Witch hazel

It’s been a strange winter, with the weather coming in fits and starts.  After last winter’s record-breaking snowfall, everyone seems relieved to navigate bare streets and sidewalks…but a winter almost entirely devoid of snow still seems eerily unnatural.

May Hall mobile

Last night we had a rainstorm with high winds and thunder, today the temperature soared into the 60s, and tomorrow will dip back toward freezing.  Even with a spare set of boots in my office and an extra pair of shoes in my car, I never know how to dress, the climate of “yesterday” never quite matching the weather of “today.”

This afternoon after my office hour, I took a stroll around campus, ostensibly to swap my too-warm boots for the shoes in my car.  On the way, I saw witch hazel blooming in its usual spot, but more than a week earlier than it has in the past.  In snowier seasons, the first sight of anything blooming comes as a revelation; this year, it only seems odd.  Last year was too snowy and this year too warm:  like Goldilocks, I feel disoriented and out-of-sorts on an ambling search for Just Right.

Cloudy with a chance of magnolias

Between today’s classes at Framingham State, I pulled myself from my paper-piles to take a quick walk around the block, wandering into a residential neighborhood then circling back. Even during a short walk, it’s hard not to notice spring manifesting in the form of greening grass, blooming flowers, and lounging college students.

First dandelions and ground-ivy

It’s been chillier than usual this April: usually by now, I would have been besieged by students begging to have class outside, and I would have been hard pressed to say no. But so far this year, it’s been too chilly for that, and I’ve worn sandals chiefly out of principle, hating to revert back to socks, winter-weight tights, and shoes. But regardless of the temperatures, the flowers know that lengthening days mean spring, so they bloom despite the chill. After a season of snow, the sight of the earth erupting in dandelions seems nothing short of miraculous.

Guess who's back?

There are many ways the winter-weary measure the arrival of spring. Some people happily welcome the season’s first robin; others eagerly await baseball’s opening day. For the past month, I’ve been monitoring our shrinking backyard snow piles, so the momentous milestone in the photo above isn’t the robin but the bare grass.

Shoes, not boots

The main method I use to chart the arrival of spring, however, is much more down to earth: specifically, what sort of footwear I use to step on said earth. March 25 was the first day this year I dared to wear shoes rather than boots, an occasion so momentous I couldn’t resist snapping a picture of my almost-bare ankles. Only someone who has spent the past three months clomping around in boots can understand the sheer joy that comes from slipping into a pair of flats: shoes only a step or two removed from slippers. In flats, I feel lightweight and unencumbered: someone who twirls on twinkle-toes rather than trudging in clod stompers. Forget about any other signs of spring: your feet will tell you when winter is truly over.

Rite of spring

Perhaps, then, you can understand why I spent much of March poring over Zappos, trying to choose a new pair of sandals for the season. Technically, I don’t need a new pair of sandals: last year’s Keen “Rose” sandals still have plenty of life in them, as do the Crocs “Kadee” flats I wear as indoor slippers. But when you’re tired of zipping up dress boots and pulling on Wellies, the thought of a new pair of sandals is enough to keep you trudging forward through the snow piles. It almost doesn’t matter which pair you choose as long as you can close your eyes and imagine yourself sunning your toes in them, someday.

Something green and growing

Temperatures stayed above freezing for much of last week, so the snow pack is gradually shrinking, with patches of bare ground appearing on the edges. We saw these brave perennials starting to sprout from a sheltered spot alongside a building in Waltham yesterday…but in our yard here in Newton, the snow is still knee-deep, with an additional inch or two of fresh snow (enough for Boston to break its record for the snowiest season on record) falling last night.

Artificial flowers in snow bank

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Since it will be weeks, at least, until most of us see tulips or daffodils blooming in our still-buried gardens, some folks are taking matters in their own hands, sticking cut or even artificial flowers in the snow banks in front of their houses: a welcome spot of color. When you can’t enjoy the real thing, a reasonable facsimile will have to do.

