March 15, 4:27am.
It’s one week shy of the spring equinox, and it’s nineteen degrees below zero. I wanted to drive further upstream along the Yellowstone River for the season’s first Milky Way photo, but the temperature keeps falling. I swing off the highway, tires crunching snow along what, on most years, would be a dirt road. This year it looks like a snowmobile trail. North wind slides grainy serpents of ice particles from the plowed banks across my headlights’ beams, and I wonder if my equatorial mount will even fire up.
Twenty minutes later, it does grudgingly come to life, its motor protesting with a steely whine, and I’m able to find Polaris through the polar alignment scope before my breath freezes on the glass and obscures my view. I wait in my truck while my camera, wrapped in chemical hand warmers, opens its shutter for a series of half a dozen photos, each three minutes long. Two more shots with my equatorial mount off, and I’m packing up, popping ice on the Yellowstone as her coats grows thicker replacing the sound of my complaining motor.
It’s hard for me to believe, even though I possess some instinctual understanding that no one season ever lasts forever, that this valley is on the edge of infant spring. Yes, there is dim light on the eastern horizon where a month ago there would have been only darkness, but it’s now twenty-two below, one of the coldest mornings of the year. Winter certainly digs in its heels.
March 20, 11:40am.
A little sun today, and high enough in the sky to melt a bit of snow, if only because of the angle it finds our tipping Earth from. It’s enough to provide the impetus I need to get out of the house and search for whatever tiny signs of spring I can discover. In Livingston, where a few hardy wood ducks brave the winter along the Yellowstone, the drakes probably don’t look much different than they did in January, but in this mid-day sun on this day of nearly-equal light and darkness, they appear more vibrant.
The geese seem noisier, their squabbles more heated, their impatience during this false spring more evident. They’re ready to fly north but the weather isn’t having it. Today, in the sunshine, I believe they are as fed up with winter as I am.
“Hang on a little while longer,” I say, small words of encouragement meant as much for myself as the geese.
March 21, twilight.
There is probably some catchy name for this full moon I’ve come to photograph, driving more than 200 miles from my home for a shot of it rising above one of my favorite homesteads on the edge of Montana’s eastern prairie. Perhaps it’s the blue moon or the wolf moon or the super-blue-wolf moon.
I’ve got my 500mm Nikon telephoto hooked to my camera, both locked down on a heavy tripod, pointing at a home abandoned during the Dust Bowl from more than a mile away. Here, far away from the mountains still full of snow, the prairie shows obvious signs of spring and I cock my head to hear what could have been a meadowlark. It could I decide, just as easily have been my winter-strained imagination, and the fact that it doesn’t call again lends more weight to that possibility. I toe a small, broken agate out of the gravel at my feet, its ferrous designs like miniature, prehistoric ferns, then look up at as the moon begins breaking the horizon. One photograph later, a shot of the distant and of distant memories – not exactly mine, though I’ve seen my share of homes empty and fall into disrepair when other family farms went under – and the world drifts fast toward night. I once believed I heard the echoes of children playing in the dooryard of this house, and before I leave I listen hard, startled for an instant by the liquid chortle of a sandhill crane on the edge of earshot, a harbinger of true spring whose voice blends with those of children in my head.
March 27, 7:50am.
Say what you will of the robin, but for me and my life in the North Country it has always been the red wing blackbird who carries spring in its voice. It’s snowing this morning, heavy wet flakes falling straight down like haggard goose feathers, coating the ground under my rubber boots, leaking from the brim of my hat like a visor cut with pinking shears. I shiver, but I’m not really cold, standing at the edge of a tiny wetland while a handful of male redwings stake their claims to patches of cattails above still-frozen water. They fluff their red epaulets in grand displays of disdain for this snow squall, filling the air with raspy song, filling my soul with relief that we are “turning the corner” into spring.
In half an hour the snow is gone, banished by a north wind pushing billowing clouds down over the Bridger Mountains, some parting to reveal bright sun. I stay another hour, until I’ve seen enough of the red wings to assure myself they are real and not the fantasies of a man succumbed to cabin fever. They posture and pose and pull at the seeds of last year’s cattails in a frenzy of activity that can only mean we are truly headed into spring.
April 6, sunrise.
