It was a cold and frosty December day when I nearly tripped on the impossibly slick amalgamation of frozen moss at the edge of my patio, rescuing myself only with an undignified windmilling of arms that sent my messenger bag swinging and banging me across the legs. It had been a long and bitter week of hard frost, the kind that feels as though it’s settling into your bones and eating them from the inside out no matter how high you turn up the heat, the kind that buries you in bed under piles of blankets, creating a little blanket fort under which you dare not move lest cold air move in or you touch a chilly part of the mattress, the kind that makes you weep when you realise that your hot water bottle has sprung a tiny leak, even as you give thanks that it didn’t rupture in bed while you slept, spewing a flood of cold and colder water around your feet.
I am a clumsy person, really, prone to things like this, to slipping and sliding on nothing at all — I tripped on a miner’s lettuce once, just because it was there. In the frost I am extra careful, like I am made of glass, because it doesn’t take much to turn the world around me into an ice skating rink, and I am not particularly good at ice skating. Even when someone holds my hands and gently pulls me around, I trip and fall, tearing us down in a tangle of legs and feet. Laughing, mostly.
When I lived in Vermont, winters were alternating delight and terror. I knew that between the hush and beauty of freshly fallen snow, untouched by man or beast, settling on the branches of the trees and the remains of the grass, there lay something much more sinister and dark, the hard-packed, icy surface that would emerge from many feet traipsing over the ground. I slipped and slid my way through day after day until the snow melted away and was replaced by shoe-sucking mud, something else to trip on.
‘Bridge freezes before road,’ signs would helpfully remind me.
But for once, that day, I wasn’t slipping because of my natural clumsiness and a confluence of circumstances that made it particularly easy. I slipped because I was distracted, and what distracted me was this: A tiny thing peeping up shying through the weed-infested wood chips packed around the succulents tucked against the house to take advantage of its insulating warmth. It wasn’t the weeds that distracted me, though I made note yet again that I really did need to perch on the edge of the patio sooner rather than later to painstakingly pick them out, toss them over the fence to the chickens, and prepare to do it all over again when they returned, taking advantage of the gush of rain that turned the yard green almost overnight and fed a veritable flood of weeds delighting in the chance to flourish.
What distracted me was a stalk poking its way proudly through the wood, the few leaves of a very young narcissus, not really much of anything just yet, that spike heralding the emergence of a flower. These things, though, usually appear in January, or February, really, after the worst of the frost has passed and with the days growing longer and longer, hope springing eternal that March will come after all this year. Yet, more and more, I notice my bulbs popping up far too soon, and I spend the next few months fearing for them, wondering if they’ll be defeated by sharply cold water and flooding ground, fretting over their deep confusion, for this is not how things used to be, but it is how things are now.
Across the yard in the coming days, I espied more and more of its comrades, the papery freesia, the daffodils I knew from experience could come up in many colours, the occasional stray courtesy of gophers who dragged it partway to somewhere and then gave up once they discovered its unpalatability and general boringness. Gophers, much like lazy shoppers who prop up unwanted packets of meat in the pasta aisle, abandon things wherever and whenever they decide they don’t want them anymore, assuming that the results are someone else’s problem. Fortunately, daffodils are more welcome than pasta boxes rendered soft and flabby with sticky, dripping meat residue tainted with styrofoam and the faint scent of plastic wrap. They are vibrant instead of greying, with a sweet, tangy smell that is impossible to describe but unmistakeable to recognise.
This is, they say, the new normal in an era of climate change, with things twisting wildly about us and struggling to adapt. The plants we have spent centuries breeding and refining are as confused as we are, uncertain about what to do once thrown into an unfamiliar environment, and I cannot entirely blame them. I hardly know what to do about the situation myself. I feared, that morning, looking at that tiny, bold, too-soon stalk, for the fate of crops equally befuddled, for the far more serious consequences of perplexing weather and abnormalities cultivated by humans just as surely as we painstakingly planted out our hopes and dreams, row by row.