Breath and Air and the Mysteries of Spring

Gazing Ball, Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, Gainesville, FL (Credit: C. Bertelsen)


One day you wake up to icicles and yet another dark, distressing gray morning, powdered with snow. And then, the very next thing you know, you’re marveling at the miraculous resurgence of greens and yellows and purples scattered along the sides of the road, the warm sunshine cascading through trees, their skinny bare branches ripening with miniature green leaves, and dandelions  polka-dotting the lawn with yellow Smiley faces.

The truth about spring is this: Its greenness  erupts with abruptness. And the stark grayness of winter takes flight, fading away, smooth and calm and slow, much like a great white heron hidden in marsh grass.

For me, it’s the return of greenness that catches my heart and files off the brittle edges formed by dark winter days.

William Shakespeare captured much of the human condition in his plays and sonnets. Sonnet 98 (“From You have I been Absent in the Spring”) speaks of Spring as a living, breathing being, with a fickleness of spirit. And well he might. For I, as must you, sense in the breezes and the bluster of Spring, an energy, a force with which to be reckoned.

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him,
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odor and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew.
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seemed it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.

Spring, more than any other season, symbolizes the circular aspect of time. Although you might think of time as flying forward as the years pass, and they pass quickly, in reality time is more circular, a concept not lost on the ancestors, who lived more in the seasons. How can you live according to the seasons if you eat tomatoes three times a week as ice coats your roof and Jack Frost paints your windows every night? It’s not for nothing that many writers employ the metaphor of the natural year to describe life itself, each season with its own rhythms and challenges.

In the past, Spring brought greenness, along with wind and rain and sometimes ice. And with flowers, Spring also carried with it hopes of gardens, of fresh food, of respite from the salty and the sour stuff stored in crocks or hung from rafters.  You only have to read Martha Bradley’s 18th-century cookbook, The British Housewife (1756), to sense the thrill of Spring for those imprisoned by the seasons, eating locally, dreaming of the day the asparagus rose from the dark dank earth or the pea sprouts evaded the rabbit’s teeth long enough for odd bits to be plucked from the kitchen garden, awaiting a cook who could beguile the souls of hungry people.

I will be brief here, for I mean to celebrate Spring, and not another cookery book nor another cookery writer. No, I just wish to mention that of the six volumes of Mrs. Bradley’s opus, you will find volume II and II the most pertinent in springtime. Mrs. Bradley lists the delights awaiting you as you emerge from your long winter’s stupor: Cabbages (Coleworts), Savoys, Broccoli, Endives, Spinach, Peas, Asparagus, Sprouts, Lettuce. Imagine the joy of eating something fresh and green and crisp with life, after months of salted pork and dried peas! You might be able to fathom that first bite of fresh greens, the impact on the tongue, if you think of how it is to spy the first flower poking out from a cluster of dirt clods or the first leaf on the spindly branches of a seemingly moribund bush or tree.

Spring, for me, symbolizes change, profound change.

My steps become lighter as the days grow longer. I feel lighter, nearer the weight of gossamer than of flesh.  Spring regenerates something and that’s where the mystery lies. The ancients created Persephone and Demeter to try to explain this dramatic change. The greenness of Spring transports me to a place of visceral joy. And I realize now that I must have that greenness surrounding me in order to feel whole once again. Could it be that the very air I breathe in springtime is different in composition? That the air too becomes renewed as the small leaves grow?

Breath and air and greenness.


Forsythia, before a spring snow, 2017 (Credit. C. Bertelsen)

© 2017 C. Bertelsen

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