On Route 24 in Flanders not long ago, grumpily contemplating a long wait ahead at the Department of Motor Vehicles, we passed a bright flash of purple that had no business being there.
Lilacs? Surely not, not in mid-April. Lilacs say May just as surely as roses say June or holly December.
Slowing down for a good look on the way back, though, it was a lilac bush, all right, yet another manifestation — along with early-onset spring allergies and plummeting sales of Ugg boots — of a winter that was the fourth-warmest on record for the lower 48 states since the National Climactic Data Center began keeping records a century ago. Science blames an unusual gap between two climate patterns, in the Arctic and the North Atlantic, affecting the jet stream that defines weather in North America.
Then, just when it looked like summer itself might be a-cumin’ in a month ahead, skies turned gray and the temperature plummeted. Apple, peach, and pear trees that began blooming in late March had a narrow escape last week when overnight lows on the South Fork flirted dangerously with the 32-degree mark, bottoming out at 34. It has been “A Cold Spring,” as Elizabeth Bishop wrote in a poem by that name:
The violet was flawed on the lawn
For two or more weeks the trees hesitated;
the little leaves waited. . . .
Lilacs, declining to wait the two or more weeks until they normally appear here, are out now, in sunny spots anyway. Let it be noted, though, that there is an elephant in this vast ourdoor room. Along with melting ice floes and warmer oceans, a shift in bud and bloom times is one of the best ways to document climate change.