Darkness engulfed the landscape, one of those black, heavy, darker-than-dark mornings without a moon or even stars above.

It is mid-March, and winter is still hanging on. It has been a long winter, to be sure. But “something” felt different. Where just a few days earlier such a morning slapped me in the face as I stuck my head out into the bitter cold, now I strolled out into the darkness in just a sweatshirt and felt comfortable.

No, not quite spring, but you could feel that something was different, beyond just the milder temperature.

And then I heard a sound I hadn’t heard for a long, long time. Shattering the silence of the pre-dawn was not the owl that one might expect to hear. Instead, a turkey gobbled in the distance, somewhere in the Yellow River bottoms. It stopped me in my tracks.

I cocked my head and listened, hoping it would gobble again. Nothing, nothing, nothing … and suddenly, there it was. Another gobbler answered a short distance away.

That was it. Two short bursts, then all was quiet. But a smile crossed my face. If the turkeys are gobbling, spring is most definitely close.

Well, if you look at the calendar, it is really close. Thursday is officially the first day of spring this year. But those of us who live in this part of the world know very well that the difference between what the calendar says and what is happening outside can be dramatic.

We remember well, not that long ago, straining as we shoveled the heavy snow from the last storm off the driveway and rooftops, while shivering as the thermometer plunged below zero. But now, in just the span of a couple weeks, we can confidently say that all that is behind us for another season.

We could very well get another heavy snow, maybe two … but we know that the bad weather won’t last. Let it snow, it will be gone in a few days. And those -15 and -20 degree mornings? Do your worst, Old Man Winter, you are running on empty.

As daylight finally began to illuminate the landscape, I looked around. Yep, still lots of snow out there, but nowhere near what it was a few short days ago.

That mountain of snow between the house and the garage is half of what it was. The high piles that our poor little dog couldn’t get over — and if she did, she sunk and all you could see was her little black nose — have melted into almost nothing. Hannah is racing all over the place again like a puppy as if in celebration.

A cardinal offered an incredibly happy song as I strained in the twilight to locate him in a nearby pine tree. There he was, the familiar crowned head thrown back as he sang. And then he was off, flitting across the yard and disappearing into the forest.

Hard to believe a couple weeks can make such a difference, but it does. Year after year I marvel at the way all that snow that buried us for so long disappears as if by magic.

Later, as I chopped away ice under the bird feeders so that the melting waters wouldn’t pool, I realized that the ice and snow I was removing had been there since the first snowfalls last October.

Now as I look around, a handful of black, dirty piles of snow remain, remnants of what was. The rooftops we once worried about holding up the heavy snow are now clear. The afternoon sun is starting to get a little heat to it now, and it feels good on the face. The days have gotten noticeably longer, even before the recent time change. Where thick ice once covered the driveway, there is now mud and running water.

Nature seems to welcome the changes as much as their human neighbors. Along with the gobbling of turkeys, Canada geese are returning. Can the throaty calls of sandhill cranes be far behind?

Warmer days will produce the welcome sound of peeper frogs from area wetlands. Turtles will sun themselves on partially submerged logs and clumps of swam grass. New buds will begin to form on the trees. Baby birds and spotted fawns will begin to show up.

The drumming of ruffed grouse will boom in the distance, and the smell of leaves burning will be carried on the wind. These dark, silent mornings will be replaced by an explosion of sound as songbirds return and greet the new day.

Across the Northland, lakes are still snow-covered for the most part, though a few watery pools can be spotted near the hard-core ice fishermen still venturing out.

In coming weeks, the honeycombed, black ice that remains will disappear as the lakes open. One of the joys of spring is hearing the growl of a lake as the ice melts and shifts and pops, like a giant awakening from a long slumber. It is time to shake off the cobwebs of winter and welcome spring.

One last blast from a tom turkey suddenly filled the air, and it sounded farther away. Again, the hypnotic sound brought a smile, and I envisioned him in coming weeks strutting across a greening field in full fan, pausing near a farmer’s rusty old 1936 tractor like a Terry Redlin painting.

And then a little shot of reality amid the springtime daydreaming. As Hannah joyfully zoomed across the yard, she kicked up a bunch of sun-exposed leaves. I didn’t get a chance to rake them last fall before they were covered by the first snows.

Amazingly, they didn’t just disappear, they waited for me. I’ll be seeing them in a few weeks.

Thornley is Spooner Advocate sports editor.