As one grows older, one loves the autumn more and more, but one fears the spring.
No doubt there is much to be said for joyous beauty, raucous beauty, bold and vibrant in-your-face beauty. There is also, however, something to be said for other kinds of beauty: quiet beauty, melancholy beauty, mournful and nostalgic beauty—the beauty of fond memories, of unfolding change, of mystery, of the unknown.
Although for most people in most years the arrival of spring gives rise to hopefulness, to relief from winter’s drudgeries, to a sense of renewal; for some, spring is also associated with rising rates of depression and anxiety. The condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), although most often associated with winter, in some cases also arises in spring and summer.
Alas, as some people constantly seek reasons to celebrate, my own mind constantly seeks reasons to contemplate and to despair. I can’t help it. My sort of happiness comes not from focusing on the positive and ignoring the negative things in the world but from consciously reframing those negative things I can’t help being mindful of, in meaningful ways, finding reasons for gratitude and acceptance.
I don’t spend as much time outdoors in the winter months as I do in other times. When March arrives, temperatures in this high desert are still cold and weather is still unstable. Sunny days are often still followed by freezing nights, and the last of the winter storms may still bring bouts of snow and ice. Here and there, however, small buds and tufts of green begin to show, whispering to the mindful: “it won’t be long now.” The air is again rich with scents and the calls of birds. The sun no longer glares at eye-level over blotted white expanses, but comes at steeper angles, distinguishing areas of light and shade that shift noticeably throughout the day.
Although there are still no flowers or vibrant foliage, there is this time of year a quiet, deep kind of beauty in the anticipation of these things, in the small reminders and reassurances that life is awakening, returning from faraway places, striving to reclaim and thrive and commune again with other life.
The return of life, always beautiful, never quite the same, is in a sense a mirror and a prophecy—a reminder of what is, and a harbinger of what is to come. What is, right now, is not just the return of warmer weather but also the relentless and accelerating march of a changing climate. What is to come is also—in truth, always—change. Watching the way the seasons transition each year, and how it differs from previous years, points to trends.
On my recent outings I have seen bees despite there not being a single flower in bloom: pollinators unable to feed themselves and to fulfill their age-old role in a now-broken cycle and a disrupted status-quo. By the time the flowers come, they will have fewer allies visiting them, and a lesser chance of giving rise to future generations. Such is the ruthless nature of evolution by natural selection. The processes that bring about species, in time also replace species with other better-adapted ones.
I visited some once-perennial water pockets, normally fed by rains and melted snow. Most are now dry, filled with sand and silt, surrounded by the brown remnants of reeds, sedges, willows, even the occasional skeleton of a once-mighty ponderosa pine.
In the highland forests of this region, as in most forests in the American West, many trees are dead or dying from drought, from infestation, from too many fires. It was perhaps two decades ago that scientific models began to predict the decline of aspens and conifers, some prophesying their complete devastation within just a few short decades. The prophesies—like most founded in disciplined scientific investigation—are coming true. Hard as I try, I cannot imagine these places without aspen trees, without pinyon and ponderosa pines, without junipers. And yet, I may experience such changes in my own lifetime. It is easy to admit that such transformation may happen in some far future, in some abstract sense of a planet where mountains form and erode, climate patterns change, oceans freeze and thaw, and continents collide, shift, and subduct. But to see it happening in real time is a different matter.
To see trees I have known—alive and thriving—better than some human friends, now dry, hollowed, broken, or fallen, is cause for mourning. To visit favorite places I have known to harbor grasses, mosses, and mushrooms, and to find these things absent, is cause for worry. To realize, standing by a sand-filled basin that was once a deep pool where I used to swim, that the air no longer smells of wet earth and the emanations of living and decaying flora, is—in a subtle but undeniable way—jarring and uncomfortable.
Seeing these places as closely and as consistently as I do, year after year, I admittedly also struggle to reconcile the glee that some feel about economic growth, about new construction and “development,” about increased human visitation in once-lonesome places. I understand it. I do. But it also makes me sad. Because I know. I know that this new reality, just like the old reality, is by necessity short lived. I know it is inevitable. I know it’s more complicated than “good” or “bad.” I also know better than to tilt at windmills.
It is in this acceptance that sadness turns to beauty—in the acknowledgement that I still have abundant wild spaces available to me to roam in; in the confidence I have that this will likely continue to be the case for what remains of my viscerally diminishing lifetime; in the gratitude I feel when I consider that despite overwhelming odds I have somehow found a home in this place and got to see it, to know it, to experience it as I have and as I still do. I now await the flowers, camping and hiking in comfort, the mysteries and discoveries still awaiting me in the days ahead and in the canyons I will soon venture to.
I am not happy but I am content and filled with reverence. And this is really the point: if I had the choice to trade this gratitude, this reverence, this melancholy for some simple carefree flavor of happiness, I wouldn’t. I feel more alive and hopeful being a witness to change—even painful change—than I would feel by any reassurance, no matter how convincing, that “everything” will be OK. I am a realist. To be a realist is to be unable to set aside the knowledge that “everything” never is, never was, and never will be OK. Only moments can be OK. Only ephemeral, transient, fleeting experiences can be OK. (And some, to be sure, can be a great deal more than just OK.)
There is no new normal because there was never an old normal. Normal is not a fixed quantity. Normal is dialectic. Normal is change, transition, evolution, transformation, flux. Normal is what it is. And for one who lives mindfully, “it” is astoundingly, tragically—always fleetingly—beautiful.
Spring is here. The desert is here. I am here.