Goodbye, Winter


As spring approaches, I find myself pondering how different Oregon winters and springs are from all the other places I’ve lived. I have a long history with winter — real winter, that is; I grew up in cold places. First my family lived in Northwest Ontario, where temperatures fall to -40° C (which, incidentally, is the same temperature as -40° F… fun fact!) or lower, at least a couple of times each winter. Then we spent seven years in remote northern British Columbia, where winters were less cold but much snowier — the snow routinely accumulated past six feet, and our downstairs windows would be blocked by snow by the end of winter no matter how many times we tried to shift the piles of snow that slid off the roof. We waited with happy anticipation for the snow pile from the eaves of the woodshed to meet the roof, so we could climb to the peak of the roof and slide off in glorious swoops.

We moved back to Ontario when I was eleven, and I discovered afresh the experience of having one’s nostrils freeze together in the frigid air. On the playground (well, parking lot, really) at our tiny church school, the girls’ mandatory long skirts would freeze stiff in the cold wind and chafe our calves during outdoor recess — also mandatory, down to -20ºC.

At the age of eighteen I moved to Alaska. I fell in love with my husband there and ended up staying for fourteen years, mostly in the Anchorage area, which niftily combines the cold of Northwestern Ontario with the snow of British Columbia. It’s not quite as cold as Ontario (or the interior of Alaska) or as snowy as British Columbia, but there’s enough of both to satisfy all but the most demanding winter enthusiast.

All three of these regions have four things in common: long winters, darkness (getting worse as you go farther north), short summers, and agonizingly slow springs.

In Northwestern Ontario, the end of winter generally starts sometime in  March, as the days slowly start to get longer. The snow gets wet and heavy. Roofs drip. Dirt roads gradually appear beneath the ice, and promptly turn to mud. Slowly, so slowly, the giant piles of snow from plowed roads shrink, and driveways turn into small rivers. By the end of March or  beginning of April, roads are often clear of snow. Of course, snow doesn’t stop falling, but the fresh snow gets churned into muddy slush within a few days of falling.

Then comes a day, perhaps sometime in March — around the same time roofs start dripping — when someone gazes out at the scrubby trees that grow in the thin soil atop the bedrock of the Canadian Shield and says, “Is that… green? Do I see green?” Someone else comes to look, and others crowd in. “Nah, you’re imagining things.” But within a couple of days, that optimistic viewer is vindicated, for the bare grey branches now exhibit a faint green tint. It’s barely visible. If you look closely at the tree branches, you won’t see leaves — you’ll see leaf buds just beginning to swell. Despite the faintness of the color, though, this promise of green signals the true end of winter. Several weeks or a couple of months later, probably by mid-May, most of the trees have baby leaves, and by the end of May roses and sometimes lilacs are in bloom. There have been instances of snow in May in Northwestern Ontario, but it doesn’t happen often. Those baby leaves are the beginning of spring.

In the parts of Alaska and British Columbia where I lived, the progression is the same, if a little later and a little slower, with one difference. The winter is so very dark further north that it’s a real occasion when the sun rises as you’re driving to or arriving at work, and when the sun is still up when you leave work. For much of the winter, you literally will not see the sun unless you’re lucky enough to have a day off that coincides with a clear day. So, in Alaska, those glorious first days of sun on your skin, rather than the first green, are the first sign of spring — even though the air is just as cold as before, and the hems of your pants get just as frozen on the way inside, and you have to scrape just as much ice off your windshield, as before.

Our family came to Oregon four years ago, fresh from the long winter and slow spring of Anchorage. We arrived early in June, after leaving our Alaskan home at the end of May. In Anchorage, the trees still had no leaves, and mud abounded. Here, June was full summer. Flowers bloomed everywhere. Grass was a happy green, and lacked that unpleasant sogginess of Alaskan grass after several feet of snow has melted into lawns. We could hardly believe our good fortune. Real summer!