Cut daffodils in snow bank

Buried shopping cart

The forecast calls for daytime highs in the 40s all this week, which means we’re beginning to see buried things surfacing out of the snow. It will be weeks before we see our lawn, but the top of our backyard birdbath has emerged, and in a nearby parking lot I saw the edge of a shopping cart peeking out of a head-high snow pile: the last place, presumably, a snowplow had pushed it.

Plowed pallet emerges from snowbanks

People often talk about how pretty snow is, and that’s true when it’s fresh-fallen and white. These days, however, the salt-blanched roads are lined with exhaust-blackened snowdrifts that have hardened and eroded into irregularly jagged shapes, more like sedimentary stone than anything akin to water. Like swords from a stone, all manner of random things are surfacing from beneath the snow: plow-battered pallets, smashed trash cans, and broken and uprooted park benches.

Stone wall emerges from melting snow

Spring is coming, the warmer temperatures and lengthening days suggest…but first we have to weather an awkward adolescence where the snow is ugly and ice-bottomed puddles are more treacherous than ice or snow alone. On Saturday, I ventured to Home Depot in search of ice melt, and everyone else in the store seemed to have the same idea, stockpiling what we hope is our last stash of the stuff. On the drive home, there was a mild traffic jam as a queue of cars at a popular car-wash snaked into the street: as reliable a sign of spring as any other.

Witch hazel

Last week was Spring Break at Framingham State, so today was the first time I’d been on campus in over a week. It’s been an unseasonably cold spring: in Newton, our tulips started to sprout leaves about a week ago and then promptly stopped, their growth stunted by a dismaying string of below-freezing nights. I’d hoped that the end of Spring Break would coincide with the arrival of spring weather, but instead, today is cold and gray, with the forecast calling for a nor’easter and overnight snow.

Given how slow spring is in arriving this year, you’d think that a sparse sprinkling of witch hazel blossoms next to the library at Framingham State–the first flowering thing I’ve seen all spring–would be enough to bring a hint of cheer, but any cheeriness was quashed when I checked my Flickr archives and found this:

Witch hazel

This is what this same witch hazel shrub looked like last March 7th, just before a storm brought sixteen inches of fresh snow. That wasn’t the final snowstorm we had last March–we got another eight inches on March 19th–but realizing that this time last year, we had snowdrops blooming under our eaves…

Snowdrops in snow - March 27 / Day 86

…was enough to drive me to despair, given that this same spot is still buried under a remnant of all the snow J has raked off our roof this year.

Cervantes said comparisons are odious, and Theodore Roosevelt said comparison is the thief of joy. Had I nothing to compare this weather with, I might be content that there is something blooming, somewhere. Instead, I look at that image of last year’s snowdrops–my calendar image for the month of March–and feel a bit like a child who’s been told there will be no Christmas this year. Yes, the spring will arrive, eventually, but how will it compare to the Photos of Springs Past?

Not yet hammock season

All the times J and I have passed this hammock on our way to or from our local T stop, I’ve never seen anyone lying in it. Still, there’s something soothing about the sight of an empty (and thus inviting) hammock hanging between two trees, even if it’s the middle of February and the snow is puddled with melt water.

Well-dressed

Today and yesterday have been mercifully mild: February thaw. The last looming glaciers of icy snow thundered from our roof on Friday, and there are bare patches of muddy ground beneath the towering pines that fringe our neighbor’s yard. Yesterday we had lunch in Jamaica Plain, where the sidewalks were thronged with window-shoppers, baby-strollers, dog-walkers, and more than a few people sitting outside eating ice cream: a defiant thumbing-of-one’s nose to Old Man Winter.

Dirty snow / buried bench

Old Man Winter isn’t done with us yet: there’s a chance of snow showers tonight, the possibility of more snow on Wednesday, and rumors of snow next weekend. Everyone knows March is a fickle month–in like a lion, out like a lamb–but that doesn’t matter right now, when the temperature is well above freezing and our ears thrill to the sound of bird calls and dripping melt water.