March 2011

Ornamental witch hazel

This time last year, we had budding daffodils and flowering forsythias. This year, apart from some feeble attempts at crocuses and some scattered snowdrops, it’s been too cold for flowers, the earth lying brown and bare beneath a sun that barely warms the air above freezing.

Witch hazel and sky

It isn’t strange that spring has been slow to arrive in New England this year, considering how fierce a winter we’ve had. What’s strange is how patient I’ve been in awaiting spring’s arrival. Yes, I’m eagerly awaiting warm, sunny days–sandal season–when we can reliably leave our windows open, but I haven’t been too disheartened by a week of sunny but cold days that call for shoes, socks, a winter jacket, and ballcap. After so many months of slipping down sidewalks slabbed with ice and hard-packed snow, it’s a simple luxury to walk unimpeded, shoes feeling carefree after an entire season of hiking boots. After so many months of mapping my dog-walks according to a detailed knowledge of which neighborhood sidewalks were shoveled, it feels freeing to feel the bare, solid earth underfoot.

Reggie doesn’t mind the cold–he walks, after all, in a fur coat. But navigating icy steps, streets, and sidewalks is difficult on old, arthritic bones, so it’s a relief simply to walk without slipping. Warm weather will come in due time, and with it will come daffodils and forsythias. In the meantime, it’s a simple luxury not to have to watch for ice at every step.

Crash, Snowflake, Rocco, and Louie...

While Red Sox fans count the days until opening day, today in Newton we had a different kind of milestone: the first day it was warm enough to open the windows to fresh air and birdsong.

Crash birdwatches

Sure enough, as soon as I opened the bedroom windows for the first time this morning, cats appeared from all corners of the house to claim a window seat where they could bask, sniff the breeze, and bird-watch. (From left to right above, that’s Crash, Snowflake, Rocco, and Louie; at left, that’s another view of Crash.) Tomorrow and Sunday, the forecast calls for chillier days–not warm enough for open windows–but that doesn’t matter. The cats and I know that the long containment of winter is over and open-window season is (almost) upon us.

First crocuses

This year, the crocuses have bloomed in Newton about a week later than last year, but more or less on schedule with the year before.

First crocuses

Whenever the first crocuses bloom, it’s a long awaited cause for celebration: yet another sign that winter is waning and spring is on the way. The appearance of the first crocus is such an important annual event, I no longer leave it to chance, stalking those spots where I know crocuses have bloomed in the past and awaiting their arrival like a longtime friend.

This year, I’d worried that this particular patch of crocuses–typically the first to bloom in my corner of Newton–wouldn’t show up at all, since the trees that usually shelter them were cut down last summer. It turns out, though, that slumbering bulbs are more resilient than I thought, sleeping right through the earth-shaking toppling of trees and blooming in spring regardless.


This morning, apropos of nothing, I remembered the Ray Bradbury short story about a robotic house that continues to function after its inhabitants have died in a nuclear blast, and the opening line from the Sara Teasdale poem that gives the story its title:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground…

My recollection of this story and these lines wasn’t entirely random, of course. It was raining softly this morning, and the air is rife with the smell of snow-melt and mud. Despite all the talk of April showers, I find March to be the rainier month: April rains are warm and full of promise, but March rains are cold and bleak, more akin to winter snows than summer storms. If you’re walking an old, slow dog, even a soft March rain will soak right through a raincoat or parka, chilling you to the bone. It’s easy to imagine the world is either beginning or ending on a cold, rainy March morning: an open case whose jury is still out.


This morning and on other dog-walks this week and weekend, my thoughts were with Japan. When you’re walking an old, slow dog on a cold, rainy day, it’s easy for your mind to wander, and as I felt the elements seep through my raincoat and clothes this morning, I kept wondering what it would be like to be homeless, traumatized, and disoriented on gray and drizzly day like this. The weather in Japan right now is like spring in New England: chilly with only an occasional promise of warmth. What would it be like, I wonder, to find yourself cast out in weather like this, the earth moving under your feet, the ocean rising up to swallow you, and the detritus of a power plant left in shambles threatening to irradiate you?

