As spring approaches, the curtain lifts
Story & Photograph By Virginia Holman
When my family moved to Carolina Beach over a decade ago, I noticed something a bit odd: The weather on the island was different from the weather just over the bridge. Say it was raining torrents in Wilmington when I left work: ditches aswirl with grass clippings and Styrofoam debris, thunder and lightning cracking, car wipers tick-ticking at top speed. As soon as I reached Snow’s Cut Bridge, the roar of rain on the roof silenced abruptly.
Those days, I felt as if I’d moved to a balmy paradise made of blue skies and sun. Then winter arrived. Not our current unseasonably warm winter, but the real deal: You know, school-closed-for-snow-flurries, scrape-the-windshield-with-a-library-card Southern winter.
Our first few winters on the island were tough, and not just because the tourists were gone and seasonal businesses shuttered. A brisk winter’s day inland feels much colder and sharper at the coast. Cold fronts on the island bring eave-rattling north winds. Even my closed windows shudder and hum; once my neighbor’s unlatched storm door was pulled open so violently that the hinges bent and the glass shattered. Simple pleasures like a beach walk are bone-chilling, sand-stinging adventures when the winter wind is howling. Even so, my neighbors and I joke about it:
“Rather have a sunny day that’s 40 degrees than a cloudy one that’s 60.”
“If it doesn’t get cold, the skeeters don’t die.”
“It’s the price of living in paradise.”
I am always antsy and ready for spring by mid-February. Though there are often early signs — the appearance of a black and white warbler, irises and daffodils in yards with a sheltered southern exposure, the occasional goosebumped skateboarding kid clad only in swimsuit and ski cap — spring’s approach brings a strange season. The temperatures warm slightly; the ground softens; the world goes gray. Sometimes it rains, but mostly what we get is clouds.
It only lasts two or three weeks, this strange winterspring season, but it seems so much longer. Those gray days leach the color of life out of the landscape. Winter’s bright sun becomes a filmy blur, and as the temperature warms, the dim, low-slung sky looms overhead like a lid on a terrarium. The windows blur with mist. Even the birdsong quiets.
Our island skies also tend to gray with the approach of spring. The water, the sand, the trees, the mist, the quaking foam along the shore seem blanched. It’s enough to make you want to call in sick, crawl under the blankets with a good book, and hide away until spring.
But though the winterspring world is gray and muffled, it’s worth venturing out in the gloom. In the forest, fog collects on the longleaf seedlings and the turkey oak leaves, and the world silvers. Felled trees left by the trail from this storm or that bloom with fungus: beautiful scalloped turkey tails, occasionally, if you know where to look, a white lion’s mane.
In the fog, sights and sounds seem extraordinary. A red-tailed hawk perched on a branch in a clouded swamp, or a mullet leaping from the misty river feel like encounters with spirits.
There’s something about this micro-season that forces you to slow down and focus on what’s in front of you. What better walking meditation could there be than a beach walk when the fog moves in? If you time it right, you can watch the mist reach across the island from the sea and make its way through the streets. Soon, the world goes gray, and you can only see a short distance ahead. There’s no horizon. No sky. No shadow. Occasionally, clusters of people emerge from the mist, shapes that sharpen then recede.
Over time, I’ve come to look forward to these strange days. I like the way the world stills and softens. My gaze shifts; nothing is ahead of me. Nothing is behind me. My dog Gracie sticks to my side; my husband, usually charging full speed ahead, slows his pace, and the three of us walk in unison, quietly, and the seasons change around us once again.
Author and creative writing instructor Virginia Holman lives and writes in Carolina Beach.