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Nature’s Best By Elma Chapman - Spring

The robins are back, large flocks of them. What do they know that we don’t? Even the calendar says it’s over three weeks till spring. The icy snow still covers the ground and they sure aren’t eating worms! When we had the rain last week, an area of grass poked through the snow around our downspout and there were a lot of robins poking around in that little patch of grass, but I haven’t seen them back there since we went back into the deep freeze. They have been working over the ornamental fruit trees in our front yard, so I guess they’re finding food. They’ve been around for about two weeks now. I hope they make it.

The ski trails are all ice now, but a week ago we tried out something new—snowshoeing. We went to Ferrettie/Baugo Creek County Park in St. Joseph County (IN) where they rent old-style wooden snowshoes, the ones that look like you’re walking around with tennis rackets strapped to your boots. They were easier to walk in than I thought they’d be. We still sunk into the snow about five or six inches, but if we took them off, we sunk in well over my knees. They make you walk with your feet splayed further apart than usual, which gets tiring. We hiked along Baugo Creek which was really pretty. I did okay walking, but when I stopped my feet just naturally came together and when I started to go forward again I invariably had one snowshoe on top of the other, and of course, I was trying to move the bottom one first. I think they’d be really handy for trudging out to my bird feeders, and if I see a pair in a garage sale at a bargain price I might consider getting some, but usually in this area they don’t have much usefulness. Those of you who don’t appreciate winter should hope I find some, because that would virtually guarantee that we have no-snow winters for the next five years or so. For now, I’ll get my fresh air on skis.

Saturday I attended a class on identifying trees in winter offered by the Elkhart County Parks. It was led by Bill Minter, the Director of Land Management at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center, part of Goshen College. After an introduction to soil conditions, shade tolerance, and twig terminology we practiced using the booklet “Winter Tree Finder.” It works by a dichotomous method, that is, it asks you a yes/no question about the twig you’re looking at and if you answer yes, it tells you what you’re looking at, but if you answer no, it moves you to a different page and asks another yes/no question. You keep answering questions until it determines the tree. It still takes a lot of practice to know what you’re looking at, but it’s interesting to be able to tell what the tree is without referencing the leaves. The hard part for beginners is that I think I can figure what kind of a tree it is, but I don’t know if I’m right, unless I have an expert with me. I’m sure practice will build confidence and capability. For now I have decided that the tree that held the squirrel prisoner earlier this winter is a hawthorn. When the leaves and flowers come out, I should be able to double check my hypothesis. The nice thing is that the booklet is a free download on the Internet.

If you just want to get out and hike, I recommend the Pumpkinvine Trail. The Elkhart County section is plowed. We walked on it Sunday afternoon and it was totally snow and ice-free. The wind isn’t as much of a factor when you’re in the trees. When it does finally get warm enough to bicycle again, the trail offers a place to ride where you don’t have to worry about the snow banks alongside the road, the potholes, or the cars splashing you as they pass. I know a lot of the Amish are all-weather bikers, but I draw the line at 40o to 45o—anything less is just too cold for me, especially since you’re creating your own wind-chill as you move.

As much as I enjoy winter, I, too, am ready for the next season. Let’s hope the robins know something the weatherman doesn’t.