Even in the cold of winter, signs of spring

There is fresh air ... and then there is fresh air. Particularly in the winter. The trouble is that dogs don't seem to know the difference. They are as eager and importunate to go out for their walks on blustery, drenching, or freezing winter nights as they are on blossoming, blithe, and balmy spring days. Seasons and seasonal conditions have no bearing on them. The canine is not a species given to considerate hibernation.

Two nights ago, for instance, the briefest of salutations occurred between me and a Scottish gentleman walking his black Lab. We were both bracing ourselves against the cold and wet on opposite sides of Sutherland Avenue. "This," I observed damply, "is the kind of night when I would be happy if someone else owned our dogs."

"I agree with that," he replied soggily.

His words were as heartfelt as they were laconic. There was, as we walked on with grim determination, an immediate rapport between us. We were both reluctantly performing a domestic duty when all we wanted was a bed and an electric blanket.

This morning was even worse. The dogs and I, walking along our usual path by the highway, had to lean heroically into the pelting rain and vicious wind.

None of this oozy direness was calculated to make me feel good about our Scottish winter. The only positive side to it was that total immersion does make one appreciate a dry home.

This aside, I generally have no great quarrel with our winters. And this year once again - on its fine days - I keep noticing how misleading this season's reputation is for being the dead end of the year, the year's "demise."

A great many small signs show it to be a continuance of autumn or even of summer, and a whole bunch of other signs are already promising spring. All right, the leaves of all the deciduous trees have fallen and turned to mush. But this shedding only serves to expose the quick vitality of trunk, branch, and particularly twig.

Winter is twig time. You don't see them the rest of the year when they are hidden under the leaves. And down along by the highway, the twigs I have been noticing this winter are the ones belonging to the common willows. Green-yellow leaf buds alternate like strung beads up each twig.

The twigs are not dull brown or gray, but full of obvious sap; some are yellowish, others a kind of purply-orange. On a few there are flower buds - with tiny satin-silver toes emerging like chicks' beaks pushing out of hatching shells. All that's needed is a slight change of temperature, and these soft "pussy willows" will burst out and declare themselves.

One thinks of flowers - blossoms - as vulnerable, easily spoiled by frost, tattered by wind, or reduced to sagging sorrow by rain. We have a dwarf rhododendron that without fail, early each year, covers itself with delicate, single white blossoms of striking loveliness. But it foolishly comes into bloom well before the danger of night frosts is over. Almost always, after only a few days, it is covered in brown floppy flowers. It never seems to learn.

But some flowers are impervious to adverse weather. At the moment, two specimens in our garden - one a shrub, one a small tree - are smothered in pinkish-white flowers. The blooms look fragile but are as tough as old leather. They are "winter flowering" by definition. It is what they do. They are lively exceptions to the rule.

The common yellow jasmine by the kitchen window is brilliantly flowering without a by-your-leave. What possesses such plants to be so intrepid? Bring a sprig of them indoors, and it will droop with the heat. Warmth and protection do not suit them in the least. And yet their petals seem no coarser to the touch than the tenderest petals of spring.

Of course, the seasons are getting a bit funny these days. We have passed the official first day of winter, yet near our front door a pot of red geraniums still flowers. Stranger still is a a photo taken last August by a friend who lives in Edinburgh. The photo shows a small clump of daffodils in a public garden near his home. These daffs are in perfect bloom, just as if it were March. Were they latecomers or early-bloomers? When he told me about his discovery, I'd just been replanting some daffodil bulbs. They could not have been more dormant. He sent a photo to experts at the Royal Botanical Garden. Eventually a spokesman admitted that their official explanation was that there wasn't one.

As for today, I'm watching those wild willows. Perhaps they too will boldly defy the norm. And are the two dogs remotely interested in all this seasonal-nature speculation and fascination? Are they waiting eagerly for the trees to leaf again?

Not at all. Their sole interest in trees is confined to the enrapturing perfumes their noses detect just where the tree trunk emerges from the ground. They don't care a button if the tree in question is actually a tree, or just another lamp post.

Priorities, after all, are priorities.

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