First Flowers

It only took a week above freezing and a few warm rains to coax the ice out of the ground once and for all. Finally, the earth can be turned over and worked. Anyone with a garden can tell you that—they probably spent a giddy weekend with their hands in the dirt. People creep out of their homes and into the sunlight in slowly-growing numbers just to be outside. Just to look.

Still the green holds out on us, but little hints of color are popping up here and there to bring the news of the thawed soil to the surface. The delicate white snowdrops were the first to arrive a couple weeks ago. Now the daffodils and crocuses pop up out of the grass. Violets, tulips, and irises won’t be far behind. These first flowers are a promise: the big blooming is well on its way.

First, as always, there will be more rain. More mud. More cold nights. Spring is still quietly creeping out, and the people in the city are wary. They aren’t gonna greet it ’til its arrival is more obvious. When spring arrives in full sun and full color, you will no longer be alone with nature when you go outside. The bombastic, lively spring that we’re all waiting for could hit any time—and when it does, it’ll bring crowds out in droves. Every restaurant patio will be bustling. Every path through the park will be jammed. For now, let that little bit of light left in the sky at 7:30 be reason enough to take an evening walk. Go out into the quiet world and find those first whispers of spring.

Mud Moon

It’s this time of year more than any other that our four clean-cut seasons just don’t do the trick. Anyone who pays close attention knows that the earth doesn’t change like the flip of a switch. In these strange, soggy weeks it is clear: we are neither in winter nor in spring.

These are the days that are neither too cold to bear nor warm enough to stretch out and sigh. The temperature changes so quick each day that you can’t wear the same coat at midday that you do in the evening. The trees remain leafless, but they’re all budding. Flowers are nowhere to be seen, but the grass is turning greener. This isn’t winter as we’ve gotten to know it, but we know better than to call it spring. This is a season of its own, a totally different thing. This is the season of mud.

Everywhere you look, the earth is in-between. The mud is the one thing you can count on. Beneath the greening grass, the ice is cracking. The cold, hard ground is beginning to give. It softens. Water seeps up and out of the ground almost endlessly. And it rains all the time—even more water, falling always from the sky. Wet, wet, earth. Meadows and soccer fields take on the look of a marsh. You can imagine frogs living in these puddles, herons perching on a dry patch. It is a soggy time.

The gloom of these watery days isn’t dreary enough to hide the magic that they’re full of. The squish of the mud beneath your shoes means a ground chock-full of the ingredients for growth. The water is just the beginning. Life itself began in the waters of the oceans. It only makes sense that this new spring should begin with a flooding of the fields to set off the new round of life. Winter is over. This is the time of the Mud Moon.

At Long Last, March

March! At long last it’s here, and with it comes a feverish itch for spring’s arrival. Even though we should all know that spring won’t really be here ’til the end of the month, something about changing the calendar has changed our outlook, too. It doesn’t feel like winter; it feels like spring is here and any wintry behavior is a personal injustice to us and our March. We’ve all noticed that the sunny days are becoming more commonplace, and we’ve seen the buds appearing on the trees. Now is the time to start thinking about repotting, starting seeds inside for the garden, adding to the houseplant collection.

But even as this last of winter dwindles and we look forward to spring, let’s not forget that on the other end of summer, you’ll be hearing folks saying “I’m ready for fall,” “ready for sweater weather,” “ready for a break in the heat.” Nothing’s more natural than pining for the return of visible, tangible, new, green life to our world. But while we wait, think about the good things about winter: the crisp, refreshing shock of stepping out into a winter morning. The disappearance of biting bugs. The absence of sweat and heat exhaustion. The soft blues and browns of a sleeping landscape. The silver sparkle of frost and snow. Now months into a gloomy winter, these are the beauties we’ve gotten used to and forgotten. Treasure the last of them, for they won’t return for a long time now.

