Ode to an Unappreciated Month

PETER A. JAY

February 28, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- After two dry years, water is running everywhere. I can hear it, or think I can, even in my sleep. Buds are swelling. There are more than a dozen new calves. The sunlight falls at a new and spring-like angle. On the woodpile in the mornings, a house wren sings.

So much for February, going now after 28 eventful days. It'll be missed only by fuel-oil companies and a few eccentrics like me.

It's never been a popular month, except perhaps in Patagonian latitudes. Florida is full of people trying to get away from it. Others just ignore it. I looked up February in Bartlett's Quotations and found only one citation: "Thirty days hath September," etc. By contrast, there are about 30 entries for April and 40 for May.

A computer at Harvard reports that Shakespeare, who used some 29,000 different words in his plays and poems, only used "February" once -- in the final act of "Much Ado About Nothing." Characteristically, however, he used it memorably there: "Why, what's the matter/ That you have such a February face,/ So full of frost, of storms, and cloudiness?"

John Keats could write odes to autumn and to melancholy, but he wasn't inspired by February. H. L. Mencken cites an Italian proverb -- the Italians always seem to march the way the wind is blowing -- to the effect that February isn't only the shortest month, it's the worst. Still, it's one of my favorites, and while I have nothing against March, I hate to see February go.

February underscores the great difference between climate and weather. Climate is predictable and boring; weather is the opposite. California is known for its climate, Maryland for its weather. Bad weather tends to be interesting on its own merits, while good weather can be doubly appreciated because it's certain not to last.

This February, like those before it, had its share of frost and storms and cloudiness. It was also as full of promises as a presidential debate. As usual, many of these turned out to be nothing more than deceptive bursts of warm air. "Trust me," purrs February each year. Often, in a triumph of hope over experience, we do. And then we're likely to get our fingers nipped.

A week ago, my 9-year-old daughter Sarah and I were out and about on Saturday afternoon. It had been bitterly cold, and I noticed that the constant flow of water from the spring to one of the old bathtubs I use as livestock water troughs had stopped. Probably the pipe had frozen.

We checked the plastic pipe, which for most of its length lies submerged in a little stream, and, sure enough, found ice in it. Next to the stream, pushing inexorably up through the frozen ground, we found the strange purple hoods of the year's first skunk cabbage. There was no odor yet; it's the blossoms, which were still hidden under the hood, that have the dead-meat smell. This attracts early flies, which then pollinate the plant.

I still find it remarkable that the exuberant growth of skunk cabbage and other early plants generates so much heat that it can melt ice and snow. Somewhere I read that inside a skunk-cabbage hood it can be 25 degrees warmer than the earth air outside. These ancient things are little internal-combustion engines, cranked into life more by the promise than the presence of spring.

On this particular February weekend, the presence of spring was elusive, at best. On Sunday morning, the snow began, gently at first, then more seriously. By mid-afternoon it was plain these were not the predicted flurries. I fed the cows in the shed, where they had been only a few times this mild winter. Some of the more maternal and suspicious individuals took their new calves out into the snow and kept them there until I had gone.

On the way home Sarah and I stopped for a while in an open machinery shed to admire the weather and pretend we were in the Yukon. The snow blew horizontally past us on the east wind and scratched across the tin roof overhead like dry sand. It wasn't cold, but it certainly wasn't spring either. By the time we went to bed there were six inches of snow on the ground.

Yet by morning it was already going fast. As the sun climbed, water gurgled under the snow, and I found our little pond overflowing for the first time in two years. An old spring by the lane started running too, and I rigged a tub there so the cattle could drink without creating a mudhole. Out on the main road, as the pavement warmed it began to steam.

The heavy snow in the night had broken a lot of branches, including a big white pine bough right outside the kitchen. When I dragged it away, I found daffodil shoots underneath -- more February promises to be redeemed in the weeks to come.

Planting daffodils is like investing in savings bonds. If you have some, you know they'll eventually mature, and even if you're not around to enjoy them, somebody else surely will be. But in an odd way, they're more rewarding in February when they first appear than they are later on, when they finally burst into bloom.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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