Monday, March 17, 2008

The Real March Madness

At 1:48 a.m. this Wednesday night, while you are tucked snugly in bed, it will happen: the sun will stand directly above the equator, a vertical shaft of sunlight striking the earth’s midpoint. Ding dong, the winter witch is dead, spring is here, and you know what that means:

March Madness.

Yup, hoopheads are pouring over their brackets, office pools are bursting with bets from some 3 million participants, ESPN is all roundball all the time, Internet chat rooms are on fire (“Tennessee was robbed!”) and today’s water cooler conversations revolve around fierce discussions over whether Coppin State cops a steal over Mt. St. Mary’s in tonight’s inaugural game to become the 64th team to make it into the tournament.

Who will be this year’s Cinderella team—Belmont, Austin Peay? Will Gonzaga be the next, well, Gonzaga? Can Cornell, this year’s Ivy League sacrificial lamb, advance past the first round? Who’s got the easier road to the Final Four, North Carolina or Memphis? Will Butler beat South Alabama, or Washington win over Winthrop—and what is a Winthrop anyway?

Meanwhile, that same vertical shaft of sunlight is shaking up the natural world. Already, the first crocuses have begun opening, the advance guard in an exquisitely timed march of flowers that unfolds all spring. In order, forsythia, daffodil, tulip, iris—each searching for its moment in the sun—pushes petals up to the sky.

In forests, a similar drama unfolds, as ephemeral spring wildflowers like trillium and trout lily, Quaker ladies and Dutchman’s breeches, Jack-in-the-pulpit and Solomon’s seal race to absorb the sun’s rays, seduce bees and get pollinated before trees leaf out and darken the forest floor, shading that precious sunlight.

While we got Cardinals, Jayhawks, Eagles and Owls flying through this year’s brackets, in nature, migrating birds are undergoing their own rite of spring, parading through in a progression of color, red-winged blackbirds now, ruby-throated hummingbirds later. Waves of woodland warblers—tiny but unbelievably beautiful creatures wearing the most extraordinary coats of many colors—pass through like clockwork, pine and prairie warblers soon, blackpolls bringing up the rear at season’s end. They’re all heading to nesting grounds north of here, only visiting the region for a few days on their journeys north and south. Blink, and they’re gone.

And butterflies will soon awaken and return: mourning cloaks first, painted ladies next, swallowtails after that, monarchs much later.

That’s the real March madness, that here we are, only moments into the nascent spring, having survived yet another (admittedly mild) winter, and instead of diving into the great outdoors to search for celandine poppy and scarlet tanagers, we’re glued to the tube hoping Western Kentucky upsets Drake. Seeds are sprouting all over outside, but we’re jammed into bars screaming at big screens over the seedings of our favorite teams: Texas should have been number 1! I mean, really?

That’s also part of our madness, that I can mention scarlet tanager, and likely as not no image comes to your mind—yet if you saw one, it would take your breath away. Smaller than a robin, with bright red body and jet black wings, the contrast makes your heart stop when you see it. We can analyze picks, posts and zone defenses, but when it comes to ecological knowledge—the stuff that really matters—we are clueless.

Sure, it would be amazing if a number 16 seed finally makes it to the Final Four. Sure, a three-point buzzer-beater is really cool, no matter what school does it. Sure, that Tyler Hansbrough from the Tar Heels is quite a player. But though Tyler bleeds Carolina blue, he ain’t no bleeding heart, a wildflower that blooms about the same time the finals will be held in San Antonio. You can watch Tyler on Tivo, but the bleeding heart doesn’t blossom long.

The real flower show starts this weekend at a forest near you. But we’re stuck inside filling out brackets.

Which is just madness.

Unless the final is Villanova-Temple. OK, that would be pure madness too, and then, even the flowers can wait.

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