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Wallowing in Mud Season


Published April 7, 2020 at 10:00 a.m.

Heather's son, Jesse, explores a muddy field - COURTESY OF BEN WANG
  • Courtesy of Ben Wang
  • Heather's son, Jesse, explores a muddy field

Even in a normal year, by the time April rolls around there's an urge to emerge from winter hibernation and be in the sun and feel some warmth on your skin. Now, at this strange moment in history when we're all trapped in our homes, this urge appears even stronger. If my Facebook feed is any indication, socially distanced hiking is one of the few remaining options available to us for getting out of the house.

Once you get out there, however, you're often confronted either by signs indicating closed trails or by the reason for those signs: mud.

Mud season is the time of year when the frozen ground thaws from the top down, leaving melting snow and early spring rains seeping into the deeper frozen ground below. The Federal Highway Administration says that, on average, the maximum freeze depth in Vermont is about a meter. Mud season can start in March in the warmer parts of Vermont, but at higher elevations, it can last into June. This year, it felt like it got off to an especially early start, but another thing that is characteristic of mud season is the fluctuation — warm one day, cold and snowing the next.

I think it's safe to say of mud season: You know it when you see it. If your low-elevation neighborhood trail seems fine, it probably is. It's also important to be mentally prepared to turn around as soon as you encounter a muddy section of trail. A few weeks ago, I went on a walk in a flat place. It was mostly fine, until I got to a stream and slid down to the water, bringing a few very large chunks of the bank with me (one chunk for each footstep). Continuing on felt like eating a second brownie. I knew in the back of my mind that I shouldn't, but I persisted. I still feel a little guilty about my impact on that stream bank. If I were able to do it again, I would turn back at the first tentative step that revealed the mushiness of the slope.

It's worth pausing to think about what's going on in that mud. Plants that live through the winter usually have roots that grow below the frost line. Many insects, frogs, snakes, turtles and worms burrow below the frost line, too. But at least one of Vermont's frogs, the wood frog, can survive being frozen. And scientists have found that microbes, small microorganisms like bacteria and fungi, are active even in frozen soil.

If you encounter mud in a place that doesn't seem ecologically fragile — that wet corner of your lawn, maybe — one way to get through mud season is to embrace it in all its mucky glory. Plus, maybe you can count it as homeschooling?

Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield, authors of Nature's Playground: Activities, Crafts, and Games to Encourage Children to Get Outdoors, offer many variations on the mud sculpture theme: Make mud castles, pies or cakes — or, if the clay content of your mud is high enough, sculpt it into bowls and let them dry. Make layers with different colors and textures; add twigs, stones or nuts. The authors also suggest drawing with a stick, either directly in soft mud or by dipping it in mud and drawing on a rock, or coating flat surfaces with mud. Mud with high clay content will dry into an intricate pattern of cracks. And, of course, you can make muddy hand- and footprints on rocks, paper or each other.

If this last idea sounds terrible to you, it might be an opportunity to teach your kid (or yourself) how to get messy. I can still remember running outside to dance in a huge thunderstorm that broke an excruciating heat wave during my college orientation. I think it was one of the first times I consciously decided, I want to get messy. I was, and remain, kind of fastidious, and part of me wonders, If I'd had more muddy, messy experiences as a kid, would I be a little more easygoing? Some research suggests there are benefits to messy play, including increased creativity and willingness to take risks.

Also, don't forget that April is a fabulous time to look for amphibians. If you have a vernal pool near you, keep your eye out for the first warm, rainy night this month and head there around dusk. I promise you, it is a glorious experience. If you aren't sure where your closest vernal pool is, you can head to any wetland, or just listen for frogs and follow the sound. 

Heather Fitzgerald teaches field ecology and environmental science at the Community College of Vermont and the University of Vermont.

Take Note

On March 25, the Green Mountain Club issued this recommendation about hiking in the time of coronavirus: "Under Governor Scott's new 'Stay Home, Stay Safe' order for Vermonters, you may be wondering about outdoor activities. During the press conference regarding this order, the governor endorsed getting outside for exercise and fresh air. Please just do this locally (not traveling to the Long Trail or other trail systems), with members of your own household, and stay 6' or more away from anyone you may encounter. We recommend taking walks right out your door and exploring your neighborhood on any trails, dirt roads, or sidewalks you have available. Trails and parks in other states have been overwhelmed with use and had to close because people were not practicing correct social distancing. If we all enjoy the outdoors locally and responsibly, we may be able to avoid that outcome in Vermont." This is an evolving situation. Visit greenmountainclub.org for updates.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.