Friday, February 19, 2010

Winter Into Spring

Here in the desert our winter season doesn't last very long. Usually it starts around Thanksgiving and runs through December and January. By Valentine's Day, the weather has started to feel springlike, blossoms start to appear on trees and flowers begin to pop up on outdoor shrubs. Winter keeps a tentative, unsure grip on us, preferring to exert its chilly power in fits and starts, sending us scurrying for our sweaters and flannel bedsheets in between plenty of pleasant, sunny days.

In many parts of the country our excuse for winter weather hardly qualifies as such, and in fact would be considered balmy April weather. I remember growing up in western Pennsylvania when we would get snowfalls in late November and winter would lock us down in a death grip until Easter. There would be no doubt in your mind at all the winter was in charge - you sometimes did not see the sun for weeks on end, and the gloomy, leaden skies complemented the somber dark brown of the trees, devoid of their green leaves. The days were short, listless and gray, and the nights seemed endless, when temperatures plummeted into single-digit-or-below range, and everything seemed trapped in a vise-grip of ice and snow. When winter finally decided that it was time to give it up and move on, it grudgingly released its grip, seeming to be unsure of letting go and always ready to snap us back into an icy prison in the blink of an eye. I recall Sundays when the afternoon temp would get up to maybe 40 degrees F., and the first couple inches of ground in our back yard would thaw out, leaving a squishy layer of mud everywhere that would swallow up your shoes if you took one misstep. There would be such a fragrance of moisture, dampness and new life in the air, as the soil woke up and regenerated itself. Then at night the full moon would shine brilliantly high up in the dark sky with a frigid, crystalline light as the ground would re-freeze and we would repeat this cycle again the next day.

No such luck here in the desert, where the best that winter can do is maybe force the nighttime temps down into the mid- to upper-twenties for a couple of hours, and then play havoc at the airport when early-morning flights are delayed until the sun comes up and melts the frost off the airplane windshields, things like de-icers being no use to us normally. This year we've been particularly favored with a lot of rainy weather (with more to come this weekend, I've heard) which has made the weeds in my yard grow like crazy, and has given the open desert all around us a distinctly lush, green tinge.

Up in the starry sky, the seasons inexorably plod along as the earth cruises in its orbit around the sun and the spring constellations herald the approaching equinox. Leo the Lion leaps up off the eastern horizon and halfway into the sky in a single, powerful jump. Right behind him is Virgo the Virgin, stretched out in a languid sprawl low in the southeast, as if she's deciding whether or not to get up off her fainting couch and grace us with her presence. Invisible to our eyes, Virgo contains one of the largest objects in the known universe, the Virgo Galactic Supercluster, a gravitationally-bound group of hundreds of galaxies, whose combined gravity can be felt in every corner of space. Shortly after dusk the famous winter constellation of Orion, one of the handsomest and most conspicuous constellations in the sky after the Big Dipper, is riding high in the south, followed by his ever-faithful dog Canis Major, and protecting the skittish, shy Lepus, the celestial Hare, crouching at his feet. Eventually Orion will sink into the western horizon for a six-month nap, and if you stay up long enough and you get to see right before dawn Scorpio the Scorpion raising its pincers above the horizon as its blood-red heart Antares briefly comes into view before being swallowed by the sunrise.

But for me the sure sign of the passage of time is the appearance of the second-brightest star in the night sky Canopus very low in the south. Canopus is in the constellation of Carina, the keel of the ship Argo, and it is so far south that from here, it pops above the horizon for just a couple of hours before it dips back down below and disappears. Canopus is only visible in the evening for a month or so, and does not show itself again until next February.

So it looks like we blew through another winter season here in Paradise. I wish it would last a little bit longer, because winter does have it own, understated charms. A little more winter would be a welcome buffer against the vicious, snarling devil-beast that is summer, which grabs hold of us with a terrifying ferocity and forces us to drastically alter our lifestyle and live by its draconian dictates for nearly five long, grueling months.

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