A Feeling Brewing

We got a sunset on Saturday that stopped people in their tracks. Another rainy day was fading without fanfare when the sun broke through. The light turned lavender and late-evening-yellow all at once. Heads poked out front doors at the sight. Neighbors stepped outside into a warm humidity they hadn’t felt in months. They walked down the street and stopped to talk about this welcome change of pace. Some folks tried to take pictures that didn’t turn out. A camera can’t capture a light so peculiar that everybody stops to look.

Those strange minutes faded away with the sun.  A nasty wind howled all night and brought the cold back with it. But we felt spring’s coming. Hints of it are creeping into town: Look outside at 6 p.m. and you’ll see a well-lit world. And the early-riser is just now getting relief from pitch-black mornings—by now, quarter to 7 shines with the full light of day. Listen on a sunny day and you’ll hear bird calls you haven’t heard in months—the mourning doves and the cardinals are singing. The cold weather won’t be leaving anytime soon. But there is a feeling brewing that we have crested the peak. We are creeping now toward spring.

Sweet February

February’s got a bad reputation. It’s wet and dull, and somehow every year it’s colder than we remember. But beyond the grey skies and the dirty roadside snow, new life is beginning in the branches above us and the burrows below. Lots of animals—woodchucks, minks, screech owls, opossums, rabbits, coyotes, American woodcocks, salamanders, flying squirrels, mourning doves—are mating this month as they prepare to bring forth new life in springtime. And there’s life at the heart of Missouri’s sugar maples in February too.

When you think of maple syrup farming, it’s probably Canada or New England that comes to mind. In fact, it’s possible to tap sugar maples in Missouri too, and February is the time to do it here. The thaw of February’s slightly warmer days paired with its freezing nights is the perfect recipe to make the sap flow more freely than it does any other time of year.

maple leaf filledYou can tap trees yourself, but make sure you read up before you dive in. You should know, for example, that you shouldn’t tap a tree that’s less than a foot in diameter. And don’t plant a new sugar maple, either—they’re somewhat of a problem in Missouri because they spread like wildfire and cast too much shade for a healthy amount of forest undergrowth to survive. But if you’re lucky enough to already have one on your property somewhere, February is tappin’ time. Right the middle of winter, tapping a sugar maple can bring you the same satisfaction as tending a summertime vegetable garden. It’s a lot of work, though—it takes around 40 gallons of sap to boil down to one gallon of syrup!

But plenty of people who live in the city don’t have a sugar maple in the yard—if we even have a yard at all. For us, it will have to be enough to remember that new life is on the way, and that even now, at the core of the sugar maples, golden sap runs through the veins of a living Earth.

The Tease

What a relief it was this weekend to recall what a warm day feels like. The wet smell of a living, thawing earth had everyone acting like it’s early May. Every sidewalk had its runners. Cyclists wore short sleeves. Daydreams of springtime took shape at the seed stand at Home Depot, where a miniature crowd had gathered to size up the vegetable options. Even the birds, perhaps smelling that same thaw, sang with optimism.

Every winter we get a a sensational pop of warmth out of nowhere. Every winter, no matter how many years it’s turned out to be dead-wrong in the past, people catch that glimpse of sunshine and start predicting an early spring. And when you’re outside in a single layer of clothes for the first time in months, warm and sunny and light as a feather, you’re convinced. The warmth is on its way. It must be.

It’s a dream that rarely comes true. Anyone who got out and tried to get some yard work done this weekend can tell you that the ground is still frozen totally solid at just an inch or so deep. There are dip-downs to the teens and twenties on their way, and chances of snow pepper the forecast.

But there’s no reason to be depressed about winter continuing. After all, January has hardly even been put to bed. A winter that ended this early would disturb the animals who are still trying to get some rest. It would call out too early to the seeds brewing underground, waiting for the sign to push their way up. No, for now we just have to be patient, and to understand that winter is not opposed to life, but part of the cycle of life itself.

