My temperate valley section of Western Oregon has just come off of the coldest February in thirty years. I vividly remember that last very cold February. My husband and I were college students, living in a perennially student house (named Trespassers W) with no insulation and essentially no heat. We and our housemates huddled together under every blanket we had in the house, protected by an encircling ring of space heaters, and played Pictionary for hours. Whenever one of us thawed out enough to move, we went to the windows and added or subtracted coins from the collection we had embedded in the ice that formed on the inside of the windows. Occasionally we would brave the top steps of the terrifying basement to check the space heater aimed at our pipes so our water wouldn’t freeze. When it was my turn, I startled two feral cats who were sensibly sitting between the space heater and the not yet frozen pipes. To this day, I have no idea how they got inside. It was really cold weather. The pond and creek in the middle of our college campus froze solid, and, although I managed to get a severe break in my nose, the ER doctors did not want me to ice the injury because they were afraid that ice + the weather would give me frostbite. Really, really cold.
This year was not as bad as that. Possibly because I am now a real grown-up with a proper house and a fully functioning furnace. Even so, we’ve had measurable snow four times in the last two weeks, and in a city where a 1/2″ of snow causes panic and pandemonium, this is a really big deal. Today, though, dawned sunny, though substantially colder than normal for March and still with a cold wind blowing. It did not feel like spring (though my son insisted otherwise), but it did feel like one of those bright and clear days in early February when the sun comes out for a change and you begin to believe that spring will come again.
We bundled ourselves into lightweight coats or sweatshirts, and set out for a walk to the local pizza joint and the library, since the weather was a balmy 41. The early signs of spring were out, and my son decided that we needed to name every flower and flowering plant we saw. I convinced him that we would only count plants with actual flowers or buds, though I allowed a couple that had dried flower heads from the year before onto our list too. My husband rolled his eyes at our slow walking pace, but we persevered. (After all, the child was nibbling goldfish crackers on the walk, so who could possibly be feeling a need to get to the restaurant and eat, right?) Early spring flowers, even in a non-snowy climate, take a little patience to find, because they tend to be small. I was amazed at the list we accumulated. Crocus, of course. Light purple, dark purple, white, off-white, light purple with dark purple stripes, and off-white with dark red stripes by the time we looped back around to home. Hellebore in four different colors. Snowdrops. A few brave daffodils, and a lot of buds. Tulip and iris leaves peeping through the soil. The earliest camellias. Budding rhododendrons. Sweet violets. Viburnum- my favorite winter flower, because the flowers are tiny and the scent, especially during a cold clear twilight, trails you down the street and sucker punches you with the reminder that winter is fading. We saw euphorbia and vinca minor and marsh daisies, flowering stalks of heather and dried heads of lavender and hydrangea. Even the first flowering dandelion heads appeared, which my husband claims are not a flower, but a weed, and my son insists are flowers because “they are cheerful and beautiful.” I’m siding with my son on this one. Anyone who has even been brought a bouquet of “dandy lines” by an adoring child knows in their heart that these are flowers.
I am not a winter person. Even after spending my entire adult life in Oregon, my Southern California roots, twining back through five generations, run deep. If the sun is shining, I still expect that I can walk outside in shorts and bare feet, and I get tired of the cold and the mud and the dark and the rain rain rain. A day of sunshine and walking with close attention to the small signs of changing seasons refreshes my soul and revives my rain drenched spirit. I hope that I, and my son, never lose the ability to slow down and look around for the magic of growth and renewal.