and spring is a long, slow breath in which we renew our connection with the earth. We inhale as we check the compost pile, brush sticks from the emerging moss, or nibble on ferns -- and we exhale as, in the unhurried rhythm of mountain life, the sun emerges, rainbows form and a moose brings her new calf to nibble on the birch.