Winter Walking

This week is about to get sit-on-your-hands-at-every-stoplight cold. These are the days that drive us all inside. When you’ve got someplace to be, you shuffle straight from the house to the car and curse the cold as the engine shudders to life.50612236_2001423719976125_1038608364453494784_n

The winters here are rarely so brutal that we actually need to take shelter. But if you spend most of your days indoors, you only have to think about dressing warmly enough to make it to and from the vehicle. When you’re thinking that way, the extra layers are nothing but uncomfortable and unnecessary. Nobody wants to wear four layers to a party and slowly strip in the hosts’ doorway. Instead, we shiver for a brief, terrible minute as we walk to and from the car.

The trick to enjoying the outdoors during winter is to forget for a moment the convenience of the thermostat and remember an older but equally valuable invention: warm clothing. When you’ve got that cooped-up-cabin-fever coming on, don’t let the cold keep you from a walk in the park or a ride on a bicycle. All you’ve got to do is stop thinking, “Will this keep me warm enough?” and start thinking, “how many layers can I fit under my biggest coat?” Once you’ve transformed into a waddling bundle, step outside.

There’s a different sort of pleasure in a freezing cold walk. It isn’t leisurely; it’s invigorating. Walk long enough and you’ll start to warm up. Notice how many birds are still living out in the cold, hopping from tree to tree. Notice the construction crew in their coveralls who work in this weather all day long. There is still life out here. Soon you might be peeling off layers, even sweating; all the while your cheeks are ice cold. On days like these, you’ll have the parks, the botanical garden, or the zoo almost all to yourself. Cars will pass you by, their drivers probably wondering aloud who the hell would be out in this weather. Strive to be the one who will be every time.

When your winter walk comes to an end and you step into the house you were shivering in an hour ago, a house which now feels far too hot, you’ll feel you have conquered the cold. On the paper towel dispensers at Shaw Nature Reserve, someone has pasted a Kierkegaard quote:

“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well- being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”

Snowstorm in a City Somewhat Accustomed

First there are the whispers. The weatherman says snow, but we are doubtful. We’ve all got a boy-who-cried-wolf story about a St. Louis forecast. We poo-poo and pish-posh and ho-hum. Then we go about our week. Only the kids take it seriously because they know unless they believe with all their might, they won’t get their snow day.

Then comes the preparation. The shrugging-it-off gives way to MoDot trucks and landlords salting the sidewalks. Now begins the rush to the grocery store. Everybody’s got to get their soup, their snowmelt, their sleds and their scrapers. At a Kingshighway gas station on Friday afternoon, a man stood in line at the checkout, clutching one windshield scraper in each hand. “Lucky man,” said the cashier. “You got the last two!” The man in line behind him let out a gasp—he’d been waiting to ask the employee if they had any in stock. The first man took pity on him and gifted him one of his two new scrapers—“Well, I’d be evil not to!” he said.

The city-wide anticipation rises to a panic as even the most determined of the naysayers give in and run out on last-minute missions. So begins the fervor. Dad’s at Dierbergs calling mom to see if they’ve got flour in the pantry. The kids are hollering. Target sells out of sleds. Highways pack tight with people fleeing for the homestead. On the unplowed neighborhood backroads, little cars are pushed uphill by friendly neighbors. The bartenders and baristas pray that the owner will have the goodwill and decency to call up and set them free before their car gets buried. Some are luckier than others. Then the telltale blue banner goes up on the bottom of the screen on the local news: here they come, the closings. The students are giddy.

And here in the midst of the fever-pitch-frenzy comes the reveal: it has come. They were dead-on, right on the money. The snow is here, and here in huge mounds…it’s coming down and it’s stopping for nobody. The highway is jam-packed, come to a stop. For every living creature in town, this storm is the highlight of the day.

In St. Louis, we all know what to do when a big snow hits. We aren’t unaccustomed to snowstorms. We aren’t afraid. The panic that overtakes the city doesn’t come from fear—it comes from an insatiable urge to launch into those old snow day rituals we partake in every time. God forbid you get caught without cookie dough or hot chocolate! You won’t have another day like this for God-knows-how-long. So after you’ve made it through the treacherous traffic, the holiday commences. You shut the door behind you and split a six-pack with your significant other. You suit up to go sledding or shovel neighbors’ driveways. You swap horror stories about the traffic with everyone you see. When the whole city comes to a halt, anybody who’s able will gladly take their customary sabbatical. It’s tradition!

