A dark and reckless winter

Apple trees and a winter apparition weathering the bare part of January in Unity.
Dana Wilde | BDN
Apple trees and a winter apparition weathering the bare part of January in Unity.
By Dana Wilde, BDN Staff
Posted Jan. 14, 2012, at 6:44 p.m.

Winter is a dark and reckless thing, even when it’s half asleep. By which I mean, of course, the lack of snow cover in most of Maine through the middle of last week. At my house in Troy, we’ve had disturbingly mixed feelings about this.

In one way, we’ve felt like we’re escaping execution. Every day the driveway was visible was another day to pretend burial by ice crystal is a month or more away. There have been some nippy nights, some minus-single-digit mornings. The daylong flurry that fell a few days after New Year frosted the ground but then vanished in most places, returning the brown and gray of extended Thanksgiving-time. So this has been, by any standard of dread, a welcome delay.

On the other hand, I remember in younger days, the 1980s to be exact, spending blizzardlike amounts of energy waging mental war against global warming. Winter was clearly — to me, at least — warmer, shorter and less snowy than when I was a kid in the 1960s. We used to jump off the roof of our ranch house in Cape Elizabeth into snowdrifts. By 1983 or so there appeared to be no longer any such possibility in southern Maine. I remember fretfully watching the newspaper’s degree-day report ascending steadily over each previous year’s report. (A “degree day” is a figure indicating how much energy on average is needed for heating buildings — less and less year after year.) It seemed like the environmental apocalypse was gathering to rip us limb from limb. Not one to neglect an opportunity for psychic friction, I resisted it with all my might inside the confines of my own skull.

Here we are in 2012, and apparently it was not a phantom. Extreme heat waves, floods, tornadoes and winter storms erupted at record disaster levels last year. Glaciers are melting. Droughts have whole climatures by the throat. It’s mid-January before there’s snow cover in Troy. A huge majority of climate scientists — somewhere in the range of 99 percent, or so I have read and do in part believe it — agree the Earth is warming, and the vast majority of those agree that human activity is a contributor.

Now this is troubling, and surely bodes some strange eruptions to our Earth. But for several reasons, I’m not as upset about it as I was when I was 30. Anxious mental hand-wringing is futile. What can I do about the sea of troubles a warming climate might bring?

While I am well aware that the lack of snow is probably yet another portent, on the other hand by last week I had shoveled hardly anything white so far this winter. I’ve gotten up and down my driveway, both by foot and auto, with almost no difficulties. I’ve lugged home 5-gallon pails of sand from the town garage only once. No one has slipped and fallen on the way to the car. And the blue jays, squirrels and other brute neighbors appear to be thriving even though it’s technically the dead of winter. Is it this respect for simple conveniences that makes calamity, after living so long?

The meteorologists carefully point out that it has actually snowed the last few months; the disjointed part is that it has also melted. By a rough calculation based on local average figures, we get around 20 inches of snow in any given January in our wooded dell off Route 9. But as Bonnie observed last week, even when there’s no snow, we still have more than everybody else. When Bangor gets 6 inches, we get 10. Last Thursday the airport reported 2.7 inches and I measured 3¾ on our deck. So while the rest of the world has been mostly brown and gray this winter, that white New Year’s coverlet was still in our woods last week.

Which was sort of comforting, because the brown and gray in the world beyond our driveway has troubled my mind’s eye. While there’s a certain barren beauty in November’s floral skeletons and the green winking out to tan and brown, two months later the twisting crooks and joints of bare birch and maple branches seem cadaverous, or like they’re fighting in some claustrophobic panic. Surely many bushes and shrubs that depend on snow insulation have been burning in the open cold this month.

My mind just cannot let sleeping winter lie. I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams. Despite its conveniences, this snowless winter, like last summer, is out of joint.

Dana Wilde’s collection of Amateur Naturalist and other writings, “The Other End of the Driveway,” is available electronically and in paperback from Booklocker.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/01/14/living/a-dark-and-reckless-winter/ printed on July 23, 2014