Now that winter winds are no longer whipping down our mountain slopes, and the icy snows are melting fast, the green carpet of life can start threading its way inexorably, steadily upward into every nook and cranny, every gully and hidden quarry of our southeast Catskills. Little shoots of Wild Chives, that somehow survive - even thrive - under the snow, gladly reach for the sky, alongside wide leaves of Ajuga - itself always one of the earliest plant-harbingers of Spring. Bright red Partridgeberries poke upward from their long runners. These are just a few of the very first of this year’s verdant parade - the fun’s just starting kids! And while it’s true that the vernal season is upon us, it behooves us all to not get TOO excited just yet (notice the title of this piece). Remember, the beginning of April is just as volatile, just as unpredictable, just as crazy as March. We may well take three steps forward into spring, but then get knocked two steps back into winter. I’m reminding myself of this, as well. Even though I’ve experienced many winter-to-spring transitions, I can fool myself just as well as anyone else, into elatedly thinking “spring is here!”, then get depressingly knocked backwards into snow and freezing rain (yep, as I finish this, it is snowing). Hang in there everyone.
Every now and then I like to explain the origins of the title of these Notes of mine. For many years I wrote the Comeau Newsletter, which initially started out as seasonal nature notes of the Town of Woodstock-owned Comeau Property. That was a good thing and I learned a lot and really enjoyed it (fortunately, many of you also liked it) but I was exploring all over Woodstock and wanted to expand my nature-writing horizon. Studying 17th and 18th century maps of the area, I noticed that early maps referred to the eastern Woodstock Valley as “Waghkonk”, or sometimes “Awaghkonk”. While there is no definitive interpretation of this term, Algonquin language expert, professor of Native American studies, Evan Pritchard (www.algonquinculture.org) believes it means something like “Land of Waterfalls below the Sacred Mountain”, which sounds about right to me. My good friend Alf Evers, Woodstock’s retired long-time Town Historian and author of note, told me how Waghkonk became Woodstock. In 1764, Judge Robert R. Livingston, writing to his father, Chancellor Livingston (who owned most of what would become Woodstock and half of the surrounding region), and was wintering in Wachkunk (another variation on Waghkonk), scratched that name out and wrote in “Woodstock” instead (see “Woodstock - History of an American Town”, Alf Evers, pgs. 33, 34). Supposedly, this was the first actual use of Woodstock to refer to Waghkonk. All sounded good to me. Hence, these Waghkonk Notes. Hope you like them.
Indeed, as Spring tries to advance from the south, northwest winds push back, their howling proving that winter’s cold grip has not loosened. Yes, the vernal season will eventually win, the cold retreating northward for the season, but watching this battle is frustrating. Each warm day becomes a tease, letting me see what wonder is so close - and yet still so far away: the warmth of the sun; one desultory Honey Bee scouting around; my first Compton’s Tortoiseshell butterfly (usually one of the first to show because they overwinter as adults, already to unfold when warmed); my first snake (a young Eastern Garter); a few migrating birds; sudden amphibious action with turtles, Spotted Salamanders, Spring Peepers and Woodfrogs. While I have to give kudos to any creature that can survive an outdoors Catskills winter, the Woodfrog (Lithobates sylvaticus) has a truly unique approach to doing so. These little frogs spend the coldest time of year hiding in plain sight, under leaf-litter, and amazingly - virtually frozen solid. Their blood contains a glycol-like chemical that allows them to freeze without damaging their delicate cells, to come back to full life when the weather slightly warms and the sun’s angle is at a certain height. A truly phenomenal adaptation which also allows them to cavort and mate - very raucously - in newly-thawed Vernal Ponds and Woodland Pools. Indeed, to watch them do their thing in literally ice-cold water, even among the retreating miniature ice-shelf of a pond, is a wonder to behold.
EACH OF US A DANCER
Indeed, our patience will payoff soon as the inexorable tide of new life catches us in its soon-to-come green embrace. Life can’t wait. One way to look at all of this is to try to see the entire panoply of nature as an incredible ballet, each of us a dancer. Speaking of dancing, as we tip-toe along our Spring trails, please remember that they will be muddy and this is the most important time for us to wear the right - waterproof - footwear and please STAY ON THE TRAIL. Walk straight down the middle, for if we stray, and walk around the trail, we enlarge the trail, making the trail-maintenance job much more difficult (by increasing destructive erosion), and, just as importantly, we increase the likelihood of destroying sensitive Endangered/Threatened Spring Ephemeral wildflowers just off trail that are on the verge of unfolding.
Thank you All
“Ranger” Dave Holden
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