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The greening of March

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Grass is the green flag of hope, the poet said - and in early March even crab grass would count in those parts of the country where black patches of snow and gray slabs of ice linger on, like die-hard guerrillas refusing to surrender the terrain.

At this season, half a year from the last greenness, we can wait no longer, even if it means hoping at second hand. Surrounded by bare trees, brown mud, and gray skies - living in a universe that looks like an unwashed bathtub - we turn on color television and watch tan young men in baseball uniforms do sit-ups on Florida grass.

We read the ads for summer clothing - ''cool, comfortable short-sleeve shirts for warm-weather wear''; ''light-weight slacks with a linen-like weave that breathes even on the muggiest day''; open-toe sandals ''for casual wear at the beach''; and, of course, the ultimate act of faith: swim suits.

We look at the chilled rockscape we once called a garden and buy an expansive acre's worth of seeds and a new rake, plus the laziest set of lawn chairs a sun-basker ever dreamed of.

In early March we become believers because what's the alternative? Do we want to accept as our natural condition this winter's unemployment, soup kitchens, and emergency shelters? Do we want to resign ourselves to a permanent state of moral slush, the March winds blowing wet newspapers about our ankles carrying dreary headlines about what happened in Assam and what failed to happen at the EPA?

Against this end-of-winter bleakness, the little band of optimists we call ''presidential hopefuls'' gather to throw their jaunty hats in the ring and invade New Hampshire, promising to clean up The Mess - any and every mess in sight, from Times Beach to Qaddafi.

They hope as professional hopers, and we hope with them. We groan. We sneer. We moan, ''Oh no! Not again.'' But in early March we need these knights on white horses almost as much as they need us. Almost.

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