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First Shade

Illustration by Shimeng Jiang

When the shedding of winter uncovers the ephemeral delights of spring.

It was the last week of April on a Thursday. I found myself running out the door when I slammed on my body’s brakes. The first kindness of shade had arrived. I was startled, both at its quiet arrival and the fact I had never noticed it before. The first day of shade.

The path from winter’s last roping tentacles to the warm blush of spring’s first buds, to the heat of summer and then the cool offered by full shade has its own story arc. That first shade’s skeletal presence stayed with me as I thought about its chapters. The introduction seems to me to be an exhaustive overview of change: change of season, of moods, changing clothes and shedding winter. The birds change guards as the fox and white-throated sparrows say goodbye while orioles and red-winged blackbirds take their place.

The owlets are growing and bluebird babies make way for more bluebird babies who have now left the nest. Chickadees and goldfinches serve as fluttering necklaces of ebony and gold. Coyote and fox start their shed and look forward to meatier times. My moods are shifting too. Was it only days ago that winter slouched around the farm with a ruining cold that burned my eyes and bit my fingertips at feeding time? Now we are moving from the cooped-up late winter muck stage to the lighter feeling of spring, mud laced with violet petals which will harden in place with the coming summer.

How could I never have noticed first shade before? It’s true that its phenology is changing - arriving six days earlier on average over the last 30 years, with fall coming five days later over the same time. But I would think I would have noticed the first shade before this. The feeling of ease - of comfort knowing it will warm again, things will grow once more. How could I not notice? But there it is - the humanness. Spring comes but does not drive me from below ground, the pull of mating is not seasonal in us. A brightness bloomed within me as I noticed the first shade - not a shininess, but a brilliance. It had to pass though as I had to think about classes to be developed, groceries to be purchased and washing my mask yet again. Matters of great importance.

The delight in tracing increasing temperatures is muted by the knowing - the knowing that spring is ephemeral - that everything is ephemeral really. The ephemeral nature of our lengthening warmth has had a cascading effect on other plants and animals. The seasons here, so long providing us with ash trees, elms and cottonwoods will see us wave goodbye to those species as others take their place. And with those new plant species and lingering warmth, will come new insects. And as those fallen trees decay, they will release more stored carbon - and become fodder for fire. What happens with a lack of shade? Shade is ephemeral.

Geometry highlights the first shade’s next chapter; that of mature shade. The geometry of sight and sound - of dancing, clicking branches in late winter turns into a joyful gavotte at the wakefulness of the kingdom of plants. Leaves slowly unfurl, unroll, spread and reach, festooned with catkins dangling like stylish earrings. Chlorophyll A laps up and transforms the sun’s energy as it creates a growing swaying mosaic of light and shadow on the yard or forest floor. The geometry of lightning arrives with violent, tumbling spring thunderheads threatening to decapitate trees or people with home-flattening winds. But the rains come also, pattering on new leaves and falling to earth where they soak in and offer more nutrients to nourish the first shade into more. The deeper greens of summer caused by chlorophyll B help capture more light for chlorophyll A to ramp up its photosynthesising game.

The temperatures rise. Fans are turned on, then air conditioners. Those who have kept their old trees, now producing full shade, retain their rights to open windows. Those who have cleared their land to maximize housing have created a poverty of shade and slammed demand on the energy grid. That grid demand and lack of trees help create and escalate a bubble of heat over cities which grow. Birds and squirrels pant. We pant. New trees are good if you move into those treeless realms. But please, let me always guard old trees. Let us always guard old trees together. Old trees with their pulsing green first shade and deepening full shade. Old trees with their cool shelters for picnics and afternoon reading. Old trees suck up carbon and store it away from the atmosphere - sheltering ground with cool, moisture-retaining root systems.

Soon will come the cicada song, the shaking leaf symphony and the concerto in two meadowlarks but for now, my heart is bursting with the simplicity of the not-so-distant sweet memories of the first shade of spring. It came in the last week of April on a Thursday.

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