Forcing Spring

photographs and text by Karen Zimmerman

The third round of forsythia. It takes less time to forces them open as we get closer to spring.

Dull gray and brown leaves on the ground, the sky is grey, most days have a few drops of rain, and the wind is chilly.  I’d rather winter. I never want to let go of winter. I grab its tail and hold on as long as I can. But when the snow is gone and the days are long and the cold is still damp and bone chilling, I am finally ready. The same week I hang up the snowshoes, I go and clip aspen branches, forsythia, shadbush, and other likely twigs showing the slightest bump, just the barest hint, of bud. I place these in a large bucket of water near the wood stove, and usually within a week have spring arrive. A late March snow may cover the ground and I’ll be right out there making a snow critter with the wet, grainy snow, but back in my house are bright green leaves, fuzzy gray catkins, and curling yellow forsythia flowers.

Unnatural, yes, and possibly cruel, as the forced branches last only a few weeks before I replace them with the next blooming. April, called the cruelest month by T.S.Eliot, fosters cruelty.

It also fosters tenacity. My early spring flowers bloom for weeks on end. The snowdrops have been nodding since March, and the hellebore started flowering in February. They were snow-covered a few times, but the seemingly thin delicate petals are tough and last through April. I pick a few and put a line of small, aqua bottles, old liniment bottles, on my dining table, each with one slender bloom.

Outside, the weather is quite contrary. I see a few teenage boys stroll the main street in baggy shorts, and the same day I see a couple with woolen jackets and fur caps. I dash home from work, thinking I’ll go for a bike ride, but the rain is spattering and the temperature has dropped, so I bundle up and rake instead. I feel cold, which I never do in winter, because I’ve stopped wearing my lovely wintersilk layers, and don’t bother with hats and gloves. This in-between season is confusing, and part of me longs for the comfort and simplicity of winter.

One pre-spring I had a pile of branches and twigs pruned from the trees in the yard. The bonfire was stoked, and bit-by-bit I tossed them in. It was dusk, and the glow of the fire made everything beyond its light dim and dark. One branch, perhaps a half inch in diameter, was added to the pot. It hissed, a bit of moisture steamed out, and then it bloomed. In the midst of smoke and flame, this valiant little branch decided to bloom.

Helleborus Niger in Otter Creek

It happened quickly, and my eyes never left the branch from start to finish. The buds got bigger, swelling to bursting point. The bright chartreuse tips of leaves pushed out of the end of the bud. There was not going to be a spring for this branch, so it made one for itself.

Like time-lapse photography the leaves unfurled, curling, maturing, reaching full size. My eyes followed one leaf until it was fully open, and then another just starting nearby. This branch must have come from a flowering shrub. A few small flower heads emerged, a cluster of pale green stalks with whitish bulbs at their tips, but they did not open more than that.

Around me in the dark were trees and shrubs with bare twigs and branches. It was far too early for leaves to bud out. The fire pot was full of limbs and brush, all grey and black bark, silver twigs, and no leaves. In the center of this pile, held up by the branches below it, this one branch, alone, was full of green spring leaves.

Then it steamed, the leaves curled and shrank and the branch burned.

It is April. The damp wind and gray days seem endless. We clip back brush, and tend the burn pile every weekend. I pull branches that seem ripe, ready to burst, and feed them end first into the flame. But never has one done anything but spit a bit of sap.

It was just a twig in a bonfire, but that each year the memory of that quick spurt from dormant to alive, that desperate grasp at spring, turns my head away from the snow and the cold, and reminds me of the glorious days ahead. Finally I, too, want to bloom again.

The house is full of sprouting aspen and tall sweeping forsythia branches with yellow flowers. Blue bells, snowdrops and hellebores bloom scattered in the still dead grass. Winter is over, and I am ready to say goodbye.

Snowdrops and Glory-of-the-snow bloom long before the grass is green.