Loving the least of spring’s gifts

In the swampy region where I live, spring doesn’t exactly arrive on the doorstep with a bouquet of daffodils. More precisely, it announces itself with a sump-pump alarm going off in the middle of the night, in adjustments to toilet-flushing, showering, and laundry routines, and, in general, the presence of mud and water outside.

P1020533While those who reside on higher, dryer ground seize the first mild day marking the end of winter to enjoy a walk or a trip to the park, we rural swamp dwellers laser in on what the spring thaw is doing to our drainage systems. We monitor sumps, septic systems, and fields, and hope for a favorable wind direction and a return to normalcy.

This is not to say that we miss spring’s kinder side. In fact, I think we may enjoy the smallest, most humble harbingers of the season more fully than others do its splendor. Just as my religious tradition’s Lenten practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer cleanse the senses so that we hear and see more clearly, so a little bit of water-related discomfort and deprivation goes a long way toward enhancing our appreciation of the least of the season’s gifts.

A friend’s email informing me that her snowdrops, which in the past have bloomed as early as January, finally had opened gave me a surge of joy, as did the sight in my own garden of a patch of lemon thyme that had survived the winter. P1020544I felt the same excitement in discovering dianthus foliage, still surrounded by snow, and a spray of leaves at the base of the rue plant that last summer had been a host for Giant Swallowtail caterpillars.

Although little else was growing amid the matted remnants of last year’s garden, I could delight in observing the state of transition everything was in – the melting snow receding to reveal moss-covered paths and clusters of leaves P1020554under water looking as if they had been arranged beneath glass. In other places, trees reflecting on the standing water formed a striking backdrop for the sounds of blackbirds announcing their return, adding their voices to those of the nuthatches and black-capped chickadees who have been here all winter.

These scenes, stripped as they were of the lushness we witness in late spring and summer, nonetheless contained a kernel of hope that something unseen was in the air and about to materialize.

Those of us for whom spring intersects with the 40 days of Lent experience something similar as we use this time of year to detach ourselves from that to which we have become attached. In the decluttering of our souls, we gaze at a barren landscape and sense what has been hidden from us in our hurriedness and preoccupation with doing and achieving. We begin to hear, taste, see, and know that something is coming – and that it will be good.

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Quieting seasonal stress

As the ground begins to thaw and the air takes on a hint of warmth, it is difficult to resist the impulse to plunge into activity.

Even as I look at a mostly brown garden that has only patches of foliage and a few miniature irises making a late appearance, my thoughts are turning to the work of scooping out the covering of leaves, pruning shrubs for more efficient growth, and clearing and cutting the brush that sheltered and fed the birds during the winter.Image

Already, I am getting busy in thought and deed.  It seems to be a hallmark of spring that we emerge from our winter rest by declaring that we’ve had enough of lying about and are ready for action. As a gardening friend reminds me, though, spring is also a season of stress. Lovely as it is, it brings with it a sudden awareness that there is much to do and the frazzled feeling of urgency to get on with it.

Of course, activity can be exhilarating, as well as affirming. In the U.S., at least, it is practically a national virtue, and we are expected to be busy if we are to have any significance. Even as we age, we ratchet up our activity levels lest we feel or appear “old” and unproductive.

Much as we exalt the merits of busyness, though, when taken to extremes, it has a way of disturbing the peace with its undercurrent of white noise.

When I’m overly busy and preoccupied with my list of things to do, there is a nice hum to my life, but I may miss what someone is saying in a conversation or email. Or I exude such a sense of hurriedness that there is no space for a genuine exchange or the opportunity to be truly helpful. Sometimes, I will forget or neglect a mundane but important task, and then write myself a pass because, after all, “I’m busy.” It’s as if I am happily breezing along a waterway in a speedboat, unaware that my vessel is slowly leaking oil because I’m reveling in how fast I’m going.

So before I get too immersed in the busyness of spring, I’m rethinking my normal response to this change of season. I’m working in the garden with an eye to enjoying each task and my surroundings rather than “getting it done.” I’m hoping to be a little more like the owner of a greenhouse I visited a few days ago for my first glimpse of the spring blooms. She was watering plants when I walked in, but she took time for a leisurely chat as we basked in the warmth of the sun that was pouring in that day. While we talked amid the beauty of the thriving plants she had been tending, I was struck anew by something else she has cultivated: a welcoming presence that draws people to her greenhouse as much as what is growing inside. It was a timely reminder to ease into spring, knowing that this season is as much about gazing on its beauty as getting things done.

Waiting for spring

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Sometime around mid-February, those of us who live where seasonal change is felt most keenly start the long wait for spring.

With that season of promise nearly upon us as I write, the signs of its approach seem sparse. An east wind is blowing off a frozen lake and temperatures returned to the teens overnight. Further defying the onset of warmer weather are the stubbornly intact patches of snow that, though beginning to diminish, cling to our landscape.

Absorbed in this state of waiting, many of us are edgy, irritable, and anxious, even as we try to remind ourselves that spring must come eventually. We glance outside and then look at the calendar, counting the days until the equinox. Still bundled in our winter coats and scarves, we gaze longingly at spring merchandise in stores. We rejoice and celebrate the occasional mild day, even as our hopes are dashed by another snowstorm or cold front.

We are waiting, and maybe not so well, especially when what we see and feel doesn’t fit our desire to shed our winter layers and bask in warmth again. Instead of getting locked in frustration, though, I am starting to notice that if I can quiet myself just a little,  I can see and hear signs that something in the earth has shifted, signaling a new season is on its way.

After all, although there is still snow on the ground, much of what fell during a March storm that blanketed our area last week has already started to disappear, revealing – could it be? – grass.  On closer inspection, I notice the tips of daffodil foliage emerging. Near a pond frozen over and covered with snow, I am able to see more and more of a log that has been our snow-depth gauge all winter. And the male cardinals who have brightened wintry days with their brilliant red feathers have broken their silence, moved to resume singing by what they know to be coming.

A fellow writer who senses this change says she is feeling the intensity of the sun on her walks in a way she did not in January. Her spirits have taken flight at the sight of returning red-winged blackbirds, robins, and bluebirds. “You know that winter has lost its grip and is on the way out,” she writes, “no matter how much it tries to make us feel that it isn’t.”

The day before our latest snowstorm, I found a woolly bear caterpillar on a lane between two open fields. Knowing the storm was coming, I tucked this little herald of spring into a brushy area inside the woods not only in hopes it would survive, but as a pledge of faith in the coming season of new life.

Waiting can be a time of watching and listening and delighting in what we see and hear, if only we will open ourselves to it. For me, these days of anticipation are ones in which I am reminding myself to spend time outside whenever I can, even if the temperature and wind speed are not quite ideal, and to keep my eyes and ears attuned to the harbingers of spring.