Vera Veldhuizen is a first-year PhD studying war in children’s literature. Videogame nerd and dog lover.
Spring has sprung and we’ve had a very welcome but unusually sunny couple of days here in Cambridge. It seems there is no better way to celebrate the beginning of spring than lounging outside in the sun with some friends, absorbed in a book. In Dutch we have a word for this feeling of going outside in the wind, to let your worries and thoughts get blown out of your head: uitwaaien. Especially in academia, there’s such a high risk of getting stuck inside behind your desk and to miss the sun completely, and to get caught up in your own head until you’re going crazy. Because of the nature of our work, it’s almost impossible to switch off when you get home. I generally find myself tossing and turning till very late at night, trying to find a new approach or a better answer to my questions – or better questions altogether… When it gets like that for me, I have to return to nature and let it uitwaaien. Relaxing in the sun, letting the wind clear my head, I am reminded once again of the transformative powers of spring.
Spring, the revival of nature after the interminable winter, shows its beauty here with green lawns and gorgeous flowers. Cambridge comes alive, students and young families wander through the parks and by the river, and time seems to slow down to a halt. It also effects working days: the walk to the library becomes infinitely nicer when you are accompanied by singing birds and daffodils, and it is impossible to look outside and not have your spirits lifted. How nice is it to spend your lunch break dozing off on the college lawn? And how easy to fall in love with the world once again?
Every year, without fail, spring does two things to me: my mood gets lifted, and I pick up Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden once again. This book simply perfectly encapsulates my feelings about spring, and always fills me with the urge to go outside and let my toes play with the grass. It is also one of the prototypical examples of children’s novels that use the transformation of nature in spring as a metaphor for individual growth and transformation – something I truly believe in. In the novel, the protagonist Mary is a miserable, contrary girl who loses her family and is forced to move in with her grumpy uncle in Yorkshire. There, she discovers a secret rose garden. The garden is both a metaphor for the spirit of the late lady of the house, who’s passing greatly affected her husband and child, and for Mary’s personal development: as Mary nurses the garden back to its former glory, she develops into a beautiful and generous child, cures her cousin, and reunites him with his father.
I relate so much to this change, and how much it is linked to spring. As somebody who may have (had) some contrary tendencies, and who the weather strongly affects, I can attest for the great softening spring can do to us. Spring not only softens my mood after intense stress and winter grumpiness, it also fills me with hope for the rest of the year. I feel strengthened, and I know that soon summer will be around the corner, followed by a reprieve from the heat, leading back to spring once again. Sometimes, when I’m waaing uit like this weekend, I feel as if I can take on the entire world – or at least the ever looming PhD work. This feeling too is described beautifully by Burnett:
“One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands alone and throws one’s head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one’s heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun—which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years”
It’s hard not to feel a strong sense of nostalgia at the end of a spring day. I remember well the first time I picked up The Secret Garden, and the way it made me glow inside with the desire to go climb a tree or something. I remember the apple tree in my parents’ garden, and how my mother told me not to climb it because it would ruin my clothes – and how I somehow always ended up in my favourite nook with a favourite book. Whenever I see the sun shine on spring flowers, I am reminded of Mary, Colin, and Dickon, and the innocence of playing in a garden. And still, every time I read this monolith of my youth, and every time I take to the greens with my friends, I know that I am going to live forever and ever and ever.