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Experiencing Spring Through the Senses 

click to enlarge Spring buds - BRAD CALKINS | DREAMSTIME
  • Brad Calkins | Dreamstime
  • Spring buds

For a while, I had a theme on my Gmail account that displayed the current weather. More often than I care to admit, I learned that it was snowing or raining when I logged into my email; I would see it on my screen, then look out the window and notice that it was, in fact, happening in the real world. I've also been known to ignore fatigue, hunger and other things going on in my body that I should probably notice.

As I've been learning to pay more attention to what's going on, both internally and in my immediate world, I've been hoping those tendencies will rub off on my 13-year-old son. I want him to be able to stay connected to his body and the physical world, and not have to relearn how to do it as an adult.

April is a great month to practice experiencing the outdoors through your senses. When things that have been frozen start to thaw, the smells, sounds and sights are intense! Here are a few ideas to get you started.

click to enlarge Skunk cabbage - © JUSTNATURECHANNEL | DREAMSTIME
  • © JustNatureChannel | Dreamstime
  • Skunk cabbage

Smell: Look for skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) in marshy areas. Its musky odor attracts carrion-eating flies and beetles, the first pollinators to emerge in spring. It also likely deters deer and rabbits from feasting on these early-rising plants of spring.

Hear: Listen for the first frogs! This website has a simple set of recordings of frogs that can be heard in Vermont, in roughly the order they start calling: musicofnature.com/calls-of-frogs-and-toads-of-the-northeast. It's also entirely possible to enjoy the sounds without identifying them. You can also listen for bird language. Birds do a lot more than sing, and this website has recordings of the "five voices" they use to communicate aggression, alarm and more: birdlanguage.com/resources/bird-voices-audio-library.

Touch: Do you notice that the sun's rays feel stronger than they did a month ago? Have you ever stopped to think about how that works? After spending time on physics forums in the bowels of Google and checking with the good folks at the Vermont Astronomical Society, I have concluded that this is not actually a simple question. Does it have to do with the sun going through less atmosphere when it is more directly overhead or, rather, with spring's warmer air temperature? The answer isn't straightforward. Either way, pay attention to how the sun feels on your body at different times of day, and pause to notice when you're in the shade versus full sun.

Taste: I asked Katherine Elmer, a community herbalist at Railyard Apothecary and Spoonful Herbals, for some early plants you can taste. She recommends the "fun and Velcro-like" cleavers (Galium aparine) and stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) as some of the tastiest early risers. You can look up these plants using the free app iNaturalist. Nettles have stinging hairs on them, so wear leather or rubber gloves to pick them. Then you'll need to cook or crush them to neutralize the hairs. One tasty way to eat them is in Spoonful Herbals' nettle pesto. Find the recipe at shelburnefarms.org/blog/making-nettle-pesto-with-spoonful-herbals.

See: Have you ever paused to look closely at a tree's flowers or unfurling buds? The book Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo and Robert Llewellyn offers amazing close-up photographs of common trees doing this small, amazing act. Since I saw the book's photographs, I have been unable to walk by ordinary trees lining the sidewalk without stopping to look closer when they are flowering or budding. Some of the first trees to keep an eye out for as you walk down the sidewalk are the maples.

Heather Fitzgerald teaches field ecology and environmental science at Community College of Vermont, the University of Vermont and Saint Michael's College.

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