TCS Daily


The Metaphysics of Spring

By Lee Harris - March 24, 2006 12:00 AM

There are people who know nothing of spring. As a boy raised in Orlando, Florida, spring was simply an abstract term designating an arbitrary quartering of the year. To me, the categories of winter, spring, summer, and fall were names only. Because there is virtually no change of season in Florida, the coming of spring was not sharply demarcated in my experience of the world around me. The flowers that bloomed in the winter made me insensitive to the flowers that bloomed in the spring. Lost to me was the metaphysics of spring, so profoundly felt by people who, after enduring a harsh and hideous winter, looked out each day for the first signs that winter had finally ended its tyranny, and who rejoiced at the earliest offerings of green. Primavera is the word that is used both by Spanish and Italian speaking people to denote what we call spring -- and its etymology is quite revealing; it means, the first green things.

The Twentieth Century Spanish poet Lorca wrote a poem that commences: "Green, green, I want you green," and in saying this he was echoing the sentiment felt by most of the human beings who have made their home in those regions of winter far from the tropics. They longed each day for the bleak, gray winter landscape, crisscrossed by the stark and leafless limbs of seemingly lifeless trees, to burst into the Technicolor extravaganza celebrated by poets from as long as there has been poetry. "In the miraculously beautiful month of May," Heinrich Heine begins one of his poems, set with exquisite poignancy by Robert Schumann in his song cycle, Dichterliebe, the love of a poet in springtime.

Winter is the price we must pay for the glory of spring. Those who know no winter can know no primavera. If the world around you is always verdant and dripping with blossoms, even in the month of January, how can you ever hope to know what the coming of spring must feel like to those who have eked out a pitiful potato-eating existence during the siege of famine that we call winter? Where everything is evergreen, who can fathom the metaphysics of spring?

When I first moved to Georgia at the age of fourteen, I recall enjoying, for the first time in my life, the change of seasons. Yet spring always seemed to sneak up on me. One day it was winter, and the next day -- or so it seemed -- it was spring. The change of landscape was like the change of scenery in a play, when a stage drop back of barren trees is suddenly replaced by the same trees overflowing with leaves, shimmering above a painted landscape of dappled flowers. How could it happen so quickly, I used to wonder.

I know now that it did not actually happen quite so quickly. The illusion of spring's sudden onset was entirely owning to my own failure to notice the world around me -- though it was only when I started gardening that the truth of this observation occurred to me.

If at the age of twenty, or thirty, or forty, a gypsy fortune teller had read my palm and said to me, "In the future, Lee, I see you gardening," I would have laughed her to scorn. She might as well have tried to convince me that in her crystal ball she had glimpsed me dancing Swan Lake in a tutu in Covent Garden. It was simply unthinkable. Even if I had had the will, I lacked the knowledge: I could barely tell a rose from a great sequoia.

Yet, from time to time, a whim occurs to us, and often this whim can change our fate. One day, about seven years ago, in early April, I decided to plant some flowers. They were impatiens, and for the next few days I impatiently waited for them to die. I figured, if I had planted them, how could they possibly survive?

This was the first lesson that gardening taught me. There were some flowers whose intense will to live was so inextinguishable that even I couldn't kill them. With wonderment, I watched my first plantings grow and thrive, and the thought that went through my head was, "How neat!"

Soon I was engaged in more ambitious projects. I was planting ferns, and hostas, and wandering vines. I learned that some flowers were annuals, and would die off at the first hard frost. I learned that others were perennials, and that many of them could be reliably counted upon to return each year, as fresh as ever, and even bigger than they had been the year before. After the passage of several years, I had come to know the names of most everything that I had planted around my house, and with the approach of spring I began to pace around my gardens, looking for the first traces of primavera.

Spring, to me, no longer comes now all at once, as it used to do. Each day in early March, I can detect something stirring back into life in my garden. I can spot the tender tips of the Solomon's seal as they begin to poke their heads up. Or one morning I will go out and see that the ajuga has begun to erect its whimsical purple pagodas, or that a ghost fern is putting out its first tender periscopes, as if to look around and see whether the coast is clear. Just two days ago I was thrilled to pick two tiny leaves sprouting on the wisteria vine that, within a month, will engulf my arbor with its cascades of lavender blooms amid luscious green. And it isn't even April yet.

I now understand the metaphysics of spring, but I also understand that it is a secret that can only be fully grasped by those who have actually devoted their time and effort to planting things in the soil. If you have dug your own hole for your own oak-leaf hydrangea; if you have tucked the potting soil around its roots, watered it, and waited eagerly for its first snowy white pinnacles to emerge; if you have observed their gradual change of color through the spring, summer, and fall, going from white to deep bronze; and, lastly, if you have sighed when, at the onset of the cold, your oak-leaf hydrangea shrivels up and drops its leaves, then and only then can you feel the metaphysical thrill of spotting the first fresh green popping up at the tips of its branches in early March. Life has returned. Winter was not the end of the world -- indeed, looking back from the month of May, winter now appears like a troubling dream from which the world has awakened -- a mere illusion that has passed away.

Mankind has always had a foolish dream of a paradise in which spring was eternal. But if spring were eternal, it would not be spring. Better for us to devote our energies to the only paradise we can ever know on earth -- the ephemeral paradise of our own gardens. Yes, they die in winter, but each spring they come back.

Is it any wonder that as people get older, so many of them turn to gardening for consolation? When our youth is gone, what better way to feel young again than to be surrounded by a garden that is as fresh today as when we first planted it so many years before? The English poet William Wordsworth, a great lover of spring, spoke of the intimations of immortality in childhood; but it is thanks to spring that no gardener, no matter how advanced his years, can fail to feel these same intimations stirring in his soul when he sees the return from death of his prize peonies or his favorite lilac tree.

So don't let spring pass you by. Go out today and plant something. Plant lots of things. There is no better investment in your own happiness that you could ever make. You will feel the passage of time in a different way than those who merely live by the calendar. You will begin to learn to keep track of the days by seeing life emerge, instead of watching it merely go by.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies.

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