The promise of the pasque flower

March is an odd time on the prairie. We may find three feet of snow and wind-swept eight-foot drifts, or a tawny, dry, and seemingly barren landscape, such as this year in central North Dakota. While March weather and conditions are impossible to predict, a dusty fall and deficit of mid-winter precipitation left little doubt a dry new year was in queue.

There are hints of spring here, the dark geese, in pairs and wavering flocks, are here now. And just today we saw our first waves of white geese, true “snowbirds” which winter on the Texas Gulf. The naturalist Aldo Leopold said geese are spring. “One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring.”

I respectably disagree.

Although the geese are here, having spent the winter in warmer climes, the whitetail doe on our south 80 knows better, knows we may still be two blizzards shy of spring. She was here for the duration, surviving 30-below nights and short rations, so a happy honk or two is mere noise in her book. She’s waiting for proof.

And the sharp-tailed grouse know, having survived on blackened, freeze-dried, wolf berries and crinkled hawthorn fruits these many weeks–it may be weeks more before anything green, succulent, and fit for a meal makes an appearance.

We made our own search today, while on our prairie walk, looking for that singular sign of spring on native prairie: pasque flowers. Whether the plant is anti-winter or pro-spring is a distinction known only to the bison of long ago, but we know hoary leaves and shoots will push and pull and claw through frigid ground in a tenacious bid to bask in the spring sun’s weak rays. A pale bloom of blushed-violet quickly follows. And we know spring has arrived.

As we wander the prairie in our quest, our arms are sore from inoculations and heads sore from months of worry and an inordinate focus on events we can’t control. Geese want a puddle of open water, the pasque flower a patch of sun. We just want another spring, and the promise of a fresh, new year.

(Sobieck is the author of Mad Grass – A Warrior Returns, the story of the Battle of Grand Coteau near Butte, North Dakota)


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