I think this may be leaf week. The leaves of the various hardwood trees that grace New York woodlands, hedgerows and front yards emerge each year during a fairly long period. However, there always seems to be one particular week that marks the turning point between shiver and shine in the progression of spring growth.
Just last weekend area woodlands were full of mystery. Branches tipped with new growth waved quietly, while a fragile network of color seemed to float softly above hills and dells. Though millions of buds, scattered like wild confetti, marked new beginnings for thousands of trees, the misty grays of trunks and understory still outvoted them hundreds to one. One place we passed during a weekend drive looked so otherworldly that I found myself watching for hobbits and elves among the hollows.
However, what we actually saw were young Amishmen driving race horses, leaning back in the handholds on the reins, holding in raw power you don't often see outside a Camaro. It was thrilling, I admit, to see those bright, wild eyes, flaring nostrils, and striding hooves beside us on the road. They were real nice horses, not the pensioned-off Standardbreds you usually see jogging down the highways around here. Maybe they were just Sunday-go-to-meeting horses, cranked up hot like English boys might do with grandma's Chevy, but you sure could see that boys will be boys, no matter how you raise them 'em.
By just Tuesday the lushly leafy vs. bare 'n' bony balance was shifting spiritedly. The intense cardinal-red buds of assorted maples vanished before a wave of psychedelic acid green that would have scared a hippy if there was one. Screaming magenta cottonwood flowers puffed out drooping plumes of catkins before fading off into pale green and yellow. Poplars glowed briefly metal-gray before popping leaves and turning plainer. They seem to come into their own for two brief periods each year, spring with that subtle olivaceous glow they have and then autumn when some brave alchemy transforms them into solid gold.
This has been a slow spring of great benefit to fruit growers who fear late freezes, less lovely by far for growers of corn and grazers of livestock. Across the nation corn planting stagnated at only 5 percent done on Monday. The late start ties the previous worst-ever spring corn planting record from 1984. To put this in perspective, according to Dairy Herd, last year at this time planting was more than half done.
Oddly enough Nebraska is well ahead of last year's schedule with 78 percent of its corn in the ground vs. 40 percent in 2012. Texas tied itself year-to-year with 69 percent of its corn crop planted. In fact a friend shared photos of a field of it near Nada, Texas, not too far from the Gulf. Corn was already at least knee-high and an amazing, dark, healthy green. We are months away from seeing that here.
Frigid weather and flooding, with predictions of more in store, plus the late start of planting, have set corn prices popping. Posted gains in futures prices rival those at the height of last year's drought. As is often the case, wheat and soybeans tagged right along behind corn in its quest to become even more expensive.
The grass isn't very tall yet, though the kids swooped in and mowed the lawn already. However, there are lots and lots of cows and horses out to pasture already. We passed acres of them Sunday as we traveled. Despite a singularly tough winter, most of the ones we saw looked pretty good, too. It seems as if it only takes a few days of gobbling "Dr. Green" to make them shed out their dull winter fuzzies and begin to grow suits of shiny summer polish. There aren't many sights prettier than a scatter of cows across an emerald hillside.
It was kind of funny to watch our cows while we worked this week. As we finished up some of the fencing to get our own girls out to pasture, they all followed us hopefully from barnyard gate to barnyard gate. There are three pastures opening off that area where they are fed in winter. They didn't care which fence we finished or which gate was opened first. They wanted out.
And out they are. Some years they cavort and capriole and act like silly heifers running around. This year they just began to eat as if it was their job.
Leaf week is a time for many first-of-the-year events and new beginnings. First laundry dried outdoors on clotheslines all across the county. Colorful flags of towel and t-shirt proclaim the changing of the season as brightly as the whistling of the orioles.
First swinging of screen doors after months of storm doors and plastic bunting. The sight of the grass growing and the sound of the birds singing are suddenly as close as summer, which is just around the corner. Mornings and evenings are still plenty cold enough for heavy shirts and fleecy jackets. However, by the time the sun comes up swinging, those are falling like blades of grass before the mower, soon to be found draped over post and piled on platform all over the farm. Your average farm mom faces weeks of "gather ye sweatshirts while ye may," as the men shed them daily during the rush of spring's work.
Optimism blossoms with the first filling of the hummingbird feeders. Although theory has it that they can show up any time now, and even despite a staggeringly rare Bahama Woodstar hummer showing up in Pennsylvania last week, mine have never arrived before mid to late May.
It doesn't matter. I can wait for their proper season. Once the leaves begin to nudge aside their bud covers and pump the rising sap through their vascular systems to unfurl in beauty, once photosynthesis begins to fire the woods, once warblers light it up like Christmas bulbs, there will be no holding back of spring.
Fultonville dairy farmer MARIANNE FRIERS
is a regular columnist. She blogs