Spring Is So Close You Can Almost Taste It
IT’S official. April is no longer the cruelest month. February moves into the top spot. Any nay votes? I thought not. And March has been no bargain, either, up to and including the first day of spring.
The past six weeks have brought snow, sleet and ice, borne by gale-force winds, and a whole new vocabulary of weather terror. “Siberian Express,” the worst two words in the English language, led the pack, followed closely by “frozen air mass” and “Arctic blast.”
This is the winter that has made New Yorkers grateful for a windchill temperature above 15 and almost delirious when the thermometer rises above the freezing mark. Never has the hunger for spring been so acute and so palpable. In a city that has been iced-in like Murmansk, residents are prepared to seize on any evidence of a warming trend, even water dripping from the tip of an icicle.
Across the five boroughs, Mister Softee trucks are straining at the leash. Ice cream cones are getting early licks. Weather scofflaws, risking chapped knees, have put on shorts and stroll the sidewalks, clutching their iced coffees with numb fingers.
These are the symptoms of extreme weather abuse. New Yorkers, pushed to the breaking point, have begun to crack. But there is hope. The first signs of spring are all around.
At the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, clusters of snowdrops, their ivory-white petals drooping like little lampshades, have pushed through to the surface of the shade garden, just past the entrance. On the garden’s website, the “Plants in Bloom” feature duly notes their first appearance on Saturday, in tandem with the bright yellow cups of winter aconite.
Lavender crocuses have opened, spreading their spiky petals. Magnolia blossoms are poised to burst. Bluebells, daffodils and tulips have broken the soil and are shooting upward fast, just about ready to roll.
The first spring birds, weighing the risks, are returning, although you have to look. Out on the North Forty, a wilderness area at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, all was silence a few days ago when I walked the trails. The only sightings were jets on their final approach to Kennedy International Airport. Up the shoreline a few miles, at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Canada geese and sea gulls still held sway. A birding logbook at the trailhead to West Pond showed one entry — an osprey.
“The birds are just beginning to migrate,” said Don Riepe, a Jamaica Bay guardian who conducts nature tours, and who swears that the last chunks of ice in the bay have melted. “You might see an osprey or an oystercatcher, and in a couple of weeks there will be Eastern phoebes and pine warblers.”
“The woodcocks should be starting to display now,” Mr. Riepe said. “They fly up in the air in a big arc, dive down, and emit a twittering noise — sort of an insect sound.” Imagine a door buzzer that says “meep.”
Further inland, red-winged blackbirds have been spotted in Central Park. They have company. “The robins came en masse on March 10,” said Elizabeth Kaledin, a spokeswoman for the Central Park Conservancy, after canvassing her troops in the field. There have been reports of brown creepers, too. Look for Carolina wrens, northern flickers and cedar waxwings in the coming weeks.
Spring isn’t just visible, it’s edible. With the season’s turn, the earth will give forth peas, asparagus, artichokes and ramps. Spring lamb with mint shimmers on the near horizon. At spring’s debut on Friday, if the weather and the greenmarket oblige, the Iberian restaurant Aldea in Chelsea will bring back a spring signature, seared ramps with crispy pig ears and cumin yogurt. Park Avenue Winter, a seasonal restaurant, will become Park Avenue Spring at the end of the month.
Ellary’s Greens, in Greenwich Village, could not wait. The spring menu went into effect a week ago, in very green surroundings. The interior of the restaurant has a pergolalike structure topped by a sheet of green metal perforated with leaf shapes, and potted green snake plants line the walls. A special last week was spring incarnate: a tartine of grilled asparagus, pea shoots and peas on grilled bread smeared with fresh ricotta and topped with shavings of Parmesan. It was earthy. It was fresh. Above all, it was green. The only thing greener was the “detox” juice: liquid jade made from kale, spinach, celery, cucumber, green apple, parsley and lemon.
On sidewalks only recently cleared of snow, the first outdoor tables have already appeared. New Yorkers have proved that they can accept bus exhaust and gawking with their steak frites. Now, like tourists checking into a Norwegian ice hotel, they flash can-do smiles as they dine alfresco, swaddled in down jackets, lips blue with cold.
It’s the hunger for romance, as much as food, that drives them to it. This is an area where Paris holds a monopoly, although it must be noted that the song “April in Paris” was written in New York by Vernon Duke and E. Y. Harburg during a harsh spring. Still, a little of the French flavor wafts this way, when the musical version of “An American in Paris” opens at the Palace Theater on Broadway in April, timed to spring’s reawakened pulse. Radio City Music Hall has already occupied the seasonal high ground: For the first time since 1997, it is offering a Spring Spectacular, now in previews and opening on Thursday, with the Easter bunny in a cameo role.
There is a soundtrack to spring in New York. It starts with “Easter Parade,” the sunniest of the seasonal melodies, but Tony Bennett’s “Spring in Manhattan” has a sultry romanticism, and Jonathan Richman’s “Springtime in New York” at least faces the meteorological realities in its first line: “On Canal Street in April when it’s 60 and the snow is melting fast.”
The spring themes of regeneration and rebirth carry heavy weight in cold climates. Russians, jumping the gun egregiously, celebrated the ancient festival Maslenitsa in February, with round blinis drenched in butter (maslo) standing in for the sun.
At the Ukrainian Museum in the East Village, March means Easter eggs, which Ukrainians have decorated in intricate patterns since time immemorial. “Pysanka: Guardian of Life,” which just opened there, shows off the eggs (pysanky in Ukrainian) in the museum’s permanent collection, with a special section devoted to work by the folk artist Iryna Bilianska, who developed a distinctive floral pattern in the 1920s and ’30s.
The eggs were originally thought of as magic talismans, with the power to protect the home and bring good luck. In time, artists added Christian symbols, like crosses and fish, to a repertoire of sun symbols, animals and geometric forms, in the same way that folk tales gradually incorporated Christian elements. In one Ukrainian legend, Mary, the mother of Jesus, approached Pontius Pilate with a basket of decorated eggs as a gift, begging him to give her the body of her son for burial. She fainted, spilling her eggs, which rolled all over the world — as far as New York, thanks to the folklorist Damian Horniatkewych, who spirited a collection of her eggs out of Ukraine at the beginning of World War II.
Early humans prayed for the return of the sun. We, their descendants, find spiritual renewal in the new television season. The first two Sundays in April are big days. “Mad Men” begins marching toward its final episode after seven seasons on the air, and “Game of Thrones” begins Season 5 (Winter is going!).