One of the most quietly beautiful passages I’ve ever read in a novel comes toward the end of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “The Long Winter,’’ a fictionalized account of a particularly brutal winter her family endured on the Dakota prairies in the 1880s. After months of relentless blizzards, Laura is awakened in the middle of the night by the wind — but there is something different about it: “there were no voices, no howls or shrieks in it. And with it there was another sound, a tiny, uncertain, liquid sound that she could not understand.” She listens, and then she realizes: the sound is water, dripping from the eaves; and the wind is the Chinook, the warm spring wind that blows from the west.
The winter we’ve just had may be mild in comparison with Wilder’s seven-month-long siege, and I’ve been in a warm house with enough food to eat. But I am longing for a sign, or signs, that it’s finally over. Some definitive little thing that is also a big thing. The calendar says it is spring, but this year especially it feels more as if there should be a separate brief volatile season called “equinox.” The equinox is about balance, when the daylight and the dark are even; but this time of year feels more like a struggle for balance, unstable and capricious.
Here in New England, in the city, we don’t get a clear Wilder-like message from nature that one thing is ending and another is beginning. Still, there are little things, if I take a walk through my neighborhood and look carefully — things that seem to belong, sharply and particularly, to this in-between season of equinox, signs of where we’ve been and where we are going.
A carrot in our front garden, which got buried in snow after we flung it out through the front door late one night in a moment of crazed pity for the rabbit sitting quietly in the middle of the street in the middle of the city in the middle of yet another snowstorm.
A plastic-bagged newspaper under a neighbor’s hedge, delivered weeks or months ago during a blizzard and buried before its subscriber came out into the storm to pick it up.
A few bedraggled snowdrops, blooming later than usual this year and in far fewer numbers.
Astonishingly wide sidewalks.
Sand, dirt, and odd bits of garbage on the sidewalks.
Streets that also look wide and spacious, after the cramped snowbound corridors of winter. Cars parked right next to the curb.
Potholes. Lots and lots of potholes.
Cars swerving to avoid the bicyclists who are swerving to avoid the potholes.
A big magnolia tree furred with buds and filled with screeching chickadees.
A witch hazel in bloom.
A broken slate blown down from a roof.
Two kids on scooters.
A yellowed Christmas tree that somehow missed the January pickups and has been buried ever since.
The woman who sits on the steps of her apartment building on sunny days, sitting in the sun.
Piles of filthy snow lingering on the shady sides of buildings.
A woman raking her garden.
On the avenue, lots of people out walking, some wearing T-shirts, shorts, and sandals, even though it’s still way too cold.
Three runners in spandex and sunglasses, with numbers and medals on their chests, limping home from a road race.
In front of restaurants, no sidewalk tables yet.
In store windows, small “Walk for Hunger” posters.
In the seasonal aisle of the drug store, chocolate eggs and jelly beans and Red Sox shirts. No ice melt.
A few purple and yellow crocuses, in the sheltered lee of an apartment building where I always spot my first crocuses.
Three little girls with red noses, selling coffee, doughnuts, and cookies from a small table at the end of a driveway.
And one last sign, which I will admit did not come to me on this walk, but which did come last week and is too good to be left out of this story: I ran into a woman I know who has a farm in Lexington, and I asked her, somewhat desperately, if she was seeing any signs of spring yet. She reached into her pocket and handed me an egg.