Though I now live within the boundaries of a major city, I am fortunate in having a paved running path out in front of my apartment building. It is called the River des Peres Greenway, because for much of its length it hugs one of St. Louis’s well-known features. I am reluctant to say ‘geographical’ feature, or even ‘man-made’ feature, because it hovers somewhere in between. The River des Peres is not, contrary to reasonable expectation, a river. It is a drainage canal which human endeavor has enhanced with stone embankments and bridges across it, which in heavy rain handles most of the runoff for south St. Louis. ‘River des Peres,’ as someone once put it, is the fanciest name ever bestowed upon a sewer.
The Greenway is fairly new, and it gets plenty of bike traffic and many runners. I only cover a few miles of it and don’t really know how far it goes, but I am familiar with the plantings that civic planners incorporated into its design. There are long stretches of prairie style wildflower beds, which sprout black-eyed Susan and coneflower in summer. There are many kinds of trees, mostly too new to be impressive, but welcome just the same. At one end where I run (down by the Metrolink station) there are flowering crabapple trees, which are beautiful in spring. At the other end, where I turn around to head back home, there is a quiet (or nearly so) little hollow that is always wet, where ducks paddle and court, and where rows of cypresses are growing.
Cypresses, if you are unaware, are one of the few deciduous conifers. In summer they look mostly like pine trees, but they lose all their needles in winter and stand as bare as maple or oak trees. There was one lovely little cypress in the front yard at the ranch and I learned to look to it as an indicator of spring’s arrival—though it was a painful process. The tiny needles are not like leaves; they come slowly, and can be well developed before you notice they are there at all—especially if you’re running by. Then all of a sudden, boom!—there stands a lovely green cypress tree.
When I was in college I had a few different roommates, and one of them was a real trial. He spent most of his days drinking and ingesting any pharmaceutical or herbal products he could afford with his wages and tips from his job bussing tables. Though he had a renowned sense of humor and could be fun to spend time with, he also tended to exhibit unreasonable and sometimes offensive behavior. One day he was in an extended afternoon session with a few friends, and one guy said that he noticed that day that the grass had turned green. This was something he observed every year, he said, the day the grass was green and he knew spring had arrived. A nice observation, a reasonable person might think, but not my roommate. He jumped all over the guy. For one thing, the grass is always green—it’s grass! And for another, any getting greener as spring comes on is a gradual process; they don’t just make it green overnight! Seriously, this went on for a while, and developed into something of a tense debate, with the parties involved eventually retiring to separate rooms to cool off and talk trash about one another.
Of course my roommate was right, not that there was any reason to make a big deal of it. A reasonable person just appreciates a poetically expressed sentiment and leaves it at that. But yes, grass is always green, and it grows more lush and deeper green as spring grows warmer. Just like the cypress trees are gradually putting forth new needles until even a passing runner can see them and think spring has arrived.
I wonder if all people have certain things they look to in their anticipation of new seasons arriving. Anticipation or dread, perhaps, since we anticipate the blessings of our favorite times of year and dread the extremes of our least cherished seasons. Everyone talks about spring’s first crocus or daffodils, the brilliant and short-lived forsythia blooms or Bradford pear blossoms. Here in Missouri we love our flowering dogwood—our state tree. But there are subtler things, more personal clues, like my watch on the cypress needles, or my old friend’s green grass.
I wonder if any of these will still be relevant in another five years. Already the system is breaking down in our time of climate change. Robins seem to be here as early as January. Azaleas bloom in the first week of February and then get hit with a hard freeze. I told myself this morning that the next time I run out on the River des Peres Greenway, my row of cypress trees would appear lush and green. I hope I’m right, but I haven’t checked the forecast to see if another round of winter is expected in April.