Thursday, April 25, 2013



Spring has sprung, as they say. The trees, most of them, burst their leaf buds about a week ago. It seemed like they went all at once, instead of species by species, though some seem slower than others. The oak leaves are still very small, although the red maple, I just noticed, are nearly full-sized. And I'd hardly noticed the oaks blooming at all before they started to leaf out, which surprised me. The forests are turning green, but it's still a sort of young, fuzzy green, and the canopy is still mostly open. I looked out the window the other day, and the young leaves on the shrubs and saplings, like fat green flakes, fogged up the previously clear forest understory like wet snow.

The silver maples are rapidly maturing their winged seeds, though their flowers only finished up a few weeks ago. Norway maple seeds don't mature until fall,or maybe late summer, though they bloom in late spring. I think silver maples, being river trees, try to get their seeds onto river banks bared by spring floods. Or maybe they're actually water-dispersed? They lean over the water, when they can. The sweet gum flowers, little pyramids of green, plush balls, are starting to fall, those that weren't fertilized, I guess. Cherry is flowering, though I don't know what kind yet, and all sorts of grasses and lawn plants are. The front steps are covered with little discarded vegetable scales, green with brown tips, that I guess popped off some species' buds when they burst, like training whewels discarded.

You, of course, probably don't care about any of this, being as they're plants you can't identify (yes, they're all angiosperms--you'd get that part, and you'd be right. There is no shame in accurate vagueness). One you might not even have encountered at all; the American hollies are dropping their old leaves, now. Your hollies are deciduous, and bare their winter branches in wet and frozen places. Ours are evergreen, their leaves thickened, leathery, lobed and spined, and their old leaves fall at the same time as their young leaves spring, giving our yard a fresh carpet of stickers. I walk around barefoot anyway, I don't care.

What I think you might care about is what I saw on the Weather Channel yesterday, a radar image of the Mid-Atlantic region with an angry-looking red and green ball, what looked like a round and very intense storm over the middle of Delaware, and almost half the size of that state. It was, the weatherman explained, a flock of migrating birds. He'd been following them on the maps all evening, and they were headed north while the wind blew towards the southeast. A flock of birds like a storm, all of them on a mission, and forty miles wide.

The weatherman also pointed out that the satellite image beneath the clouds showed real color, and where we are that color was green. The green lapped against the bases of the mountains to our west and ran north to a line that crossed New Jersey a little more than halfway up. Beyond that, the ground was greenish grey. Spring, sweeping North. It's made New York by now, I'll bet.

I'll be sweeping north soon, too, to New Hampshire and then, briefly, to Maine. I wonder if Spring will beat me there or not?

And it's almost a week now since another traveler went winging. Chris and I walked down to the little beach so we could watch the launch of the largest rocket yet to go up from Wallops Island. It was a test of a rocket that they hope to use to resupply the International Space Station.

We didn't make it to the beach in time, because we left the house too late, but we made it to the earthen causeway that links what used to be Cropper's Island to the mainland. We sat out on the cement fins that line the water there, and looked south.

And you know, we almost missed it. I was expecting, you know, something that looked like the shuttle going up, or virtually any rocket I've seen in the movies; a needle rising at the top of a column of fire and smoke, a line of smoke linking the distant rocket to its launchpad out of sight below. We didn't see it. I spotted what looked like an airplane, oddly reddish-orange and trailing a quickly-dissipating stub of a contrail. I dismissed it and looked away. Then Chris cussed, saying "Oh, f___, it's the rocket!" And indeed, it was; it had caught his eye by producing a true contrail as it passed through some appropriate layer of sky. As it rose higher, it stopped leaving the trail. What I'd seen was the exhaust fire itself.

Through binoculars, it shown a rising white needle, with a double feather of fire behind, one feather ahead of and outside of the other. They were reddish-orange, the same color that iron filings burn, if you drop them in a Bunsen burner flame. We watched the rocket for eons of seconds and it was totally silent, rising. It looked like it was moving horizontally across the sky, but it was really rising, probably vertically, or almost so, and as it approached the center of the sky, the zenith, it foreshortened until I could hardly see the rocket at all, only the glow of its fire at the back. And then it vanished. It had shrunk to a point, but it did not shrink smaller, it just went out, like a light. I had my binoculars on it when it did it, and I didn't lose it, it was in the middle of my field of vision. It just vanished. The sound had just reached us, a low, roaring growl, a huge sound.

That sound went on for several minutes, longer than we thought it would. Eventually it, too, vanished, and we continued our walk.

Later, we looked it up online and learned that the rocket's first-stage burn had lasted four minutes and that it had started to power down fairly abruptly at about  three minutes--on the video we saw online, filmed by a camera actually on the rocket itself, the red fire largely went out at that point, the exhaust turning clear grey, except for occasional flares. I'm not sure, but we could have watched it for a few minutes. Accounting for the time it was in flight before we saw it, it's possible what I saw when it vanished was the engine powering down. It's possible we heard all four minutes of sound. And the thing is, when that video showed the engine start to power down, the sky from the rocket's position appeared black, and the Earth curved below. Is is possible I heard a sound from the doorway of space? from the last possible moment before sound itself stopped in the air thin to vanishing?

I'm not a big fan of aerospace. It's not my kind of science, and except for communications and scientific satellites (pointed at Earth) and the search for potentially dangerous asteroids, I regard the space program as a waste of resources. And noise pollution, apparently, as it was astoundingly loud.

But that rocket sure was pretty.

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