The season tunes up

Spring is a hackneyed subject. It seems to inspire sentimental poems. In spring, cliches plague even thought processes, which become cluttered with flowers and chirping birds.

Early spring is another story. The tag end of winter can be a dreary season, graced only by the dubious indoor art of forcing flowers. The camel-colored landscape seems unrelieved, the warmth short-lived. Headlines in the newspaper's weather section cheerily inform, ''Winter Poised for Final Assault.'' The stores display sandals, but wise toes wear wool.

However, the hints of what's ahead redeem the time. March's delights are less obvious than April's, but they have the charm of the unexpected. Their scarcity makes them more precious. Their beauty sounds like single notes, pure, without orchestration.

Those who would hear those notes must hunt. Scattered in a garden on March 15 were: one potato chip sack (from Labor Day), one Milky Way wrapper (from Halloween), dead leaves (various dates) and underneath it all, a profusion of violets (surely early spring). The violets would probably not have been as rewarding without crawling on all fours to scrape away the trash and find them.

Nearby, tulips spear khaki-colored leaves and thrust them aloft. (That must be somehow symbolic.) The lawn may look like the Sahara, but green patches are camouflaged by straw. Even the weeds are welcome in the dead grass. The rock garden is spotted with yellows: wishful thinking or leftover Easter eggs? Neither: it's crocuses, like globes of light.

Every yard has its share of anonymous bushes, undistinguished by berry or blossom. Their only distinction is that they bud first. That tracery of green may seem like an optical illusion, but closer inspection reveals the real leaf. From far away, the lilacs may look like they did in November; in actuality, the pointed olive buds are swollen.

Golden willows grace muddy creek bottoms, proving Robert Frost right that ''nature's first green is gold.'' The pale shoots gild the backdrop of duller gray-white branches.

The weeping willow's quarter-inch leaves encircle tiny cornucopias. Standing beneath its swaying branches can be as captivating to an adult as is a mobile to a baby. Oddly, winds that can knock over small people don't disturb the delicate stems. Beneath the willow, red tips of peonies pierce the frozen ground. Grape hyacinths gradually turn purple. The strawberries spread.

''Derring-do'' is a swashbuckling term for bravado, not often heard. But it may well apply to all this activity, which happens in the teeth of winter. Any of the tentative growth could be wiped out by snow or hail, but subtly it continues, inch by inch.

It may be backstage action, compared with April. Yet with its unexpected swell of life force, March provides the perfect antithesis to the February blahs. It trains the eye to look past dull surfaces, to discover hidden treasures. It is a season unto itself, but also a clear transition. For the full orchestra follows.

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