Nothing Gold Can Stay

It’s 75 degrees and the sun is shining. In Ohio. In March! This morning, I walked out the door to be greeted by the impudent brassy trumpeting of the first lone daffodil, ruffling out from a bulb that hasn’t bloomed in years.

On a day like this, in spite of rich fodder–somebody wants the UN to order a ban on Dante, because the Commedia is politically incorrect; canonists and comboxers continue to parse who gets Communion; the US bishops have released a new statement on religious freedom–I just can’t Go There. It’s spring, and I can’t waste a minute of it on anything less than this ordinary and tremendous miracle.

My rapture over spring comes from having lived two-thirds of my life without it, or at least without the accoutrements of a classic literary spring–the hosts of golden daffodils, the lilacs last in the dooryard blooming, the crying of the frogs that someone better get between me and. Oh, it’s not that Southern California doesn’t have seasons. We just didn’t have the same ones the poets had. The old joke is that L.A.’s four seasons are Fire (autumn, when the Santa Anas whip tossed cigarette butts into infernos), Earthquake (winter, when Southern Cal’s most devastating tremors strike, in spite of transplanted Midwesterners’ superstition that “earthquake weather” is hot, humid, and still; that’s actually tornado weather), Flood (when spring showers scrape whole hillsides full of multimillion-dollar homes down to the sea), and Riot (summer, when it’s just too hot and smoggy and crowded not to hurt somebody).

In truth, I remember Southern California seasons as olfactory. Spring is petrichor–the actual scientific name (yes, there is one!) for the distinctive, ozone-y smell of rain when it volatilizes the plant oils impacted in hard earth or concrete. Summer is dusty sage, baking in the golden foothills that look like sleeping lions. Autumn is the licorice smell of eucalyptus on the wind, turning the whole population into drugged and grinning koalas. And winter is the incense of Douglas firs, trucked down from the Cascades and heaped up in every corner Christmas tree lot. Wonderful, evocative seasonal scents, all of them, but Vivaldi never composed for them.

I didn’t see my first real temperate-climate spring until I visited Britain in 1995. Suddenly, I “got” daffodils. They were everywhere–poking up from between broken gravestones in the village churchyard in Arundel, ranked in stiff golden rows in London’s parks, doing improbable vertical thrusts off the sheer black volcanic face of Edinburgh’s Castle Rock.

I moved to Dayton in 1996, and every year since I have been stalking spring. No matter how closely I watch, it happens overnight and suddenly and out of the corner of my eye, like all great magic tricks. The bulbs that yielded only whisker-thin greenery one year blare daffodil trumpets and brimming tulip chalices the next. Forsythia goes from an armful of sticks to Hello, yellow! while my head is turned, and lilac goes from stick to purple intoxication with the same swiftness a month later. Witch hazels erupt in puffballs of pale chartreuse sweetness. Star magnolias (which, having grown up with saucer magnolias, I refused for three years to believe were actually magnolias at all; I took to calling them Wet Kleenex Trees) wave fringed white flags. Redbuds and dogwood and hyacinths and all that other stunning abundance, it’s all here without warning, arranged by e.e. cummings’s “perhaps hand (which comes carefully out of Nowhere . . . .”

And then, just like that, it’s gone.

The terrible elusiveness of spring, for me, makes it a much more fitting symbol of the Fall than fall is. Of course the northern hemisphere’s transition from the dead of winter to the life of spring makes it a natural for Easter cards and decorations. But I always remember that the landscape of Palestine had far more in common with the Mediterranean desert climate that was Southern California’s natural state before the theft of water made it an unnatural paradise (see Polanski’s Chinatown, as good a proof text on the seven deadly sins as any you might peruse this Lent, for the backstory on that). The Resurrection, for me, will always be best illustrated by the high desert’s explosion into wildflower bloom after a March gullywasher. Spring here in these parts, on the other hand, literary spring, is always about what we had, and lost.

To wit, two poems, my two favorites about spring excluding cummings’s, which I can’t reproduce for copyright reasons. One’s from a lapsed Swedenborgian who imbibed rock-ribbed Congregationalism from the New England soil, the other from an English Jesuit. As different as they are, both saw in spring what I do–the joy of that first garden, the sorrow of its loss.

Robert Frost wrote:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief.
So dawn goes down to day,
Nothing gold can stay.

And Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:


Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –         
   When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;         
   Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush         
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring         
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
   The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush         
   The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush         
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.         
What is all this juice and all this joy?         
   A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,         
   Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,         
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,         
   Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

If it’s spring where you are, be quick. Drop the politics and the canons and the chores. Get out in it, grab all the juice and joy you can–have, get, before it cloy, before it cloud. Nothing gold can stay.

  • http://jmbalconi.stblogs.com MissJean

    Beautiful essay. I come to your blog from time to time on Sunday, and I admire your writing.I'm in Michigan's Thumb and we, too, are experiencing spring, and not the "false spring" we usually get before Winter's last hurrah of an icestorm or blizzard. It doesn't feel like Lent at all.For me, the sign of spring is the green of crocuses and miniature fleur-de-lis thrusting their leaves through the snow. They are an explosion of purple, yellow, and blue while the daffodils are just peeking up from the soil. I planted them when I first moved here from a more northerly clime, and they stunned the neighbours the first time they bloomed. "Are those real?" they asked. Have a blessed Lent. Thank you for blogging.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06767838116702355734 Joanne K. McPortland

    Thank you, Miss Jean. It's good to know there are readers between the rants, which seem to get more attention but aren't my favorites. :)We're at late April-early May in the bloom stage here in Southern Ohio, with 80s predicted this week. It already looks like an Easter card out there, so I'm going to have to make some horto-liturgical adjustments in my head to get through more Lent.Blessings to you, too.

  • http://chelsearpowell.tumblr.com/ Chelsea

    beautiful poems! That's funny, I've always remembered the seasons as olfactory too! Only I have the reverse of you–a glimpse of southern california and a whole life (albeit not as much of one as yours, just yet) of Midwestern oh-Hi-Oh. So my senses have a different smell of spring. But, having recently been introduced to the finer joys of plants, especially magnolias (not just saucer and star, but Loebneri, anise, yellowbird, nigra, and many gorgeous hybrids!), I am just as enamored as you with the magical sorcery of the glorious spring, with its weeping cherries and vivid forsythia!And amen to this: "Get out in it, grab all the juice and joy you can–have, get, before it cloy, before it cloud. Nothing gold can stay."PS–my blog-if you didn't already know and love-can be found at http://www.chelsearpowell.tumblr.comnot nearly as eloquently worded, nor even as abundantly worded as yours ;P you might find the occasional picture and breathless exclamation about all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small! Cheers!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09418757679645938089 ElizabethK

    As a Southern Californian. I really appreciate your idea of our seasons as olfactory–I have never thought of it that way before, but you are correct. Perhaps this is why, when talking to transplants who ask how I can possibly know that it's one season and not another,I tell them "you just know." And I love the description of the hills, here. Glad you now have a true spring to enjoy!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06767838116702355734 Joanne K. McPortland

    Thank you! And thanks for the blog link. I already know and love you and now I can know and love your blog, too. :) Your photos and observations on Facebook make my days.


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