Tuesday, April 26, 2011

If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

Gusts of wind shift the pattern of rain pellets tapping against the window pane overlooking the birch tree and bare wet earth beneath, surrounded by an oval of grey and caramel fieldstone.  The southwestern exposure has warmed the soil the past week or two, and in the less protected areas, tender green spears of hyacinth and early tulip shoots have appeared, interspersed with crocus and Snow Drops.  The arched branches of the Paper Birch with its drooping branchlets watches over the emerging bulbs. The tree’s white bark, with its black diamond-shaped patches at the base, sharply contrasts with the brown-black earth.  The Birch has begun to produce tender spring shoots, rough with small warts, and hairless, drooping toward the earth from whence they originally came.

This time of year, I fondly recall Browning’s Oh to Be in England Now That April’s There, and my year in Cambridge walking along the pathway adjacent to the riotous flowering bulb gardens along the Backs of the Cam River, as it meandered through the University’s Colleges arranged along the ancient waterway.  Like other visitors I was smitten by The Bridge of Sighs, a covered bridge belonging to St. Johns College of Cambridge University where I was a visiting faculty member.  It was built in 1831 and crosses the River Cam between the college's Third Court and New Court, designed by Henry Hutchinson. Though it was named after the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, there is little architecturally in common other than they are both covered.  I traversed the bridge Wednesdays just before 7pm when joining my faculty host for dinner at High Table at St.Johns, Royal Society Professor Robert Hinde, who was a Don in that college.

St John's College was founded in 1511 by Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII.  Three hundred fifty plus years later when Minnesota became a state, settlers tilling the soil, discovered some familiar and less familiar flowering plants in meadows and along the banks of rivers and streams.  Notably the spectacular pink and white Lady’s Slipper, a member of the orchid family, which was described in detail in Warren Upham’s book, Northland Flowers in 1883, which chronicled over 1600 Minnesota wildflowers. Minnesota wild flowers are mostly white and yellow, though some radiate pale sapphire, like the Blue Creeping Bellflower and there is the soft periwinkle of Virginia Spring Beauty.  But brilliant white Bloodroot and of course Black Eyed Susan, vivid yellow with a black central “eye” are colors pervading most Minnesota meadows and stream banks.

These harbingers of Spring have been occurring for at least five or six millennia, and will continue evolving despite the anachronistic actions of some American politicians and their patrons, who would like to turn back the clock a mere 100 years to the era of the American Robber Barons. Shakespeare presciently wrote, “Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York” (Richard III, 1594). Put another way, my father in law Erich Leyens was fond of reminding us all of the Persian aphorism, “This Too Shall Pass,” though some assistance may be required in the process.

I harken back to Percy Bysshe Shelley, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”   


  1. "Over Bridge of Sighs
    To rest my eyes in shades of green
    Under dreaming spires
    To Itchycoo Park, that's where I've been."

    from "Itchycoo Park"
    The Small Faces

  2. The rest of the song lyrics are a bit different than I remember the river running peacefully under the bridge and the punts meandering down the Cam on a Sunday afternoon. We were there in 1969 when Cambridge still resembled a small college town.