The following spring, we moved from our rental to a permanent home on two acres. We moved in March, just before Easter, and we got to see the onset of spring in a way we’d never experienced before, since our rental home didn’t have a lot in the way of plants. We ooh’d and ahhh’d at each and every new flower, delighting in identifying mystery plants as they each burst into bloom in turn.

The strangest and most wonderful thing to us about an Oregon spring, though, wasn’t the abundance of flowers or the greenness of the winter grass. It was the trees. First of all, Oregon has a lot of evergreens — not just conifers, but broad-leafed shrubs too. Combined with the ivy and moss twining over the massive trunks and branches of trees and the ever-green grass, it’s never really not green here. But even the deciduous trees behave differently here. There’s no gradual onset from bare grey branches, to pale green mist, to buds, to leaves. No, these trees are already making new leaf buds as the old ones fall. You can see that barely-visible green all winter. Then, at some point — as early as mid-to-late February — the early-blossoming trees and shrubs, like plums and forsythia, burst into bloom, along with daffodils and crocuses. Soon after, you notice that the trees look a little more green — and within a short day or two, there are baby leaves everywhere. Here, spring isn’t agonizingly slow — it’s as fast as instant coffee. It lasts long enough to savor it, but its onset is as quick as adding water and stirring.

This year was a bit different than the previous three, and I found myself musing on how much I don’t miss Alaskan winters. We got snow in November this year, and we continued to get occasional snow until… well, until last week. Several times, it accumulated enough for the kids to make snowmen and snow angels. School was closed over and over — we had to readjust the school calendar to make up nine snow and/or ice days. (Do you know how many snow days we had in the Anchorage School District while I was teaching there? Maybe one true snow day over that five-year period, with another one or two days each year for ice.) Niko’s teacher told me, around the middle of January, that between in-service days, holidays, and bad-weather days, there had not been one full five-day week since mid-November.

Niko and Sofia were ecstatic about the snow. Each time flakes appeared in the sky brought a thrill of joy. For me, though, those mornings of begging the kids to slow down on the porch before they slipped on the ice, and scraping windshields, and having to sit and wait while the windows defrosted and defogged, weren’t filled with joy, but with disbelief tinged with resentment.  I’d moan internally (and sometimes not so internally),  We moved here to escape this!  Of course, the fun of seeing the kids go crazy playing in the snow was almost enough to alleviate the snow-induced grouchiness. Almost. That snow was more enticing to the kids than the best toy in the world.

And the snow made everything look so beautiful — winter flower buds peeking through the snow, branches coated with a thick layer of white, fairy lights on the tree in front of our house sparkling through the frost. It was lovely to look at. Like the kids’ delight in the snow, the beauty of the landscape was nearly enough to balance out the resentment. Still, as I chipped piles of icy snow from the porch, it was hard not to feel betrayed by the weather.

The unusually cold and snowy winter delayed the onset of spring, too. Everything is starting at least three to four weeks later than last year. Daffodils just bloomed two days ago; last year they were blooming in February. I saw one single blossom on our plum tree this morning, in the middle of March — last year, the whole tree was in bloom by the second week of February. The cold had one benefit, though — my dwarf irises and pink hyacinths, the first flowers to bloom, had not a single slug-munched petal this year, a far cry from the vicious attacks before buds had even opened in past springs.

But there is one thing — one single thing — about this longer-than-usual winter that is, in fact, awakening nostalgia. The cold winter, now (probably) ended, is finally demonstrating just one redeeming quality. The trees and shrubs have been hoarding their energy, refusing to fatten their leaf buds. Until now. Over the last few weeks of slowly-warming weather, I’ve finally seen that harbinger of spring: a green haze lightly touching all the trees — and not vanishing within days in an explosion of leaves this time. This spring, I’ve watched as the green increases oh-so-gradually. And this time, like all those years in Canada and Alaska, the green haze is true to its word, delivering spring gently and slowly. Every day I see new evidence that winter has released its grip on my little corner of the world. Slowly, slowly, buds are growing, flowers are opening, and tiny leaves are appearing here and there. It’s not (thank God!) the long process it is in colder climes, but this year, for the first time since we moved here, it really is a process. And I’m loving every single slow moment.