The day breaks warm and windy on the shores of Big Lake in Central Montana where a windmill turns to greet the rising sun. The water is open here, rafts of ducks and geese riding the swells, small flocks of swans passing overhead on their migration to the far north. There is a hint of green to the land, though where I stop to photograph a willow near the remains of a long-gone homestead it hasn’t penetrated the deep, dead grass of last summer. It will soon, I know, aided by the rain which moves in shortly afterward, blowing in curtains across this flat land of stubble fields and sage.
At anther homestead, this one refusing to settle into the ground, defiantly insisting that at least a part of it still remains among the living, I set my camera to record a minute of the storm in a single image, an angry, wet sky proving that the break-up between Earth and winter isn’t necessarily an amicable or easy one.
April 20, 1:45pm.
Where a day before I saw only the curling edges of fallen leaves and stubborn snow, today there is a crocus in full bloom. It’s a deep violet color like the ones I remember poking from the ground tight to the house where I grew up in Northern Vermont. I knew, within a few inches, where each of the bulbs were, and would pick at the soil on days of sun when reflected light from the house warmed the ground, hoping to reveal a stubby, green shoot. Like those days forty years ago, it only took turning my back for this flower to appear, and I’m as happy to see it now as I would have been when I was a boy.
May 5, 6:18am.
I’ll be damned if I’ll let a “Road Closed” sign derail this morning’s plan for a sunrise shot in Paradise Valley along the Yellowstone River. I snake my truck by the dented, metal sign and proceed undaunted until I nearly plummet into a 12-foot ravine cut across the lane by snowmelt. Far enough, I guess.
Like the Earth’s final transition from early spring into something not quite summer, this sunrise changes fast and doesn’t last long. Dark clouds turn silver and then pink and then back to silver. And then a silver sheriff’s deputy car follows my tracks around the sign I disregarded and parks next to my pickup. He’s friendly and instead of chastising me asks if I’ve seen anyone else around. Someone who is reportedly living on private land without the owner’s permission. I haven’t seen anyone I say, without adding that they’ve certainly picked a pretty spot to set up shop.
May 10, 9:06am.
The swan turns into the morning sun and fans its wings, feathers glowing as though lit not by our closest star but by fire within the bird. I snap a few photos then watch while it swims out into the Yellowstone’s current to join its mate, drifting downstream together into a world fully in the grasp of spring.
May 10, 2:14pm.
A little group of pasque flowers blooms near a snowmelt-swollen creek in the Upper Gallatin River drainage. I love them, not only because they are among our first wildflowers in Montana, but because they mimic crocuses – albeit a wilder, prettier version. I wait for an ant to traverse its way across a fuzzy stem before taking a series of a dozen photos with my macro lens that I’ll later stack into a single, well-focuses image.
May 11, 5:45pm.
A Sheridan’s hairstreak butterfly lands on sage for an instant, allowing me one shot before zigzagging away on fresh wings. It’s green on green in a land free of snow and full of hope. Herds of elk dot distant hills, their heads all down while they graze, while closer, between where I stand and the hulking shape of a dead Douglas fir tree – a good nest tree, I think – a male mountain bluebird cuts across my vision, a laser-straight line of intense color.
May 12, 8:43pm.
The sun is still up, shining a very narrow band of golden light across the Madison River Valley below Sphinx Mountain, some type of sundog or stunted rainbow appearing in the sky above. As I watch and photograph, it all fades at once, night racing into view, eager to claim its shortened hold on the land. Seasons have changed I think, passing by in long days but short weeks and months that, if possible, are shorter still. That’s the way with all of life I suppose. It’s all going somewhere, at an accelerated pace it seems. At times I question the worth of spending it as I do, understanding that in some ways it’s shorter than a good sunrise. I’m thinking about it as the first star appears over the Madison and an owl’s call signals an end to this day. And then I’m thinking about it again, later at night, in bed on the verge of sleep where once more I believe I hear a meadowlark. I want to keep listening, want to hold on to those notes that part of me knows aren’t real, but my grasp on consciousness has no more power than winter’s on this land. “Call once more,” I imagine saying. “One more time.” And then I sleep.
* You can view many of these images in my New Releases collection by clicking here. *