Thank God Hallmark hasn't got hold of this swift season-within-a-season, called, with frank Yankee wisdom , "Mud Time" or even better, "Unlocking." No greeting cards mark it, no crepe paper, no commercial hullabaloo; brown is not a catchy color. No eggs are rolled in its honor, no halls are decked. It's just as well. This short cycle, always coinciding with Lent and taxes, is a plainspoken one, unsweetened and unadorned, far too forthright to be wrapped in colored foil.

New Englanders, who know it well, describe it best, that space of time between winter and spring when the air is raw and gusty and the light is changing and the thaw begins; "when the sun is warm and the wind is chill . . . winter is only playing possum," or so it seems.

We don't have Mud Time down here quite the way Robert Frost had it in New Hampshire. Our cans don't get mired up to the axles and we don't need to lay planks like flagstones between walkway and driveway and we miss the magical, eerie sound of deep ice floes breaking up on the river. All the same, Unlocking is taking place, beneath our feet and before our eyes. And in our minds; it is a state of thinking we've come to know, whether March seems like a penance or an open window. It's a time of transformation, of beginnings and endings spliced together so clearly that it seems to be the first month of a new year -- and so March was, on Roman and Christian calendars until the mid-18th century. And even under drought conditions below the Mason Dixon line, there is mud.

Heels sink. Windshields are spattered, as are sunglasses, and coat hems. In restaurants women surreptitiously scrape boot heels against table legs. Owners of white rugs tend to intercept visitors with alacrity. Doormats appear suddenly weary; the seasonal change is wipe your feet, which recently replaced got your gloves? and which in turn will soon be superseded by shut the screen door. Daffodils start coming up inside the coil of the garden hose and beside the forgotten snow shovel. After a rainfall, the earth seems to be strewn with small odd-shaped mirros scattered in yards and fields and alongside the but stop, wherever the ground is still hard enough to make a mold, a matrix, a many-pocketed muffin-tin to shape the water. Look away -- then look again, and you may think you see a green-haze here and there on bare earth in the distance, the green so ghostly and chimerical it seems to vanish if you look at it directly. But from the corner of your eye you glimpse it once more, faint as fuzz on an unripe peach.

There are other signs of the season, beyond the crocuses and the red glimmer on the branches of the maples. The cat begins to shed. Windows rattle, garage cans careen down the street. The ground feels less like concrete under the Adidases. Coat closets smell of wet wool. A kite hangs in a tree; on a bench an abandoned paperback thriller seems to thumb its own pages in the breeze. On the bus some people carry 1040 forms and Crisis Investing and prayerbooks, and on the fist balmy days most people carry coats just in case, still chastened by winter, chary of catching cold in "pneumonia weather." The weathermen themselves seem to come up frequently in conversation, referred to on a familiar first-name basis. How warm is it? we ask ourselves now rather than, How cold?

Without any holiday or occasion to impel us, people pick up tulips on the way home. In supermarkets and hardware stores you see them studying bulbs and blooms and packets of seeds. "I just came in here to buy a tankball," a woman told another in Hechinger's. Her hands were full of seed packets, tomato, chicory, dill, dahlias, marigolds, mustard. "Every year this happens. Sometimes I never ever plant them all. Know where I put these? Up against the sugar bowl on the kitchen table. Sure, I read them, for about a month, with the paper and the Kellog's. It passes." Her friend nodded sympathically. She was holding a window box.

You also see people standing around looking at their cars, and their houses, eyeing the chapped surfaces and rough edges, thinking of the chores put off till after winter; it seems less risky to contemplate them now. It's time to think about taking the salt out of the trunk and the insulation strips off the doors and -- if it doesn't tempt fate -- time to take the spring clothes to the cleaners. The short-sleeved shirts and sundresses look chilly. In the stores we gaze at tennis shorts with our collars turned up.

"I hate this," a friend says. "The dregs of the year. I'm cold but tomorrow I'll wear this coat and fry. Everything looks wilted and dead and tacky. Everything looks like it needs leaves on it or a good coat of paint. And I hate being shoved down the street by this wind."

A man passing in the street pauses, glancing over. Reluctant to be impolite, his disagreement gets the better of him. "It's invigorating . . . you know?" He smiles apologetically and strides on, brisk-paced, shoulders squared. For every one who finds Mud Time simply that, and a month of unsavory left-overs into the bargain, there are others who love its leanness, its lack of innuendo. To some, it's never Mud Time at all; it's always been Unlocking.

I like the time, and the term; certainly a more cautious one than Spring, implying far more: an opening, a turning, an expansion . . . but slowly, with care. I like the gradual, steady sense of transformation under all the surface blowsiness, the unstudied energy in the air urging that we get on with things. Simple wisdom: Tack it down or it will blow away. Walk in the sun, mind the step . . . wipe your feet.

The rush and scramble of spring cleaning, the buying of lambs and hams and hats, the repairs and celebrations are a bit down the repairs and celebrations are a bit down the road. There's still time to comtemplate them, to make plans, take inventory: spiritual and material. Now there is stronger light and the spaciousness of bare branches, an openness conducive to looking around and thinking about what to do and what to give up, for turning the mind from inside to out. A good time to think, while you can still hear yourself, before the roar of mowers and saws and air conditioners begins; now, while you can still hear churchbells and woodpeckers, and through newly opened windows, the sound of a kettle coming to boil, a snatch of talk, a clock. You can still make soup and a fire in comfort, and proceed with your own inner unlockings.

Take it as it is: Unlocking Time, Mud Time, is honest and rough-hewn, lacking polished manners, guileless, geniune, it tugs our clothes and pulls our hair, prankish and alive, nudging us out of our winter torpor.