Remember spring? It visited Chicago on Monday afternoon. At the West Ridge Nature Preserve, near Western and Peterson, folks were fishing, cycling in shorts, and holding their toddlers’ hands for shirtsleeved walks around the pond. On Tuesday morning, we awoke to gray skies, drizzle, and the neither-warm-nor-cold temperature of 47 degrees, an inversion of the previous day’s high of 74.
March is the most interminable month in the Great Lakes Country, because it promises spring but never fully delivers. The equinox arrived at 10:33 a.m. on Sunday, but no one can truly say that spring is here. The only greenery in the Nature Preserve was a park district trash bin. Rather, we’re enduring a chilly, mushy transition between seasons that offers none of the amusements of the one we’re leaving — sledding, skating, skiing — nor the one we await — sailing, rollerblading, making out on the beach. People who move to Texas because they can’t hack Chicago weather like to complain about the winters. In the winter, though, there’s something to do outside, and we can congratulate ourselves for doing it in 10-degree weather. There’s neither fun nor glory in zipping up a Lands’ End Squall Jacket, opening an umbrella, and walking to a bus stop. It’s March, not January, that should drive people toward the tropics.
Novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who grew up in Indianapolis, then lived on Cape Cod, called this time of year “Unlocking” — a preparation for spring, but not the season itself. Indeed, buds have appeared at the ends of branches, but they have not yet unlocked the leaves within. Even the birds know this: the warblers, sparrows, tanagers, and thrushes don’t return from Mexico and South America until April or May.
“The poetry of four seasons is all wrong for this part of the planet, and this may explain why we are so depressed so much of the time,” wrote Vonnegut. Vonnegut was usually depressed, no matter the weather, but a dreary March gave him a good excuse. “March and April are not spring. They’re Unlocking. What else could cruel March and only slightly less cruel April be?”
Willa Cather also found March annoying. In her novel Shadows on the Rock, about a French settlement in Quebec, she wrote that “It was the long, slow spring, March, April, early May, that tried the patience. By that time the winter stores had run low, people were tired of makeshifts, and still not a bud.”
The name March is derived from Mars, the Roman god of war. March is not a particularly good month for starting a war, though. Tanks and artillery are liable to become mired in mud. Russia started a war in late February. It’s not going well for them. The Anglo-Saxons, who have it rougher than the Italians this time of year, had a better name for it: Hyld monath, which means stormy month.
The children’s proverb describes March thusly: “in like a lion, out like a lamb,” meaning it begins as fierce winter and ends as gentle spring. That presumes a predictability, and a steady transition to spring, that are not part of the month’s character, at least not here. One of Chicago’s deepest blizzards fell on March 25-26, 1930, when the city was hit with 18 inches. Elizabeth Bishop began her poem “The End of March” with the lines “It was cold and windy, scarcely the day/ to take a walk on that long beach.” Bishop lived in Maine, but we can expect the same here. More than any other month, March contains all the year’s weather.
As Vonnegut and Cather pointed out, April often continues the spring tease that March began. Four years ago, the Cubs canceled their April 8 home opener because Wrigley Field was covered with snow. During the infamous false spring of 2011, the high temperature on April 28th was 46 degrees. By the time warm weather finally arrived, in early May, September was less than four months away.
When will we see spring again? It’s not on the calendar. The 10-day forecast, which runs through the first week of April, shows no temperature higher than 54 degrees. As William Cullen Bryant wrote, quite accurately, of March, “passing few are they who speak/ Wild stormy month! in praise of thee.” Bryant enjoyed March, though, because “in thy reign of blast and storm/ Smiles many a long, bright, sunny day/ When the changed winds are soft and warm/ And heaven puts on the blue of May.”
At least we got one day like that this March.