“Midwinter spring is its own season.” So T S Eliot remarks at the start of “Little Gidding”, reminding us that, in the time “between melting and freezing/The soul’s sap quivers” – and we recognise this brief, transitional season immediately, in much the same way as we recognise e e cummings’s very different “Just-spring”, that first phase after the thaw when the world is “mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful”.
The truth is, every place has its own, sometimes surprising, seasons, from the glorious July that I once spent deep in the Arctic Circle – cloudless, dazzling days when the thermometer frequently hit 30°C – to the treacherous climate of central California. “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” may not be an authentic Mark Twain quotation but it describes perfectly the foggy midsummer chill that, in the Bay Area, clamps itself on to the unprepared tourist and gnaws down to the very bone.
On the other hand, some places seem to have no seasons at all. I recall a horticulturalist friend of mine leading a party of visitors around the arboretum at Sheffield Park Garden during a particularly spectacular autumn. He pointed out the rich crimsons and deep golds of the black tupelos, the several varieties of maple and the Persian ironwoods reflected in the lake – then suddenly a young African woman in his party began to cry, thick tears rolling down her face as Mike launched into yet another rhapsody on falling leaves. It turned out that the young woman, never having seen an autumn garden before, thought that the trees were dying – a sight only too common in her home landscape – and she was upset that Mike could take such pleasure in the transient beauty occasioned by their demise.
Here in Berlin, it is one of my favourite in-between times, the fortnight or so that I think of as forsythia season. One of the first garden shrubs to bloom, the forsythia bears its flowers in bright, golden rows along the elegant, bare branches around about the time of cummings’s “Just-spring”, the leaves only emerging later, when full springtime has arrived and the other, more cautious shrubs put out their blossoms. Now the soul’s sap, which quivered for Eliot’s midwinter, warms and quickens. Meanwhile, another season has begun to unfold, one that is taken very seriously here. To my mind, a clear sign of a successful society is its ability, notwithstanding all the agribusiness and supermarket pressures, to recognise and celebrate the changing seasons in its cuisine – and now that it is asparagus season, the market stalls and greengrocers’ displays not only foreground both the white and green spears of this wonderfully earthy product, they also sell sacks of specially selected potato varieties and bottles of wine to complement the asparagus recipes that have been handed down from one food-loving generation to the next.
Keats writes: “Four Seasons fill the measure of the year;/There are four seasons in the mind of man . . .” I cannot help but think he is wrong on both counts. The year unfolds through its first summer, heavy with the scent of mock-orange, and on into strawberry time – followed, sometimes, by the second summer of Emily Dickinson (“There is a June when Corn is cut”), before slipping into autumn colours, when the tree sheds everything but its essentials in order to go on living. It seems clear to me that there are many seasons in the measure of one year – and many seasons in the human mind. This is what keeps us interesting, this ability to surprise others and ourselves with new flowerings, unforeseen growth, inward winters made to host some Pentecostal fire and, most of all, the unlooked-for fruit-falls that come when we thought that harvest time was long gone.