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.

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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.

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?

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.