Sunday, November 21, 2010

Florida Illusions

Those of us from the North who reside in Florida, which means nearly everyone you meet here, laughs at the idea of four seasons, which happens to be the name of the apartment I once lived in in the mid-l970s.

"We have a long hot summer, from mid-May to mid-October," people say, "and a few nice months sandwiched in between as a reward for the suffering and monotony."

And yet, if you look closely, you find glimmerings of seasonal change in central Florida.

Today, for example, I encountered five sycamore trees, their huge leaves like big potato chips on the sidewalk; soon the branches will be bare. The sugar maples, though not numerous, are soon going from their present yellow and brown to red. The dazzling raintree, yellow-gold in September, is now and will remain for some months a salmon color.

Most of the trees, admittedly, are not deciduous and do not change color, but it's possible to say that in these months of November and December, we have a good taste of autumn, helped along this year by cooler weather in October and 40-65-degree weather on most days.

The cooler, dryer air at this time of year sends most people into rapture: "Isn't this weather great?" they asked each other, confirming their own relief that it's not typical of Florida, ie., muggy and hot.

Last January, we had many typical winter days: gray skies and cold temperatures down into the 30s, with fears of frost (for growers). The rain and dampness reminded me of England: a penetrating cold that seemed worse than what the official reading indicated. We lit our fireplace quite often and used the heat extensively for at least three months, through March.

Happily, from November through March, the grass slows down its growth, and working in the yard is a pleasure instead of a steamy chore.

Then, the budding of spring arrives: new leaves replacing the fallen oak leaves, bursts of new color in unexpected places (the most dazzling being the yellow tabebouia tree with its trumpet-shaped flowers, brilliant against blue skies).

Our roses and hibiscus and bougainvillea have bloomed all along but now begin their high season, this being, after all, the land of flowers (Florida). But March and April, still pleasant and dry with days in the 70s, give clear signs of spring. People fertilize their lawns and plant new flowers.

So is all this an illusion of four seasons? I suggest it's a matter of looking, of taking in the details and appreciating the changes. Recognizing the subtle signs of seasonal change here in the tropics is a reminder of the importance of observation, a lesson I always mention to beginning writers.

It so happens I am reading the autobiography of Muriel Spark, who begins her book unconventionally with the details of what she remembers of the bakers in Edinburgh where she grew up. She is big on details--the key to good writing. And to remembering. The truth is in the details. And the weather is never a trivial topic.

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