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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Like forsythias, our lives also are changing

Forsythias signal rebirth and optimism in spring, and

Forsythias signal rebirth and optimism in spring, and then the inevitable change. Credit: Cathy Dobie

Behold the forsythia.

It has been a brilliant swath of color in the backyard, and all over Long Island, for weeks. It's always a welcome sight, bursting through the monochrome of winter with glorious insistence: Here I am, a feast for your starving eyes, look at me.

But now the forsythia is changing, its yellow leaves falling off and giving way to the green. It happens slowly, the forsythia always stubbornly resists its metamorphosis, but clearly it is moving on to a new stage of its life cycle. Still life, but something different. Still vibrant and pulsing, but something different. Something like how life is changing for all of us at this time of the coronavirus.

We humans are going through our own metamorphosis. We're changing, individually and as a society — even if we don't yet know exactly how we're changing, even if we're stubbornly resisting. It's still life, but something different.

We're finding new ways of experiencing joy and love and friendship, even amid the new waves of pain that buffet us, the loss of life and livelihoods and lifestyles, of jobs and rituals and companionship. We're finding new ways to procure the goods that keep us safe and healthy and entertained, even as we realize we might not need all of what we thought we needed. We're finding new opportunities to think about ourselves and our loved ones, even as we realize we will have to contemplate what life will look like after this virus is gone. 

We have a lot to ponder about the life that awaits us. Some of it we'll shape ourselves, like the gardens we plant in our yards. Some of it we'll discover as we go forward, like the woods and vegetation that line our roadways.

How will we work? How will we travel? How will we learn? How will we reshape our cities? How will we greet one another? How often will we stay in touch? How will we do health care? How will we congregate? How will we engage in sports and the arts and religion? How will we vote? How will we prepare for the next pandemic that is sure to come?

The forsythia is called the Easter Tree, which seems appropriate and not just because of the timing of its blossoms. After the long siege of winter, it signals a glorious rebirth and a reason for optimism. Curious, in these times, to discover that most forsythia in these parts have their ultimate roots back in China.

And curious also that in the 2011 film "Contagion" — in which a virus acting very much like this coronavirus sweeps the world in a pandemic that frays the social order and challenges researchers and doctors to identify it, contain it, and develop a vaccine — a conspiracy theorist uses social media to tout a homeopathic cure for the virus derived from forsythia, which leads to people overrunning pharmacies in desperation. The cure, of course, is a sham and the perpetrator is arrested. 

I make no such claims for the forsythia. A metaphor for the spirit we must have, yes. A balm for our battered brains, certainly. A guide to our future, one hopes.

The yellow petals are dropping now, landing on the softening ground, then are lifted and tossed by the breeze, these tiny vessels of beauty broadcasting their message across the land: Life changes.

And then the forsythia, its job done, will join the rest of nature's greenery, and the blooms of other species will enliven us. So it goes. And so must we go.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.