"It's the smell," said one of my students.
I think he's right. A couple days of steady rain has washed away much of the snow, leaving icy trails where snow was stomped hard and mounds of dirty white along roads and parking lots. Big expanses of wet brown grass have been exposed to the air for the first time in months. The breeze carries the scent of rotting leaves and flattened weeds and new mud. It smells like spring.
My students have started talking about kayaking and fishing, and plans for summer internships. My own boys have abandoned the melting snow ramp in the front yard to play Ultimate Frisbee in the field across the street. When they come in from a game, their clothes are splattered with mud and their hands red with cold.
We begin each winter with four snow shovels. But no matter how often I remind the kids to put them back up against the house, inevitably a shovel gets left in a snow bank, where it falls over and disappears beneath the next snowfall. By March, we are down to one shovel usually, and we're missing all kinds of things: plastic toboggans, snow skates, a recycling bin, a whole picnic table. The first hard rain of spring melts the snow that has kept them hidden. I found logs, too, and pieces of plywood out near the road, used last month during an effort to get a car out of the ditch.
When the rain stops and afternoon sunlight moves across our backyard, the phragmites and trees seem to reach for that light. Soft old snow retreats into the low shadows near the kids' tree fort. The sun reaches into the woods, awakening plants and creatures. It's the smell, perhaps, or the angle of the light, but somehow, we all know. Within a week or so, the ice will disappear from the pond, the peepers will begin their familiar song, and winter will be over.