The greening of March

Grass is the green flag of hope, the poet said - and in early March even crab grass would count in those parts of the country where black patches of snow and gray slabs of ice linger on, like die-hard guerrillas refusing to surrender the terrain.

At this season, half a year from the last greenness, we can wait no longer, even if it means hoping at second hand. Surrounded by bare trees, brown mud, and gray skies - living in a universe that looks like an unwashed bathtub - we turn on color television and watch tan young men in baseball uniforms do sit-ups on Florida grass.

We read the ads for summer clothing - ''cool, comfortable short-sleeve shirts for warm-weather wear''; ''light-weight slacks with a linen-like weave that breathes even on the muggiest day''; open-toe sandals ''for casual wear at the beach''; and, of course, the ultimate act of faith: swim suits.

We look at the chilled rockscape we once called a garden and buy an expansive acre's worth of seeds and a new rake, plus the laziest set of lawn chairs a sun-basker ever dreamed of.

In early March we become believers because what's the alternative? Do we want to accept as our natural condition this winter's unemployment, soup kitchens, and emergency shelters? Do we want to resign ourselves to a permanent state of moral slush, the March winds blowing wet newspapers about our ankles carrying dreary headlines about what happened in Assam and what failed to happen at the EPA?

Against this end-of-winter bleakness, the little band of optimists we call ''presidential hopefuls'' gather to throw their jaunty hats in the ring and invade New Hampshire, promising to clean up The Mess - any and every mess in sight, from Times Beach to Qaddafi.

They hope as professional hopers, and we hope with them. We groan. We sneer. We moan, ''Oh no! Not again.'' But in early March we need these knights on white horses almost as much as they need us. Almost.

This is the season of obligatory hope for economists too. Who could bear to send out bulletins of gloom-doom into this dirtily defrosting Ice Age?

The smallest rise in the retail sales of durable goods is hailed like the first crocus.

The sound of two hammers banging outside the study of Milton Friedman or Alan Greenspan in the crisp March air is enough to set off reports of a recovery in housing.

As for the inexplicable stock market, it seems to be behaving as if spring itself were nature's form of a boom.

In early March, as though we were flying kites, the rest of us tie ourselves excitedly to the most casual events: a California visit by the Queen of England; the mere prospect of Herschel Walker playing for the United States Football League; never mind how he got there!

Every little event shines with promise when the stale and shabby winter has left early March looking like something that ought to be hauled to the town dump.

Are we dupes to grasp like this at every blade of the grass of hope - not yet even planted? Is early-March optimism just a pathetic annual ritual by means of which we self-deceivers survive the last glitches of winter?

We who are duped by everything from astrology charts to television ads can become curiously skeptical about our springtime hopes, even as we hope them.

We are correct - we are accurate - to hope. Spring does come, every time. Early March is winter's last bluff - a rear-guard kill-joy.

The evidence of the world as a melting ice cube dipped in grit - this is the fantasy.

Regeneration, if we can trust our memories as well as our hopes, is the fact. Would we have bought a brand-new lawn mower last October if grass, and what it stands for, were not true?

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