In Spite of It All, Springtime

An early spring comes as a welcome surprise in St. Louis. The past few years have seen cold, rainy winters that stretched deep into April, even into May.

And this year more than ever, we need the welcome color of the greening grass, the fragrant whisper of early flowers. The past weeks have brought nothing but sickening uncertainty for humanity as COVID-19 shuts down city streets, cuts off income, and takes lives.  We hunker down inside with our cellphones and frozen vegetables, but there is nothing more we can do.

There is freedom, though, in realizing that you are doing all you can–the freedom to let go of the rest. To step away from the constant sick count updates and to bake a loaf of bread. To slow your anxious heartbeat and to read a book.  And the freedom to step outside and take a walk and to see, in spite of it all, the fresh breath of springtime.

Already the magnolias and cherry blossoms are in flower, and many will peak this week. Daffodils sprout up in sunny bunches. Crocus, squill, and hellebores are in full bloom. The smell of hyacinths skips on the wind. Birdcalls we haven’t heard in months sound from treetops in the early morning light, and the sun sets later and later in the evenings. The buds that promise summer’s leaves nod in the breeze. Around them, our routines, our jobs, our systems all crumble. But new life marches on: the mourning dove now building her nest; a forecast full of life-giving rain; and the delicate petals of a tulip, just unfolding–each of these is a sweet promise for the dawn of a new morning.

First Signs

Winter’s still got a pretty tight grip on St. Louis for now, but there are signs everywhere that the thick of it has passed and we are on our way towards springtime. This year there’s even hope for an early one. Some of the signs that are popping up now aren’t unique to this particular year–the furry buds of the magnolia tree, the sunlight slowly stretching into the evening hours…

But some of what’s happening now isn’t always around this early. Green shoots have already broken through the soil of bulb gardens. Delicate snowdrops bloomed weeks ago, looking like little white bells on their stems. They hang their heads on cold days but perk back up with the touch of sunlight. Purple and yellow crocus dot the still-brown grass. Red-winged blackbirds have already appeared in St. Louis, making their migratory journey a little bit earlier this year. The groundhog predicted an early spring, too, and after a few days of single-digit temperatures, it’s feeling like a good year to be superstitious.

Winter Berries

The winter palette of soft blues and browns hasn’t frozen fully over quite yet. A few brilliant colors hang on. The temperatures have been relatively mild so far this winter, but these particular pops of color will hang around to brighten your garden no matter what the year is like: winterberries and beauty-berries.

Unlike the well-celebrated holly berry, these two plants do not sport the evergreen leaves that make holly such a staple of festive displays. Their colorful berries hang on long after their leaves fall away.

Winterberry plants are dioecious, which means each plant is either male or female. The female plants produce plump, round berries that look like scarlet marbles. They show up in late summer and stick around all winter long. Once their leaves have fallen, their vibrant color shines from a mile away, even against the oranges and reds of autumn. And in wintertime, they’re really the star of the landscape. There are all kinds of cultivated varieties to choose from if you want to add them to a yard or garden, and they’re beneficial to birds as well as native to Missouri.

Beauty-berry plants are hard to miss. Their berries are an almost-neon shade of magenta, and they grow in big, fat clusters. The clusters grow all the way up and down the stem, with an inch or two of bare stem between each little group. It looks like a plant from some sort of Dr. Seuss fantasy world. Even when they’ve still got their green leaves, these extravagant plants are eye-catching when the berries start showing up in late summer. The berries hang on for months and only bite the dust when the cold really settles in. People have put this plant to use throughout history for everything from bug repellant to rheumatism. And animals look to them as a source of food during the winter–their berries are eaten by squirrels, foxes, raccoons, opossums, and all kinds of birds.

But even if it weren’t for their importance to nature, these bright berries are appreciated for another reason: it’s a common belief that the winter landscape is bland and bare. The color of the winterberry and beauty-berry is at odds with that.

An Unexpected Bloom

As the last of the leaves finally fall from the trees, our eyes scan the landscape for any remaining scrap of flower, leaf, or weed still hanging on. There’s not much left, but one peculiar flower stands out: witch hazel.

Witch hazel is a native Missouri shrub with a spidery little bloom that creeps out when everything else has died back for the winter. You’ll see them appearing right when it seems strangest to see flowers: some bloom in late fall, others in the very dead of winter. They are strange, spindly little explosions that look like something that ought to be growing under the sea, usually a deep berry red in the middle with yellow petals that stream out from the center like a firework.

It’s not only the blooms that are unusual. Witch hazel is well-known for its medicinal properties. Its bark is often used to treat swelling or skin irritations. And its fruit is just as strange as its flowers–as the fruit ripens, it swells up and explodes, shooting the seeds out and away into the distance where successful seedlings won’t have to compete with the parent plant for sunlight and soil.

But now, in winter, as the sky grows grayer and the landscape grows browner, its greatest intrigue is in its fragrant yellow blooms, a pleasant surprise for any keen eye.

Winter Moves In

By now, the sky is dark at five ‘o’ clock, and a week of rain and wind stripped the last of the leaves from their trees. The world outside the window is looking an awful lot like winter. The ground is not yet frozen, and a few hardy plants hang on. Birdsong still rings through the air on a sunny morning or a stormy afternoon. But anybody could tell you that winter is moving in.

There’s an irresistible temptation to head inside as winter approaches, and it’s best resisted by abandoning efforts to dress nicely and donning your biggest coat, no matter how ugly. But sometimes there is beauty in being driven indoors as well. In this frigid season, we don’t linger outside. We scurry from building to building. We clutch close our coats and our casserole dishes. We gather to feast, to laugh, and to be with family and friends. The Christmas lights go up to cut into the darkness of early nights, and we bring a little taste of nature into our home when we put up the Christmas tree. So even as the sunny days are disappearing, we fend off the shock of this first cold of winter with our own kind of warmth.

