IT WAS LATE FEBRUARY, pushing midnight, and the weather had been warm—too warm for a month that is still considered winter in these parts of Oregon. I was headed to bed and had just stepped out onto the side porch to bring the cat food bowl inside when I noticed a whiteness dusting the walkway. For a fleeting fraction of an instant, I thought it had snowed.
But what I saw was not snow.
This year, our camellia bush bloomed more than a month earlier than I’ve ever seen it bloom in the twenty-one years we have lived in this place. It was the end of January when I noticed the first pink-tinged blossom, quietly glowing lotus-like among the glossy green leaves and lichen-covered limbs. I had mentioned it to my wife, Lori, feeling the spark of joy inside that is always ignited by the year’s first flowers: the snowdrops, the crocuses, the camellia, the star magnolia we planted two decades ago at the end of the driveway as a memorial to my mother. But my joy at seeing that first camellia blossom—the annual harbinger of spring—was tempered on that day because my mind dashed off into the weeds of worry about a changing climate and how it will affect our children.
In the days and weeks that followed my discovery of that first, too-early flower, the camellia bush (it’s a tree, really, at fifteen feet) became so laden with blossoms that its bony branches bent low—the sheer weight of all that pink flesh, heavy with rainwater, being pulled earthward by gravity. To pass by the camellia bush on the walkway, we had to stoop, to bow, being careful not to bump the blossoms that would, at the height of their blooming, rain down upon us, spotting our hair and eyeglasses, our skin and jackets, with petals and water droplets.
But that night in February, I went back inside the house and climbed the stairs to bed. Unable to sleep, I lay awake, blinking pink blossoms, but longing for white flakes. I thought of my childhood and those early-morning discoveries of new snowfall when I ran to the windowsill and looked out. I thought of our children, off at college, and how fast they have grown up, how ephemeral childhoods are, how quickly life flushes full, then fades. I thought of my mother, her star magnolia tree growing at the end of the driveway, the brilliance she brought into this world before she was taken from it too soon. And even though I tried very, very hard not to, I thought about ice sheets in Greenland and dying almond orchards in California’s Central Valley and the extremely low snowpack in the Cascade Mountains just east of here.
Each year, when they start to turn brown and drop to the ground, I use a garden rake to clear the fallen camellia blossoms from the walkway. I rake them into the flowerbed below the camellia tree, where a sword fern grows along with a limby rhododendron that blooms bloodred later in spring, a few trilliums that I transplanted from my grandparents’ farm outside Portland, and a shaggy carpet of bleeding hearts. But this year, the soggy blossoms are six inches deep on the walkway, and I know a rake will not work. So I resort to a shovel and a wheelbarrow, and it takes two heaping loads to clear the path.
When I put the shovel and wheelbarrow back inside the greenhouse, it dawns on me that I have used a snow shovel for this chore, and, for a few seconds, I am back on the side porch late at night, looking out at what I first thought was snow. But this time, I don’t allow the sadness and worry about the climate and my children to settle within me, to pull me under. Instead, I fight hard to stay in that singular moment. I close my eyes and breathe—inhaling the beauty of those perfect, pale pink, lotus-like blossoms, which last only a short while before they begin to wilt and fall to the earth, turning brown at the edges on their journey back into soil.