Earlier this winter, with Christmas only days away, I ended up where I always do near the bottom of December — at the herb table of my neighborhood nursery, looking for a few green and living things to leave for my wife beneath the tree.
The store clerks sigh a little when I arrive each Yuletide and ask for herbs. It’s not the prime season for most of what they have to offer, so the plants on hand don’t look like much.
But I know New Year’s will bring talk of diets around our house — of less fat, more fish, something to make the food taste better besides butter and salt. That’s when we’ll survey the herb garden we keep near the kitchen and notice how sad it seems, how much of it has withered while we punished it with neglect. The small plants I place by the holiday tree are my small down payment on a fresh start for January — and a tiny nod toward the hope of greener, warmer days.
No matter how much I dress them with ribbon and paper, the pots of herbs I buy for Christmas point more toward exhaustion than good cheer. The chives, slightly wilted, extend shoots of green in a weak gesture of resolve, but parts of the plant are as brown as straw. The rosemary is ragged, the sage laced with holes.
After the holidays pass, we nurse the potted herbs along, bringing them out to sun on the porch, hauling them inside when the weather drops below freezing. It’s our way of holding the tiny flame of spring within reach, even when there’s ice on the driveway and snow on the grass.
Now, the wait for a new season is slowly coming to an end. Last month, I rose early to see the lunar eclipse, failing to spot what I was looking for. Trees and clouds hid the big event from view. But looking up, which is something I hadn’t done in a long time, I noticed something else. Our huge sycamore, which sheds leaves as big as catcher’s mitts, was mostly bare. It’s usually empty by the end of January, which signals for me the turning of a chapter. The tree is now poised to burden its branches with new life. The sight of it brings a sense, sometimes wrong but often right, that maybe winter has done its worst.
Spring will bring much to do. Winter freezes are hapless pruners, inexplicably sparing some fixtures of the yard and destroying others. Scanning the lawn at this time of year is a bit like reading the headlines, the dreadful mixed in with cautious signs of hope.
Our fan palms are brittle and mostly look the color of parchment, though I can see green stems near the base, some beating heart the frost failed to conquer.
Spring, I know, is almost here.