Of Many Things

Spring can be an elusive season. In New England, many residents I know claim it doesn’t exist. All they know is “mud-time,” a dreary interlude between the long winter and a brief summer. The survey crews of my brother’s engineering firm groan with the very thought of slogging through the woods in ankle-deep mud. New Englanders may not have invented the mud room, but it makes good Yankee sense, of equal use in a snowy winter and a soggy spring.

Mark Twain quipped that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. Well, in the Bay Area, spring and winter can be inverted as well. In Berkeley, where I taught two decades ago, January was often the most pleasant month. The chilling fog relented, and we would take lunch al fresco, delighting in the warm air. The acacia bloomed and the plum trees filled the night air with their sweet fragrance. Then in late March winter would set in, with storm after storm descending from the Gulf of Alaska. Sometimes the peaks of the coast range would be frosted white as late as mid-May.


The best place to enjoy spring, in my experience, is the Southeast. It is a region of exuberant color. White and pink cherry blossoms, magnolias and dogwoods, azaleas of every shade. In cities like Charleston, S.C., and Washington, D.C., week after week spring floods the senses with one blooming sensation after another. Riding Amtrak between New York and D.C. this time of year, I like to measure spring’s progress as the train moves south, noting first the forsythia, then the pear trees and finally the cherries in bloom.

In Washington, the last days of March and the first of April mark the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. The flowering Japanese cherry trees surrounding the Tidal Basin are a national treasure. But the press of tourists can make them hard to enjoy in the daytime hours. Native Washingtonians know the best time to see them is at dawn, before the crowds arrive, or late in the evening by lamplight, when the basin, with the elegant Jefferson Memorial at its edge, enhances the ethereal pleasure of the scene.

Here in New York winter holds on. The grass in Central Park, where it is not dead, is a dusky, used green. I have yet to spot pussy willows, from childhood the first harbinger of spring for me, but the tips of the forsythia have begun to bloom and the willows are showing a pale yellow. A few daffodils have begun to appear, seemingly stunted by a dry, windy March. If the season holds to its usual timetable, in another three weeks the cherry blossoms will unfold in Central Park as well.

There are other hints, when you look, that spring is near. In the park, the ducks have abandoned the water for dry land, and the drakes follow super-attentively behind the ducks, sometimes more than one male shadowing an especially attractive female. Radio news also reports that the park’s most celebrated couple, the red-tailed hawks Pale Male and Lola, have left their winter treetop abode for their summer roost atop a Fifth Avenue apartment building.

This year I am eager for spring’s coming as never before. Eliot’s lines run through my head, “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of dry land...”—too much illness in the community, too many weeks laid up myself, walks sacrificed to physical therapy and hours indoors stretching out vertebrae.

In my home borough of Staten Island, there has been a rash of brush fires fanned by gusty spring winds. This year there have been 96 compared to an average of 15 in the first quarter. For me it brings back memories of a childhood terror. With woods on two sides of our dead-end street, brush fires were a constant danger. I grew up with a keen sense for the smell of smoke and even for the alterations of light and atmosphere as a ground fire crept forward through the underbrush. My first year with the Jesuits, a fire on the island’s south shore burned hundreds of acres and destroyed over 170 homes, if memory serves me well.

Residing here in the cement and asphalt jungle, I miss the contact with land that makes the seasons real. I can almost feel the cold dampness of the earth on my fingers and remember the quiet excitement I used to feel at discovering sprouts ready to poke through winter’s late cover. I miss the chores of the season, raking out the flower beds of fall’s last leaves, taking from the cold frames the last winter vegetables and the first harvest of spring. Though here in the Northeast the major planting is still two months away, I am envious of my country cousins, who watch their seedlings sprout beneath the growlights in the basement as they plot their plantings for the weeks ahead. Yet even in midtown Manhattan, spring stirs in my blood.

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11 years 10 months ago
It’s been months since Drew Christiansen, S.J., wrote “Yet even in midtown Manhattan spring stirs in my blood.” The line appeared in America (4/17). Reaching under my bed for the Scrabble game last night, I pulled out the lost magazine, and because I am the standard compulsive reader—other passengers’ newspapers, the tags on sweatshirts, backs of cereal boxes—I read the column late last night. I hope some one else has long ago told you how good it is. It is beautifully written, a joy to read, fresh as the day you wrote it.

I live in a rare leafy enclave of Chicago, not far from the river, in the same house for 59 years. Long ago I wrote rather regularly—for a woman—for your magazine. I thought of it recently when a writer asked permission to include an old America essay of mine (1956) in a book she is publishing. The title: The Man You Want Is the One You’ve Got (that’s her book, not my essay). Her letterhead identifies her as “Paula Friedrichsen Ministries: Boldly Declaring the Goodness of God.” We can’t argue with that, can we? Moreover, with that name, she could be a clansman of Father Christiansen’s.

My own experiences of spring are the pathetic hopefulness of this part of the world. Once when my plane was coming into O’Hare in a springtime snowstorm, the woman beside me asked, “Do you live here?” When I admitted I had been born in this place and lived here most of my life, she added, “Deliberately?”

Yet last night when I was walking around the block in great heat, greeting dogs and owners known to me, the wind changed, and suddenly it was no more than 75 degrees. Everyone, including a great dane, Ophelia, smiled at our brief good fortune. We ask for, and get, so little.


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