These past few nights, J and I have spent our evenings watching CNN even though their presumably “breaking news” only repeats the same videos and stories over and over, the same worries and questions still unanswered. Instead of looking to the familiar journalistic faces to give us answers, I’ve come to see this evening TV-time as a kind of meditation, the same pictures and videos repeating again and again like a kind of litany. No matter how many times I see the videos of waves swallowing cars and houses, I keep watching in disbelief; no matter how many times I hear the stories of people swept out of their loved ones’ grasps, I can’t help but be moved. No matter how many times we witness and hear these stories of catastrophe and disaster, they both shock and surprise, as if we didn’t actually believe that suffering, death, and impermanence truly exist in our sheltered lives.


Last night, there was a bit of truly breaking news while J and I were holding our nightly CNN vigil. At one point during his evening broadcast, Anderson Cooper announced with stunned amazement that the remaining workers at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant had been evacuated due to elevated radiation levels, a news flash that caused the nuclear scientist Cooper had been interviewing to nearly sputter with surprise. How could workers simply walk away from a malfunctioning nuclear plant, leaving it to deteriorate into total meltdown unattended? This morning, we learned that workers at the plant have returned, risking their own lives and health to avert the crisis, but that moment of sputtering disbelief still makes me think of Ray Bradbury’s eerie story. What would happen if humans were annihilated, leaving nothing but their computers, power plants, and other gadgets to continue chattering, whirring, and irradiating in their absence?


In that Ray Bradbury story, the futuristic house that continues cooking breakfast, washing dishes, and reciting poetry after its inhabitants have been vaporized, leaving nothing but silhouettes on a charred external wall, is ultimately destroyed by fire, the end of its world coming with a “great quantity of smoke.” Are we arrogant enough to believe our human inventions will continue to function without us, defying both entropy and inertia? In that Sara Teasdale poem, the speaker concludes that “Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree, / If mankind perished utterly.” This morning, walking in my own soft rains, I couldn’t decide which weather was better: rains that might cool a nuclear reactor left to its own devices, or gentle sun to shine on survivors with a mercy not shown by earth and sea.


Keene State is currently on Spring Break, so I’m in Massachusetts this week briefly enjoying the luxury of living in one state rather than two. Knowing that students never do schoolwork over break, despite their occasional best intentions, I arranged my syllabi so all three of my writing classes gave me essay drafts before break began. And so I’ll be spending this week in Massachusetts reading papers and continuing to teach my online classes: not exactly a “break” from work, but a welcome chance to catch up with teaching tasks while my perpetually exhausted students catch up with sleep.


These past few days have been a whirlwind of activity, with me going to a poetry reading on Saturday, giving interviews at the Zen Center on Sunday, and getting together with girlfriends for dinner last night: a month’s worth of social interaction packed into one weekend. My typical lament throughout the academic year is that there’s never enough time: as soon as I finish reading one pile of papers, I collect another, and in the rare instances when I catch up with grading from one college, I’m inevitably buried in work from the other. Every year, I look forward to Spring Break not because I typically go anywhere but because it offers a brief opportunity at the heart of the semester to catch up, check in with friends I otherwise don’t have time to see, and take a breather: a chance to slow down, check off long-neglected to-do’s, and gather my wits for the second half of the semester.

Elegant eyemask

It’s fittingly ironic, then, that we Americans set our clocks ahead this weekend, springing forward into Daylight Saving Time as if time were something we could ever “save.” Not only did our clocks lose an hour this weekend, the earth itself is spinning faster after the Japanese earthquake, our days nearly two microseconds shorter as the turning world hunkers into herself in the aftermath of trauma. How many times during a busy semester have I silently prayed for the earth to slow down–for the days to flex and lengthen, stretching longer than my to-do list? But unlike Joshua, I’ve never managed to make the sun stand still and the moon stop: always the world keeps turning, the seconds keep ticking, and time keeps flying, whether I’m ready or not. The world shows no sign of slowing or settling; instead, Time keeps flying faster, hurrying and rushing and whirling like a dog chasing its tail, or a wolf nipping at our heels.