Whatever you do, don’t miss the most precious moment of these snows. Late at night, when everyone else is asleep, crack open your door and take a long look. The soft white glow lights the night sky almost lavender. And listen. The downy drifts soak up the noise of the city. Even the sounds you can hear seem distant, soft. There is the sense that nothing could go wrong on this night. All is peaceful. All is well. A summer night holds a buzzing energy, the heat of potential and possibility. But a snowy night holds you in its palm and whispers, “rest.” So close the door behind you, and, turning in for a snug winter sleep, surrender.

The Days Grow Longer

With the holiday season coming to a close, it seems the dead cold of winter is ready to settle over us. We return from New Year celebrations or long holiday vacations and grit our teeth. We prepare ourselves for the months of cold that still lie ahead, we grunt and we hunch and we bundle.

But watch closely in this heart of winter, and you will see that it is a time of good change. With the winter solstice behind us, the daylight lingers just a little longer each day. Every night, darkness falls later than it did the night before. At first it comes later by just a matter of seconds, then minutes. By the end of January, the days are growing by two minute intervals. From now until the summer solstice, the daylight will increase exponentially.

When the new year comes along, it makes us feel like something in the world has reset. There is a sense of fresh opportunity. We make resolutions and try to better ourselves. Remember as you step into this new year that sudden leaps of change are much less common in nature than unhurried marches, sometimes hardly detectable. As you make an effort to better yourself, keep pace with these slowly lengthening days. They are steadily growing.

Unpredictable December

December is a month that reminds us that we can’t anticipate everything. This year it began with snow, ice, and a bitter cold that’s faded now into rain, fog, and a mild chill more reminiscent of fall than winter. Comforting as it is to enjoy the warmer days or stay cozied up inside, everybody’s bound to be caught by surprise sometime this winter. Early this month, a spit of unforecasted sleet caused a midday exodus from the Missouri Botanical Garden. A woman ran for her car with her child so stiffly bundled in a puffy pink coat that she bounced helplessly on her mother’s shoulders. A middle-aged man hunched headfirst into the wind. He plowed on forward, slow and steady, looking not surprised by the weather, but personally offended. A group of brightly-dressed third-graders marched in a long, trailing line behind their steadfast teacher. She walked with calm posture and her head held high, a quiet “don’t-you-dare” as she led them back towards the school nearby. The children, bouncing and laughing, seemed hardly to notice the spitting sleet.

Winters in St. Louis are like this: unpredictable. The average amount of snowfall in December is 4.4 inches, but that number doesn’t reflect the wide range of each year on record. It isn’t unusual to get less than an inch of snow in December, nor is it unusual to get close to eight inches. And the average low temperature doesn’t usually get too cold until January, but anyone who’s lived here awhile knows that there’s plenty chance of a plummet at any moment. Missouri’s climate is notorious for being all over the place, and so many things besides the cold can make for a fiercer winter: the bitter wind racing between the buildings downtown and creaking the old, tired trees; sharp little sleet pellets biting at the face; the dry winter air cracking the fingers and palms of a people so used to sauna-like summers. And yet, a week out, many of us are checking the forecast and crossing our fingers for a cold, snowy Christmas Eve.

Maybe that’s why the old, familiar traditions of the holidays feel so comforting and warm. In the face of the cold outside and the uncertainty of an upcoming new year, we treasure this holiday for which our oldest friends and closest family members will gather together and do those things which we have always done. That’s why a warm Christmas Day in St. Louis always feels unsavory even to those who hate the cold the most—even if it’s just for a day each year, we want to feel that there is a supernatural warmth that comes from sharing gifts and customs with the people we care about in spite of the harshness of the world outside. As for whether we’ll get a cold and snowy Christmas this year, there’s not much to do but wait and see.