A Season of Bronze

Record low temperatures and two whipping windy snowfalls brought autumn’s flaming colors down to the ground. Last week saw the peak of color in St. Louis. Then, on Monday, white snow came down to mingle with the falling leaves, and the flakes took the reds and the oranges down with them.

Even within autumn itself, there are four seasons. First comes the season of dusty green, September’s hint that summer has come to a close. Next comes the season of yellow, with the locust trees and the sycamores. Then come the oranges and reds of maples, ashes, and oaks. Last of all is the season of bronze.

It’s this last season that we are in right now. Only the deepest reds, the darkest yellows, and the rustiest browns hold onto their branches. Already, many look outside their windows and declare that fall is over and the color has passed.

But really, it’s just a different kind of color. Subtler, softer. Less loud. Earthy browns against a pale blue sky. Autumn is exhaling. It’s during this quiet time that winter will sneak in right under our noses. But anyone who would say that the fall color has gone for good need only look to see the copper-orange needles of a bald cypress backlit and flaming in the soft light of an early-setting sun.

Last Evenings

This weekend marks a point of no return. Until now, you might have been able to go through life hardly noticing just how much sooner the sun has been setting each night. But as we set our clocks back, the end of Daylight Saving Time finally forces us to be conscious of the sun’s schedule–and, for those of us who hate to see it go, to come to terms with it. It was only a couple short weeks ago that the temperatures remained in the eighties and nineties, and perhaps only days ago that it seemed the warmth and the sun might stick around awhile longer or come back for one last hurrah. But it seems that this year, winter is rushing in early to make up for autumn’s tardy arrival.

The loss of another evening hour of sunlight makes it impossible to ignore how quickly the darkness is pushing out the sun and becoming the majority of the day. With the help of the time change, it will only be a few weeks before the shadows grow long at quarter to four and the dark sets in by five. In these months, there’s no true evening to speak of–just afternoons cut short by darkness.

So here we are in the last of the evenings. These long nights are necessary for all the life that lives out in the elements. They stretched and grew in the sun all summer long, and now it is their time to rest. To them there is no time change, only the sunrise and the sunset, the ebb and flow of the seasons. But because our time is named with numbers and packed tight with full schedules, take Daylight Saving Time as a reminder to soak up the last few fall evenings before they slip away.

Autumn Wind

It’s late October, and the leaves are finally changing with the weather. Brilliant collages of yellows, browns, and reds begin to mask the dull pavement as the wind blows them off of their branches.

These and the other ashes of autumn blow on the perpetual wind.  This is ankle-twisting season: a time of year to find yourself looking up at the color of the leaves while your feet narrowly miss rolling over the trees’ debris. Broken twigs, nuts, and the dust of crumbling leaves skip down the street like a rock across a river. Branches and beds of pine needles collect on the shoulder of the road. Acorns tumble down from high branches and hit the ground with a pop.

These are the blustery days of autumn. The wind won’t be stopped now. It’s begun its mission: to usher out fall and invite winter to stay. It’s slow work, but it works every year; in time, the autumn wind will blast the trees bare and carry the cold in with it.

The Fog

The nights grow colder and longer, but the daytime remains warm. This is the secret recipe for some autumn magic. When the temperatures drop below the dew point, the air must let go of some of its water vapor, and so it rises: the fog.

Mornings in the city, mist rises from the ground everywhere. Out from the wet heaps of mulch, freshly mounded for winter; out from the grasses that glow golden in the autumn sunlight; out from the sewers that steam and belch up the river that runs beneath the streets.

And at nighttime in the country, down in Patterson, Missouri, where Big Creek runs through Sam A. Baker State Park, on these first cold nights of the year there’s a scene that brings chills to your skin. The fog swirls over the dark water and climbs upward, thick and slow, glowing white in the light of the bright moon. Even when the moon is full, you can’t see five feet ahead, and a flashlight can’t cut through the fog either. There, you may stand in silence. Your breath appears in the air for the first time this season as you listen to the river and stare at the dark silhouettes of the trees, still against the glowing mist.

Autumn Arrives

Fall was running late this year in Missouri. But it’s here now, at long last, and with it comes the brief chance to enjoy Midwestern weather at its finest.

The next question is when we can expect to see the fall foliage start to turn. The deep green of summer faded from the leaves weeks ago, but the yellow, orange, and red remain elusive. You might have noticed that the leaves started falling in September, but the changing season isn’t to blame for that–the trees are under considerable stress this year. The long, wet spring meant that they produced an unusually large number of leaves, leading to an especially green spring of fully flushed crowns. But the end of summer was exceptionally dry, so the trees didn’t have enough water to support that giant leaf crop. That’s why the sidewalks are full of dry, brown leaves–the trees just couldn’t keep up.
Now, the color will wait for consistent cool temperatures and a little more rain before it’s ready to put on its show. Most are predicting that fall color will come a little late this year–as late as the second week of November. But with nearly-freezing temperatures predicted for this weekend, it’s hard to say what will happen–if it gets too cold too quick, it’s possible that the leaves will drop before they have the chance to turn much.
Color or no color, this weather won’t stick around long. Before we know it, we’ll be grumbling around in puffy coats and cursing the long, dark nights. In the meantime, may every neighbor take a walk through their neighborhood, take a trip to the pumpkin patch, or just sit on the porch for the last few weeks of sunshine. Autumn has arrived.