Spring officially begins with the solstice on March 20. However, Meteorological Spring begins on March 1, when a notable warming trend marks a clear shift in the weather.
Meteorological seasons are three-month periods defined by temperature and based on the Roman calendar and a reckoning system in use since 1780, both of which identified March 1 as the first day of the year.
In New England, we seem to have added a season that while not officially recognized is well known to anyone living here: Mud Season. The timing and length of mud season can't be predicted, but it coincides with the disappearance of the snowpack, the first pussy willow catkins, sap season, and the return of the earliest spring birds, such as the Red-winged Blackbird.
Mud season is a messy inconvenience during a colorless time of year when most of us are tired of winter and it seems that spring will never arrive. Shoes, boots, and pets' paws are perpetually muddy and more than one vehicle has had to be freed from one of Williamstown's gravel roads, which may be almost impossible to navigate. Roads thaw from the surface down, and the melt water can't be absorbed by the frozen layer below, creating a soupy series of ruts and potholes. In the time before automobiles, people stayed home during mud season, not only to spare the horses the difficulty of pulling wagons over the soft road surfaces, but also to keep the roads from deteriorating.
Mud season, as a season of transition, offers great opportunities for searching out the nature and traditions of early spring. A most exciting natural phenomenon takes place in March, on the first rainy night of the spring when temperatures reach 45 degrees or higher.
When the humidity and temperature conditions are just right, salamanders and wood frogs emerge and begin their migration to shallow pools of melt and rain water, known as vernal pools. They inhabit these vernal pools only long enough to breed and lay eggs, and then return to the woodlands. If you know of a vernal pool, it's worth the damp trip with a flashlight to observe this annual migration, and you might see large Spotted Salamanders, one of the most striking of the amphibian migrants.
If you aren't up to nocturnal nature watching, celebrate the season by visiting a local maple syrup producer. Many sugar houses in the area offer weekend breakfasts and tours of their boiling operations.
Like mud season, sap season winds down once the average temperature begins to climb.
Other rites of mud season include gathering a few pussy willows (make sure you ask before helping yourself), anticipating the first snowdrops and crocuses, and watching for the swell of the beautiful, deep red buds of the swamp (red) maples in wetlands.
The best thing about this in-between season is the sense of optimism: lengthening days, awakening plants, animals returning to the north or coming out of winter hiding. To fully experience all these hopeful signs of the color and warmth of spring, put on your boots and enjoy the mud!
Leslie Reed-Evans is the Executive Director of the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation.