March 2012


Last week was unseasonably warm, so over the weekend all of Newton seemed to be blooming, buzzing, and leafing: a flurry of flowering.

When lilacs last in the schoolyard leafed

Spring’s first burst of activity is typically tenuous, however, and tonight temperatures are predicted to plunge below freezing. I don’t worry much for the wild plants and trees that were lured into leafing last week, as they are long accustomed to New England’s meteorological mood swings. But farmers who tend fruit orchards are rightfully worried that their early bloomers won’t last: the perennial risk of relying upon nature’s seasonal bounty in the age of Global Weirding.

Tiny flowers

One of my favorite passages in May Sarton’s Plant Dreaming Deep describes the exhilarating thrill Sarton feels the April after her first winter living in Nelson, NH, when out of the blue she hears her first spring peepers:

Wide-open crocus

Then one evening I heard a slight, shrill, continuous singing, a little like distant sleigh bells. And I suddenly remembered what Tink had said when we sat on a pile of lumber eating lunch that summer day–“The peepers! Wait till you hear them when it seems as if spring would never come!” The long wait was coming to an end.

Tree flowers

I’ve never heard spring peepers around our house here in Newton, MA: our immediate neighborhood is too dry, lacking the vernal pools that amphibians need for their annual courtship rituals. But there are plenty of ways we folks in the Boston suburbs know that spring is coming, even in the absence of singing frogs. Today when I took Reggie outside for a mid-morning bathroom break, I noticed one of our backyard trees is blooming, and as I paused to look overhead at its tiny, nondescript flowers, I heard the suburban equivalent of spring peepers: a lone Eastern phoebe calling dryly–nonchalantly–from a neighbor’s yard. I didn’t see this newly arrived solitary singer, but I know he’s there, back north after a winter spent elsewhere: a sign of spring singing in the sun.

Fresh leaves

My online ENG 350 “English Language” students and I were recently discussing the difference between Mass Nouns and Count Nouns: that is, why you say “I eat less pudding than my sister, so I have fewer empty pudding cups.” Because pudding is measured by mass, not by discrete units, you’d say “less pudding,” but because pudding cups can be counted, you’d say “fewer pudding cups.”

Positively periwinkle

The one time most of us might question the use of “less” vs. “fewer” is at the grocery store, when signs at the express check-out lane say either “10 items or less” or “10 items or fewer.” Most of us probably grew up seeing signs that say “10 items or less,” so the technically correct “10 items or fewer” might sound strange to our ears. When several students remarked that they’d never seen a grocery-store sign that used the correct phrasing of “10 items or fewer,” I promised to look the next time I went shopping, as I was sure my old grocery store in New Hampshire had grammatically correct signs.

It turns out I don’t have (or, more accurately, can’t find) any photos of the express check-out lanes in Keene, NH…but at the Shaw’s/Star Market in Chestnut Hill, MA, the Powers That Be are updating the express check-out signs so that they say “fewer” rather than “less.”

Shaw's/Star Market gets grammatical

I guess it’s never too late to Get Grammatical.

Through the crack

Because we’ve had so little snow this past winter, the exposed soil in our backyard flower beds has deep, fissure-like cracks, and right now those cracks are sprouting the first tentative flowers of spring. I’m not much of a gardener, and neither is J: although J takes pride in tending our lawn and shrubs, neither one of us has ever planted any flowers here.


Instead, every spring and summer we’re surprised by the magical re-appearance of perennials our house’s prior owners planted: crocuses, snowdrops, tulips, daffodils, scilla, and a whole parade of ornamental flowers whose names I don’t know. During the spring and summer, our backyard feels like a botanical time capsule, with someone else’s green thumb giving us unsolicited gifts. I sometimes wonder about the hands that planted the bulbs that continue to sprout every year with no human assistance. Did the planter of these bulbs know how long they’d bloom after their departure, and could they have envisioned how much joy they’d bring to a future homeowner they never even met?

Two snowdrops

Last year, after a particularly snowy winter, I spent most of March counting the days until what I call sandal season: the days of spring and summer when it’s warm enough to walk in sandals rather than socks, shoes, or boots. “After so many months of slipping down sidewalks slabbed with ice and hard-packed snow,” I wrote last year, “it’s a simple luxury to walk unimpeded, shoes feeling carefree after an entire season of hiking boots.”

Spring sprouts

This winter was mild and virtually devoid of snow, so I can probably count on two hands the number of times I wore weatherproof hiking boots instead of shoes. Still, today marked a happy milestone as J and I took a sunny afternoon walk in shirtsleeves, shorts (for J), and sandals (for me). Last week, my “Frontier in American Literature” students finished discussing Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, which features an old, eccentric hermit named Ivar who goes barefoot year-round, believing (as I’ve noted previously) that “feet are a body part immune to sin and thus safe to indulge in sensuous and sometimes dirty delights.” It cheers me to think that crazy old Ivar felt everyday the uninhibited freedom my feet felt today.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Photographing flowers in a greenhouse is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel: your subject is captive and motionless, so it doesn’t take much skill to capture it. But in the gray, barren days at the end of a gray, barren winter, you don’t necessarily care about proving your photographic prowess. It’s just a relief to be in the presence of something floral.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Floral.


In past years, I’ve regaled you with photos of snowdrops sprouting near a stone wall Reggie and I passed nearly every morning on our walks, a place where crocuses sprouted in the shade of trees that have since been felled. Now that Reggie is old, we don’t go that far on our morning walks: just around the block if the weather’s nice, and not even that when it’s wet or the footing is treacherous. When you live with an old dog, you suit your stride (and the length of your walks) to his abilities.


This year, thanks to a milder-than-usual winter, the snowdrops have come to us. I knew there was a cluster of perennial bulbs in our front yard, planted by other hands beneath the shelter of our front eaves…but most years, those snowdrops lie buried beneath a winter’s worth of snow raked from our roof. How frustrating it must be to be a cluster of snowdrops planted in a place that is perpetually piled with snow. How many years, one after the other, have these resilient plants sent up hopeful sprouts, only to hit a cold ceiling of snow?

When J and I visited the Wellesley Greenhouses this past weekend, we encountered a similar example of vegetative resilience: an otherwise ordinary-looking shingle plant that is blooming for only the second time in eleven years.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

It’s a sight J and I would have normally missed, but an enthusiastic greenhouse worker pulled us aside, having noticed our cameras: “You’ll want to get a photo of this!” When, normally, would an otherwise ordinary-looking plant sprouting otherwise nondescript greenish-white flowers draw attention of a couple of amateur paparazzi? The only thing remarkable about these flowers is the simple fact that they are there. On a plant where nothing has bloomed for nine out of eleven years, this year there is something: a tiny handful of hope.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

It cheers me to consider the vegetative persistence of both these plants–not exactly late bloomers, but blooms that appeared in due time. For so many years, the time wasn’t right for our front-yard snowdrops or the Wellesley College shingle plant: for so many years, these two have been quietly going about their vegetative business in the shadow of other, showier specimens. But this spring, for whatever reason, time itself has blossomed into fullness: a moment when the stars and season perfectly aligned, sending a clear signal to Bloom Now, without delay.

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