Today, two-thirds of winter 2009-10 has passed, and we have but four weeks before the official spring equinox on March 20.

Oh, sure, winter continues in the north country until well into April, but in the state’s bottom third, we can see the new season – even in late February. The signs strike astute observers as unmistakable.

Precursors of the coming season include a noon sun creating much shorter shadows than it did two months ago, pre-mating black-capped chickadees making a throaty “fee-bee” rather than the clear, whistled “fee-bee” typical for much of the year; Canada geese, black ducks and other waterfowl returning to open tidal rivers; an amorous skunk wandering through the night, looking for a mate and leaving a powerful odor that seeps into our houses and wakes us.

As February wanes and March arrives, sales clerks in convenience stores at snowmobiling and ice-fishing destinations claim sunscreen sales pick up, as outdoors folks seek protection against sun despite snow and ice everywhere. That trend in itself signals the new season sliding into Maine.

Even folks who love skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing and hare hunting look forward to spring because nature has programmed our biological clocks to rejoice at winter’s end.

Generations ago, surviving the winter proved iffy in colder northern regions, and occasionally this season brought myriad deaths before spring. Diseases caused by vitamin-deficient diets, starvation and pneumonia killed many in the early years of this country.

Even in the 21st century after humans developed technologies to ease winter’s deadliness, folks fear this season deep in their primordial souls. That deep-seated apprehension makes them feel euphoric each spring.

Even with snow-covered ground and freezing temperatures, nature lovers see and hear spring as new birds return, particularly blackbird species. Black-capped chickadees, northern cardinals, mourning doves, white-breasted nuthatches, tufted titmice, blue jays, crows and more call in the early morning, a pre-mating ritual. Their songs add to the sunrise melodies and, yes, occasional cacophonies.

Woodlands draw me more in late February and March than they did earlier in winter. Snow has settled and often crusted, offering ample support, even without snowshoes at times.

Walking on my ancient snowshoes feels good, though, and my old pair is quickly approaching the half-century mark. They have the original white-ash frames, but the strapping and rawhide laces are somewhat new.

Each year, I promise myself to buy space-age snowshoes that work gangbusters in March snows, but I always say, “Next year for sure.” I’m frugal if nothing else, so next year has yet to come.

One feature of winter woods can never be underestimated – great visibility for long distances. The white background, completely leafless deciduous trees and shrubs and sparsely needled conifers mean far better visibility. Evergreens such as white pine drop part of their foliage in fall and prove less bushy than in summer, aiding observers now.

Speaking of white-pine trees, several years ago I was walking through dense pine saplings on the side of a steep, snow-covered ridge when my rubber-bottomed, felt-lined Bean boots hit ice beneath the snow. As my feet flew into the air, I grabbed at a pine limb to stop the fall.

A moment later, while lying flat on the ground clutching a broken white-pine branch, I scrutinized the foliage, and for the first time in life, it dawned on me that each needle was trilobal rather than cylindrical – creating an “ah-ha” based on two past observations:

Trilobal yarn reflects more light than cylindrical fibers, a principle I had learned in fly tying.

White pine grows in dry soil so conserving water in droughts is a must; consequently, the trilobal shape’s reflective qualities must aid this species in surviving summer heat.

After that legs-flying epiphany, I’ve never looked at white pines the same again. That’s the neat part of winter woodland walks. Many of us are less intent on hunting or fishing, so we not only look but we truly see.

Close observation builds an affinity for nature, and folks who wander the woods a lot learn that everything we do in the wild has consequences – the best lesson of all.

Humans experiment with social systems; however, our well-being relies less on politics than on our ability to maintain a contact with nature, a contact so strong that we become part of that natural order. From that closeness, we learn to live within the boundaries of what nature can sustain far into the future – a survival tactic for the human race.

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]