Everybody has New Year’s traditions. Some people make and break lots of good resolutions. Some people serve black-eyed peas and greens. But that’s not my thing. While others are nursing hangovers or glue themselves to televised bowl games and parades, I’m outdoors, weather permitting, doing yard work. And I’m looking for my New Year’s Day miracle.
There’s something so satisfying about clearing the yard, once the last of the leaves have fallen. You can rake and rake without breaking a sweat, and when you’re finished, there’s visible improvement. Actually, this is the small part of the year when I can get ahead on my weeding. Once growing season starts, it’s all I can do to stay even. And I quit once the temp gets too hot. So January and February are the months when I reclaim parts of the yard from the plant invaders, like kudzu. But New Years is not for reclaiming. It’s when I look for a miracle.
In Search of Spring
Now I’ll be the first to admit I don’t get along with Winter. It’s (usually) too wet and cold for my taste and I miss long, sunlit days. And, while I love where I live, we look kind of, well, shabby this time of the year. A little dirty and drab and run down. So I tend to spend the first day of the year in my yard, desperately seeking Signs of Spring. And, today I found them.
Know what these are? They are daffodil leaves and they’re growing in front of my house. On New Year’s Day. When winter’s just settling for 3 months of cold weather, these tough little flowers are sticking their heads above ground. The prospect of ice and snow doesn’t scare them (the way it scares me!). They’re growing, they’re daring to believe in Spring on the very first day of the year. That takes great Instinct…. or Nerve.
So daffodil leaves are my annual New Year’s Miracle and I hunt for them like a kid after Easter Eggs. I’m not ashamed. They’re a promise. A herald. An omen of change. And a great way to start the New Year.
The American South does lots of things well, but Winter ain’t one of them. While hardy New-Englanders take February like a dose of nasty-but-fortifying medicine and mountainous regions celebrate the annual return of snow bunnies to the slopes, the denizens of Dixie roll ourselves up in fleece and wonder why God sent an Ice Age our way. He didn’t, not really, but when you live in the sun belt, it’s hard to cope when the sun goes away. Our houses and wardrobes don’t accommodate perma-frost that well and neither do our moods. We like living outdoors in a world drenched in green instead of staring through the window at a universe of muddy browns and grays. It gets depressing. That’s why Wednesday was such a ray of hope. It was a Mid-Winter Hiatus.
Winter doesn’t look so dreary when the sky is this blue!
After two fairly solid cold snaps and an impressive amount of rain, the sun came out on Tuesday and Wednesday and put some blue back in the sky. Not that thin, watery blue sky that makes a cold day colder either, but the deep azure we’ve come to accept as a birthright. I knew it was time, not only to seize the day, but opportunity, and my gardening gloves.
For all of our grumbling, the Deep South has a short dormant season, and this is it. Now is the only time of year I can make headway against the kudzu, sawbriar, and Jimson weed that threatens to take over my yard each year. My allergies return with every spring, and this stuff starts to grow…well, like weeds. So, if I want to get in front of the enemy and encourage real grass to grow, this is my chance to do it. With my wheelbarrow and implements of destruction in hand, I began uprooting and toting away the scrub.
Sometime after carting away the sixth wheelbarrow load of thorned and prickly fauna, I realized something I hadn’t noticed for weeks: it was too hot to work in a sweatshirt. A quick check of the phone app verified the miracle: the temperature was 70 degrees and climbing! I started back to the house to change my shirt and then saw my annual miracle: the first flower of the year.
Almost thirty years ago, while my home was being built, the wife of the owner-contractor planted narcissi in the yard. Since then, these flowers have returned every mid-winter, as if to affirm that, no matter how impossible it seems, Spring will return. Of course, narcissi are so common they may be a floral cliche but they are the first flowers to appear each year, and that’s why I treasure them. They give me hope and color when I need it the most. As far as I’m concerned, they’re heroes.
And, for the next few hours, everything seemed right with the world. I cleared out weeds, while I listened to a book on tape and felt the sun on my face. When the work was done, I sat outside with a drink and decided the returning cold does not dismay me. It’s part of the cycle of life down here and, at worst, it’s temporary. Spring is coming. I’ve seen the signs. They were there in a mid-winter hiatus.
Like all our other seasons, Winter came a bit early this year.
Just between you and me, the South doesn’t handle Winter all that well. This is the sun-belt, where central air and sunglasses are more than accessories. Our winters often hold off until January and some years they don’t show up at all. Instead of a frozen wasteland, we get a dormant rainy outdoors explored only by aficionados of the hunt. The rest of us curl up with a book and a drink until it’s time to replant the garden.
But not this year. This year we’re going to get winter and it’s going to be downright cold.
A sure sign of winter – smoke coming from the fireplace
The South becomes a different place in winter; more like the spot they wrote about decades ago. Although most Southerners are not tied to the land like they were in previous centuries, weather becomes an important factor to us during these three months of the year. Our houses are not heated the way New England homes are and bitter cold can sometimes seep indoors. Bereft of their gardens, our houses seem to pull in on themselves these days, like a freezing man huddles inside his parka. The surrounding verdant landscape reverts to a more somber palette.
Still, I love the look of winter in the South with its subdued shades of brown, grey and green. I cannot look at our winter landscape without thinking of Kenneth Grahame‘s Wind in the Willows.
“The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him, and he thought that he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of things as on that winter day when Nature was deep in her annual slumber and seemed to have kicked the clothes off. Copses, dells, quarries and all hidden places, which had been mysterious mines for exploration in leafy summer, now exposed themselves and their secrets pathetically, and seemed to ask him to overlook their shabby poverty for a while, till they could riot in rich masquerade as before, and trick and entice him with the old deceptions. It was pitiful in a way, and yet cheering– even exhilarating. He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple.”
Stripped of the usual covering of kudzu and leaves, here is our essential country: strong, simple and not totally without colour. Every December, our neighbour’s unpruned shrub decks itself in scarlet berries as if sprouted just for the holiday. The pine trees grow like weeds from the rusty clay earth. Even the layers of sedimentary rock expose their striated beauty. This is our home, without artifice. The earth we cling to is strong.
Yes, Spring will return in just a few months with its riot of flowers and birdsong. I’ll be there to welcome it. But in the meantime, let me cherish winter, with its long, dark nights and silent, peace-filled earth. This season has its beauty as well.