May 1 is a date that goes by many names: May Day, Beltane, Calan Mai. It’s an ancient holiday, one that celebrates spring with flower crowns, bonfires, ribbons and parades.
Usually, I let the day slip past without giving it much thought. But this year, I decided to embrace the occasion by welcoming spring in my own way.
Encouraged by a blue sky and warm sunshine, I decided to spend as much time outdoors as possible. With my dog Juno on leash, I took a long, meandering walk down the gravel road I live on, then up a snowmobile trail that strikes through a swath of beautiful forestland.
There I rock-hopped and balanced on logs to avoid stepping in puddles and vernal pools. It’s a route I’ve walked hundreds of times.
A wide, wooden bridge that crosses a brook typically serves as my turnaround spot but, on that particular day, we kept going. First we wandered the banks of the brook, where asparagus-like shoots of horsetail grew among unfurling ferns.
Some of the fern fiddleheads were bright green and covered in thick, white fuzz, while others were deep red and encased in a brown, papery material. They must have been two different species.
In the cold, clear water of the brook, I spotted a brown salamander swimming against the current to hide under a rock. Also, for the first time this year, I saw a few tiny fish as they darted away from Juno’s paws.
The more time I spent in the wilderness, without an agenda, the more it revealed itself to me. At first, I mostly saw dead leaves and bare branches. But as my eyes and mind adjusted, I noticed tiny strawberry blossoms and weeping woodpecker holes. I saw the small white violets that dusted the trail, and the clubmoss that stood tall, its green arms fanned out.
I was especially excited to see the white violets, which are tiny flowers that — if you look closely — have streaks of dark purple running down one petal.
Just a few days prior to my walk, I had mentioned to my sister that I wanted to celebrate May Day. Ever looking for an excuse to be crafty, I considered weaving a flower crown — something I’d never done before.
“But there aren’t many flowers out there right now,” I gloomily told my sister.
Being so far north, Maine experiences spring a bit later than many other places in the country. Here, it’s still snowing in April. A few hardy plants do blossom early on, but it seemed a shame to rob the landscape of that bit of color for the sake of a silly crown.
As I sat on the forest floor on May Day, inspecting the tiny white violets, I thought of the flower crown. At that moment, I decided I’d rather leave the blossoms right where they were, growing in the sun. (Plus, I’d need a whole lot of violets to adorn a crown.)
Hobblebush, which grew in abundance by the brook, also caught my eye that day. Each plant was topped with twin leaves, forming side by side. As the leaves uncurled and expanded, they formed cups that filtered the sunlight, highlighting intricate networks of veins.
I leaned in close with my camera, noticing the fuzz that coated the underside of the leaves. The largest veins were rusty brown, while the thinnest parts of the leaves glowed green-yellow in the sunlight.
As I became lost in that tiny bit of nature, Juno dug a hole in the rich soil and ripped up roots with her teeth. I smiled at her playful and perhaps impatient attitude.
Crossing the bridge, we headed uphill to find a dead tree covered with hundreds of mushrooms. Fan-shaped, they were covered with thin bands of brown, gray, white, tan and orange. My first guess was turkey tail mushrooms, but fungi are notoriously difficult for amateur naturalists like myself to identify.
Juno sniffed out a big pile of coyote poop, which was filled with the hair of its prey. I’ve long found signs of coyotes around my house, though I’ve never actually seen the wild canines.
On the walk back, I paused when I felt a ruffed grouse drumming its wings. That’s right, “felt.” The thumping sound was so low and powerful that I swear I could feel it reverberate in my chest, as if it were my own heartbeat. Juno looked back at me, wide-eyed.
For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about. Ruffed grouse are wild, chicken-like birds that many people enjoy hunting and eating. They’re fairly quiet, but sometimes they stand on top of a stump or rock and create a drumming sound by flapping their wings. The drumming starts slowly, then picks up in intensity. They do this most often in April and May.
There’s actually been some debate about how the grouse produces this powerful sound. Some have hypothesized that the bird strikes its chest or sides with its wings, while others have insisted that the bird’s wings actually hit an object, like a stump or the ground.
In 1929, Arthur Allen from Cornell University filmed a ruffed grouse as it drummed. The video showed that the wings were striking nothing but air, according to an article published by the National Audubon Society.
And there we have it — a column that’s as meandering as my May Day walk.
As flowers blossom in Maine, I hope you get the opportunity to go outside and welcome the season. Sometimes simply appreciating the beauty of nature is the best way to celebrate it.