January, I defy you. Your dank, slate-shadowed days are but a passing blip, barely worthy of acknowledgement.
February, I see you lurking there in the shadows, ready to smother us with your utmost: Your truncated days when gray blankets the drizzly world down into the marrow of your bones and the golden touch of sunshine seems like a distant, irretrievable fantasy of the past.
But you can forget it. Neither of you are taking me down, because Fern will not let me forget that different, maybe better, days are ahead.
We have some history, Fern and I. This is our fifth winter together, and we’ve logged some miles across the seasons of our shared journey. After such an extended relationship, this winter she earned an official name, though not an especially creative one, because she is a, well, you catch on here—a fern, of the commonly called “asparagus” variety. This plant is described by one of the expert gardening sources as “an attractive herbaceous perennial that is easy to grow”. Without a breath for pause I’d shove that description one step further: These suckers are dang near immortal.
Fern first joined our household as a young sprout, growing wonderfully on a hot, west-facing patio, adding height and lush volume, almost like a great hairdo, to a grouping of flowering pots.
She performed so well that first summer that I decided on a whim, and a fleeting nod to the garden budget, to see if I could winter her successfully near a sunny window inside the house. This experiment was met by Fern with, at best, grumpy cooperation. Even when comfortably damp in her sunny spot, she littered needles all over the floor, jabbed me with prickly insistence when I tried to trim her away from the window blinds, and generally made herself a pain in the neck.
When I decided to move at the end of another hot summer, a cherished friend offered to keep my favorite plants while I was in temporary quarters for a few months. I debated about sending her to foster care, well-acquainted with her cantankerous nature, but my kindly friend was game, so off Fern went.
Temporary quarters stretched over the winter months in the sad, dark season of COVID, and plant reports from foster care were cheerfully delivered. All were doing well, though Fern was demonstrating her unsavory winter behavior. “I’m trimming and watering it and doing my best, but I don’t know,” said my patient pal. She told a mutual friend that one of my plants might not make it, and the friend said, “Oh, no, I hope it’s not her favorite!” Haha, I responded to that story, no worries there. If she dies, she dies.
But she didn’t.
Fern emerged again on the new patio when spring arrived, turned home to explode to an even more massive, resplendent size, fronds waving jauntily in the warm summer breezes. Another summer came and went as Fern reigned over the patio pot garden. Then last fall arrived, time to shut down the patio; what to do?
Somehow, I didn’t have it in me to face another prickly, messy winter with Fern. Maybe I’ll cut her way back and just try to save a few sprouts, I thought, but her root system had grown so dense I couldn’t even pull the blasted green monster out of the pot without help. Exasperated, weary, mind and heart focused on other things, I cut off all the prickly stalks and stuck the large, heavy pot in the back corner of the patio, abandoned. Fern and I had run our course together; surely those years of great summers was more than enough.
The holidays arrived, and with them the threat of the coldest temperatures in recent memory. Preparing outdoors for anything that could be damaged, I grabbed the pot on a whim, sure that Fern was dead but wondering if the pot might freeze and crack. I shoved the heavy thing just inside the patio door without further thought, scrambling to finish my freeze-prep tasks. Turning again to other things over the next days and weeks, I ignored it completely as the holidays commenced, just waiting to shove it back out the door as soon as weather permitted.
The post-freeze thaw brought sunshine, and with it, a surprise. Bending to move the heavy pot in a late surge of post-holiday organizing, I was stunned to see several small green sprouts emerging from the cluster of dead brown spikes that were alone in the pot just a few weeks before.
Fern was back. And I didn’t know whether to praise or grieve.
Wow! I thought first. No water, no nothing, yet I didn’t kill her. Dang, I thought next, do I really want to keep messing with this blasted thing after all this time?
Yet it seems that the die is cast. Fern stands stubbornly by the windows with the view of the woods behind the house, where dead leaves, muddy bark, and bare limbs declare the drudgery of late winter. Her prickly, unwieldy green stalks duplicate and triplicate against all odds, standing between me and the woody morass, declaring refusal to submit to the season. I will not be ignored or intimidated, I will not surrender, I will not starve or die of thirst, Fern insists. I will outlast. It’s almost as though she is telling me: You can do the same.
Who am I to argue? Yet on so many days, it is a hard message to accept.
Winter is such a daunting companion in times when the world suffers on nearly every possible front. COVID will not be banished. Zelensky desperately needs tanks to hang on. Certain branches of U.S. government operate like, at best, the mocking skits from Saturday Night Live, stretching credulity for any person with an atom of common sense. Eggs cost more than your electric bill. Global drivers of despair loom everywhere we turn.
What is left for our late-winter gloom but to watch for encouragement in the smallest of things? Fern earned the right to remain undisturbed in her post by the window, growing increasingly, amazingly taller, even while root-bound, dry, and neglected, interrupting my view of the dark, still woods beyond. If I remember to watch her progress, to pay attention, maybe I, too, can remember that beyond darkest of winter days, spring still follows. It’s so hard these days, isn’t it, to remember to hope?
So, I am keeping my eye on Fern. Hoping that I can be as tough as she is; not sure, every single day, but hoping. She sets the bar, or shall I say the branch, pretty daggone high.