WINTER IS boarded up, ready for shipping and loaded on the platform to be taken away. But it won't budge, no matter the number of ill-wishers who a few months ago were its well-wishers. February, the second month of the year, the third of winter and the first to tempt us to yearn for spring, is 28 days short but nearly, it seems, an aching duration long. It is a time when all the hard points that winter made in December and January are made again, as if Nature, which usually does not repeat itself, had a case of writer's block.

That's one interpretation. Another - based more on facts than feelings - is that winter is much like a visiting relative: More time and energy are needed to move on than move in. Winter can turn up at the front door in a matter of hours, walking into our lives as the quick freeze that leads to the long deep freeze. Those who study the migratory instincts of birds - one of the natural world's more resolute mysteries - note that the spring return is much slower than the autumn departure. Going south involves little risk; if the venture is premature, what is the difference? But to return north too early, on the seduction of a few mild days in February, is to gamble reckessly. it is less the cold that bothers the too-early migrants than the lack of food. If insects, seeds and berries were guaranteed to be garnishing the February landscape, the birds would be back by now. But they take their time in coming because winter takes its time in leaving.

This canniness isn't universal. Flowers are the most easily fooled of nature's innocents. Whenever we have had a warm February - a stretch of a few days in the high 40s - the forsythia and the erocus are the first to fall for it. They mistake a pilot light for a full flame. More than once, forsythias have yellowed the winter landscape, only to be caught by a late February or early March snow. It is not that the beauty is wasted - which it isn't - but that we are aren't used to seeing nature out of sync with itself. But if February tells us anything, it is that this is not the season for orderliness. That comes later.