When a marigold blossoms in winter

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IN a vase on the desk by the window, a single marigold still holds its bloom. The flower was cut from a plot in the front yard a week or so ago when New England, by rights, ought to have been lying beneath a foot of snow.

Just above the flower a sluggish moth, equally out of season, zigzags into a lamp, looking as if it has lost its sense of time as well as its sense of direction.

How can this be December when, a couple of blocks down the street, people in white shorts play tennis while bare-legged joggers run past, dripping sweat?

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By the time these words are read, December's late-late Indian summer, pushing temperatures up to 60, will doubtless be relegated to the deep freeze of history and the season will be back in costume - stocking cap, down parka, and red nose.

New Englanders, being New Englanders, will be secretly relieved in their Puritan hearts, convinced as they are that everybody must pay for unearned dispensations. But while it lasts, who can help relishing the thaw - for itself, and for reasons that go beyond the pleasant sensations of balmy air? The Northerner sun-kissed in December feels an inner warmth as well, an exhilaration at escaping from a supposedly inevitable chill.

In an essay called ''The Winter of Man,'' the anthropologist Loren Eiseley suggested that every winter carries a threat of the Ice Age. In winter's short, dark days, in the snow that hides the sight of once-fertile land, a drama of icy sterility gets played out each December, January, and February for the benefit of shivering imaginations. The polar ice caps seem suddenly imminent to inhabitants of the temperate zone. The sun shines - if it shines at all - like a 15-watt bulb with a bad case of the flickers.

In an ordinary December the elements of earth and fire are as nothing compared with ice.

In an ordinary December everybody thinks like an Eskimo.

In the opening sentence of his essay, Mr. Eiseley quotes an Eskimo shaman: ''We fear the cold and the things we do not understand.'' And surely the cold is one of the things they, and we, least understand.

The cold doubly chills us as nature's mood of deep indifference. If the rhythm of nature is birth, growth, and flowering, then winter is nature's negation of itself. This is what Eskimos must think all year-round. This is what the rest of us think in the winter. And so when Eiseley, with terrible logic, expands upon the metaphor of winter, he is led to the image of nuclear winter - the ultimate sterility.

Yet even on the coldest day of winter, we (and the Eskimos) think of more than the Ice Age. No matter how the nose tingles and the toes go numb, the memory recalls summers past and springs to come. The winter that now pretends to be permanent is no more endless than the heat wave that pretended to be permanent last August. We hold onto this faith as we hold onto our mittens and scarves for the next two months.

But how a good thaw helps!

How a good thaw breaks the spell, in every sense!

For if winter is not predestined, then neither is the nuclear winter Eiseley feared, peering into the future through icicles that looked like ICBMs.

To look at a marigold in December, with a moth circling above it, is to appreciate the freedom Albert Einstein must have felt when he said, ''Nature does not always play the same game.''

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