Irises, Earthworms, Estivation!

A week or so ago, there was a tap on the door. I almost didn’t respond, thinking it was a hopping bird or swaying branch — who taps instead of ringing doorbells, when presented with so conveniently placed a doorbell as ours, and with no thoughtfully hung “Shhhh…Naptime!” sign next to it? But I did go to the door, and when I saw the big box on the porch and the back of the mail carrier vanishing into his truck with a cheerful wave, I was flooded both with pleased anticipation at the prospect of opening a package, and with bewildered gratefulness at the stranger’s oddly kind consideration. How did he KNOW my kids were napping and I would have curled up in a fetal ball of anguished despair, uttering ululating wails of mourning for the prematurely ended quiet time, had the doorbell rung?
The box was full of iris rhizomes. I’ve never planted irises before, so I was fascinated to see them. The individual iris roots were cushioned by swirls of long, fine wood shavings, reminiscent of those that would pile up under my dad’s lathe when he turned chair legs or picture frames or jewelry boxes. The irises are surprisingly pretty, with fan-shaped crowns rising above the lumpy rhizomes and twisty roots. They look like this:

Newly arrived iris rhizomes from Schreiner’s Iris Gardens    

A couple of days later we said goodbye to my mom, who’d just spent a delightfully out-of-character spontaneous weeklong visit with us, and I was left feeling at loose ends. After we waved her off, I commented to Aaron how nice it was for the morning to still be fairly cool. That’s when I realized it would be a good time to distract myself and the somewhat dejected Niko from missing Meemaw, and dig up the irises’ new home.

The garden bed against our shed, which is a potting and storage shed in one end and a woodworking shop in the larger remaining space, is filled with perennials that could be charming in the right setting but really just… aren’t. They all flower together, in the mid-to-late spring, and then simultaneously turn to scraggle and seed. The various plants all seem to flower along tall stems, with flowers dying near the base as new ones bud and open closer to the top, so they can’t be tidied up by deadheading. They’re always half full of dead flowers, browning leaves, collapsing stems, and seed fluff. This is our second summer here, and I’m finally realizing it’s OUR garden and I don’t have to maintain plants I don’t like. So, when we visited Schreiner’s Iris Gardens this spring, we decided that this haggard, overgrown garden would be the perfect place to fill with vividly colored irises and spring and summer bulbs. No more scraggle and slump.  Gleefully destroying a flower bed.

We’d dug up about a third of the bed, and were starting to think about lunch, when a clump of hard, dry dirt broke open and I saw the oddest thing: a ball of two or three earthworms entwined inside the nearly rock-hard lump. Their little wormy ball was slightly moist, as earthworms are, despite the extreme aridity of the ground that hadn’t seen rain in months. I was fascinated. Turns out, earthworms do something that’s like hibernation, only not, because scientists enjoy using precise words to describe precise activities, and this is something that occurs with certain creatures, including some insects and lizards, during extremely dry seasons rather than cold seasons. Various species approach it differently, but the general idea is the same: they protect themselves by retreating into the ground and going dormant, until moisture wakens them and signals them that their environment is once again friendly. It’s called estivation.

Estivation. Estivate. I love that. Estivation. I rolled that word around in my head for the rest of the day. Estivate. Don’t ask my why I love it so much, I just do. Estivation. And now, not only will we have a much prettier garden bed (thanks to Aaron’s finishing digging it up for me before the first rain since March arrived), but I have learned a new fascinating thing about earthworms, AND I have learned a delightful new word to murmur to myself whenever I need a quiet little bit of tranquillity.