Spring in Washington – with Aunt Dora and Louis J. Halle

Cherry blossoms in Washington, DC

All that’s been on my mind this week is the outdoors.  The weather has been gorgeous – sunny and in the low 70s.  It’s springtime in Washington.  At least that’s what the birds, trees and flowers are saying.  Even as I sit here – indoors, but with windows and doors open – I hear the crowing of a blue jay and the chipping of chickadees.  When I look out the window, I marvel at the dark pink petals of the flowering magnolia in my neighbor’s yard.  And if I breathe deeply, I inhale a bit of maple pollen that’s the bane of many an allergy-sufferer.   It makes me restless, as I want to spend my entire day strolling the streets and nearby woods to witness nature coming alive, even after a balmy winter.

Spring in Washington.  I’m reminded of a little book that my aunt Dora, an inveterate reader, gardener and bird lover, gave me when she moved out of her home of over 45 years.  She was divesting herself of the hundreds of books she’d acquired, a task which couldn’t have been much fun for her.  When she came across the 1963 (third) edition of Spring in Washington by Louis J. Halle, she thought of me as I had recently bought my house in the Washington, DC area and I, too, am a nature lover.  Now, seven years after Dora died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), it is one of the few physical mementos that I have from her.  I’ll admit that I haven’t read it all – it’s the kind of book you can dive into on any page – but page 44, originally written in 1945, seems oddly contemporary:

Monday, March 12, the wind was heavy from the south and the day grew steadily warmer.  Tuesday was clear, cloudless, and balmy, the wind from the west.  Wednesday the wind rose again from the south, the haze and warmth returned.  The south wind continued Thursday, the warmest day yet.   It continued Friday, and by four o’clock the record temperature of 86° Fahrenheit had been set.  It continued Saturday, when the temperature rose to 87°….. Doors and windows were thrown open, and in the evening people coming out of hibernation congregated in little groups about the street entrances of their homes to discuss the weather.  It was surprising to find what thronging life the city contained.

By the end of this week robins and mockingbirds were in full song all over the city.  House sparrows and starlings were carrying bits of straw, the sparrows bedeviling one another noisily in the gutters.  Flickers, red-bellied woodpeckers, and a phoebe appeared in the city.  The pintails were departing for their nesting grounds in the Northwest…

So, spring in Washington 65 years ago was remarkably temperate, just like this year.  Now don’t even dare to think that I might be about to deny recent evidence of climate change and local warming of temperatures.  For every trend there are outliers, and I strongly believe that humans are responsible for the weather abnormalities we’ve been witnessing in recent years.  My point here is not to get political, rather it’s to remember and appreciate spring and its associated memories.

The budding, flowering and falling of petals happens so quickly.  Yesterday, just a couple of the tulips we planted in the fall were still tightly furled, showing only a tiny bit of red, but by the end of today, six of them are in full bloom – deep red vases with bright egg-yolk centers sprouting jet black stamens.  Tomorrow the petals will be faded, lying on the ground, waiting for a breeze to float them away.  Meanwhile, the robins are busy collecting twigs, old leaves and grass for their nests.  It won’t be long before we’ll hear tiny chirps and squeaks from inside.  Maybe I’ll even find a nest to easily observe day after day, as my friend Joan did one recent spring.  (She kept a photo log which she sent me each week.)

There are a few harbingers of spring that I don’t find so enticing.  One, currently broadcasting its uninvited presence wherever you look or smell, is the Bradford pear.  The odor of its white five-petal flowers is stifling.  Some say it reeks like dead fish, while others describe it as musky.  I’ve also heard people say it smells like sperm or semen.  I don’t know….  But the odor, plus the fact that these Asian natives have become invasive pests in our area, outcompeting native trees, are enough to wish them away forever.

Spring in Washington, 1963 edition

Louis J. Halle (1910-98) had much to say about natural phenomena, though he wasn’t a professional naturalist or biologist.  In fact, he was a diplomat, working in the State Department in 1945, the year that he tracked nature’s awakening in Spring in Washington. While he published nearly 100 books, articles and book reviews about foreign policy, nature and humanity, the little volume that my aunt gave me is probably the most eternally relevant of all of his writings.  He makes this point himself in the passage below.  And, what he says rings even more true today, as our connection to trees, natural areas and open spaces seems to diminish as suburban growth and development spread.

A government functionary would not believe you should you tell him that the price of wolfram* in Turkey today is not so important as the perennial process of budding and leafing in the neighboring woods.  Nevertheless, the opening of the leaves concerned his human ancestors five thousand years ago, though they never heard of buying wolfram, and this alone should give point to what you say.  The price of wolfram is not, like the budding of trees, a dependable fact of life.  It vanishes from sight in the long perspective; it is excluded from the final reckoning.  When the official has completed his operation in the wolfram market he has not really done anything to enrich the life of man or increase his stature; but if he will observe the trees he may preach revelation to remote descendents.

*wolfram, it turns out, is another word for tungsten

Aunt Dora certainly was “an observer of the trees” though she didn’t relegate her appreciation of nature to spring and early summer.  All year long she maintained a bevy of houseplants.  In fact, most of the windows of her house were occupied by potted kalanchoes, begonias, African violets and even small trees.  Wherever sunlight fell indoors there were green leaves to absorb it.  And, when she had to downsize her possessions to move into a small apartment in the retirement home, she brought along as many of her beloveds as she could.  She tended them faithfully, while also observing the blooming of forsythias, cherries and maples, and the arrival of chickadees and sparrows in their season.

So attuned she was of nature and its changes, that she chose to die in her favorite season, the same one she had been born in.  She took her last breath in the month of May at the age of 90, but not before ensuring that Spring in Washington would be well appreciated.  I am the lucky recipient, but only of the 1963, $1.25 paperback edition.  We can all be lucky recipients of springtime in Washington – or elsewhere – when we open our senses to it.

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About abitravel

I'm a lucky person since I've combined my two major passions, conservation and travel, into a profession of sorts. When I'm not organizing or leading an ecotour to Latin America or beyond, I engage in freelance writing and enjoy outdoor activities with my wife. That's the nutshell version!
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2 Responses to Spring in Washington – with Aunt Dora and Louis J. Halle

  1. A M says:

    In Chicago, our late winter temps are also in the 80s–birds are rejoicing and flowers unfurling. No Bradford pears though. Thanks for sharing Aunt Dora’s memories with us.

  2. Naomi Landau says:

    Abi: thanks for sharing this with us. The two window greenhouses-both at 117 and then in Longmeadow- were really a source of joy for her, as was feeding the birds and chasing the squirrels away during the winter.

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