This morning, I enjoyed a brief respite from all this rushing, walking Reggie down sidewalks that are finally clear (here in Massachusetts, at least) of ice and hard-packed snow. The temperature is still brisk–it’s still only almost-spring, with reliably warm weather still weeks away–but for a moment this morning, I was content to wear shoes rather than boots and a winter jacket rather than a long down coat. Soon enough, spring will be here in earnest, and summer will follow surely after that; in the meantime, the dog and I have nowhere to go but around the neighborhood again and back, my to-do list waiting until we make the regular rounds, walking at the speed of an old dog.

Snowdrops, ready to bloom

Here’s a word of encouragement to my colleagues and neighbors in Keene: spring is beginning to arrive in Massachusetts, so it will make its way north to New Hampshire someday soon.

Sprouting snowdrops

Keene, NH is about 90 miles northwest of Newton, MA, and at the start of almost-spring, those 90 miles make all the difference. This weekend in Massachusetts, I spotted the year’s first snowdrops in the same spot as last year, more or less on schedule; snowdrops in Keene, on the other hand, typically don’t bloom until late March. Yesterday morning in Newton, after a weekend of warmth and rain, much of the snow had melted, revealing sidewalks, yards, and baseball fields that have been buried for months. When I arrived in Keene yesterday afternoon, I found New Hampshire to be noticeably colder than Massachusetts, with temperatures below freezing and more than a foot of old snow still on the ground. In New Hampshire at least, it will be a while before anyone is playing baseball outside.

It might take a few weeks for almost-spring to travel the 90 miles between Newton and Keene, but it’s coming. Earlier today while enjoying a quick dog-walk down almost-clear sidewalks that were covered in ice last week, I saw the year’s first turkey vulture soaring overhead. In Hinckley, Ohio, the March 15th return of migrating vultures is cause for celebration; in New Hampshire at least, a lone soaring vulture is enough to make me think of the spring days that will glide into view someday soon.


Yesterday morning, instead of writing in my journal, I did a quick scribble-sketch of my neighbor’s raggedy forsythia shrub, which I see from my kitchen table every morning I’m in Keene. It’s a scene I’ve sketched before, something I contemplate as part of my morning routine. Last week, I watched and sketched juncos flitting in this same forsythia, black and white birds illuminated by the harsh light of a monochromatic winter afternoon. Yesterday, though, was different: the morning light glimmered with a golden sheen, the forsythia looked like a clumpy cloud clotted with last weekend’s snow, and the heaps of snow clogging my yard glittered, crystalline. The scene was the same, but the light was different. Last week, the light was white, and yesterday, it gleamed golden, a subtle shift marking the earth’s gradual turn into spring.

Cedar waxwings

Yesterday afternoon was clear, with temperatures in the mid-thirties, so I took both of my first-year writing classes outside to walk and sketch along the Ashuelot River, as I have in the past. One of the benefits of requiring my writing students to keep nature journals is the excuse it gives us to walk outside on nice days, and yesterday was as good a day as any for walking: sunny and cold, but with the hope of spring.

On our way back to our classroom, my 2:00 class and I watched a single cedar waxwing, separated from his flock, foraging in a crabapple tree next to a dumpster behind the Student Center. I was the first to spot the bird, which was unusually low, close, and blithely oblivious to our presence, concentrating on the withered fruit he was gleaning. “Why are you guys looking at a dumpster,” a dawdling student asked as he caught up to the group, and then he saw what we were looking at. “Hey, he has yellow on his tail, and red on his wings!” Yes. My students didn’t know the name “cedar waxwing,” but they could recognize the details that make this bird different from the usual sparrows and crows they see around campus, a bird whose belly gleamed golden in a season of grit and gray.

I later heard the flock that lone waxwing had wandered from, just a few trees away: close enough for even a dawdling bird to catch up with his group. Today, I spotted a small flock of waxwings–the same group of nomads, or their neighbors–in a tree along Marlboro Street: the source of that second photo.