By Jason Davis, Director of Climate Stories Project
Recently, I rode my bicycle along the Norwottuck Rail Trail, a former railroad bed turned bike path, which links the towns of Northampton and Amherst, Massachusetts. Riding on the trail in early February felt weird: I had put my bike away for the season in December, despondent at the thought that I’d have to wait until spring to ride again, when the snow and ice would be gone. But here I was, zipping along ice-free pavement in what should be the coldest part of the year. Joggers passed by in shorts and t-shirts. Suddenly, a likely startled Cooper’s hawk (or maybe a Sharp-shinned hawk) swooped down and flew in front of me, directly at eye level. During those 5 seconds that I was trailing the hawk on my bike, I felt a bizarre sensation—my legs pushing the pedals became like wings moving up and down in tandem with the hawk’s. What delight!
Briefly commingling with the Cooper’s hawk lifted me from my unease with the unseasonable warmth. While part of me was enjoying the spring-like weather, I long for it to get cold, below-freezing cold, in December, and stay that way until March. I remember childhood days walking out onto Walden Pond in late January, my breath coming out in clouds, snot freezing in my nose, and marveling at the glassy solidity below my feet. Small bubbles and cracks were suspended in the ice, above the inky darkness of the lake. It was winter, cold and unapologetic. In Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 book Walden; or Life in the Woods, he writes: “On the 13th of March, after I had heard the bluebird, song-sparrow, and red-wing, the ice was still nearly a foot thick.” How would he respond to an unfrozen Walden Pond in February?
Like Thoreau, I imagine, my first love affair was with the seasons of New England. There is high drama in the turn of the year in this corner of the world—barreling thunderstorms sweeping away the stagnant late-August air, the first tendrils of frost appearing on the grass in October, the play of weak sunlight during short December afternoons, the riot of new life bursting forth in mid-April. Composer Igor Stravinsky describes the genesis for his masterpiece the Rite of Spring as “the violent Russian spring that seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole earth cracking.” The New England spring may be somewhat less violent, but no less dramatic.
Much of this seasonal drama comes from anticipation of changes to come. Thoreau understood this sentiment intimately: In his journal entry of March 8, 1853 he wrote: “At the end of winter, there is a season in which we are daily expecting spring, and finally a day when it arrives.” How would Thoreau expectantly anticipate the thaw of spring with no snow or ice in February?
So much of the worry about climate change is about well-justified fear of threats to livelihoods, health, and property— ruined sea ice, failing crops, flooded neighborhoods. These are vitally important concerns, but what about the impact of fractured seasons on our psyches? How can we orient ourselves in a world where the seasons can no longer be counted on as a source of emotional sustenance and stability?
Maybe younger generations don’t share my nostalgic attachment to the muscular seasons of my childhood, but I can’t imagine that they don’t feel a creeping anxiety wrought by such a rapid disruption of familiar seasonal patterns. A question looms low on the horizon like an August thunderhead: How do we find our center in seasonal cycles that we can’t count on anymore? Right now, I don’t know the answer to that question. However, I know that joy is still possible in our fast-changing world, even if it lasts 5 seconds biking in the windstream of a Cooper’s hawk.
2/28/2020 11:00:23 am
Your story really resonates with me. While I try to enjoy the weather the day brings, no mater how unseasonal it seems, the drastic changes in seasons I've noticed over the last 5 decades are disconcerting. I've always counted on the red-winged blackbirds' calls to notify me that spring is just around the corner. 20 years ago they didn't show up until well into March. Now, their raspy voices sing loudly in mid February. I will enjoy hearing and seeeing them no mater when they come back, but their early return is a sad reminder that our climate is changing.
Fernanda Machado Gonçalves
3/9/2020 04:19:58 pm
Your post reminds me of an atelier (creative writing) I made last year. It was early Spring in Montreal, the air still feeling fresh. One day, we were taken to a park for a special exercise: the activity organizer asked us to write down the stories the tree nearby had to tell us. And while I was writing all the stories "my" tree had witnessed throughout the seasons, the years and even the centuries, I realized it was awakening my senses and moving me in different ways. This experience may not sound exactly in tune with the subject of your post (climate changing). The,way I see it is that each season has its own meaning, that the changes we can see outside (a naked tree, a blooming sun, melting ice popping down a roof, etc.) trigger intimate variations in our moods, expectations and memories. More recently, and surprisingly, I even found myself longing for a "real" Canadian winter, the kind of intense winter that made me crave for Spring, and then Summer, in the past. Cause this year, snow was scarce, and so was cold (lots of rain instead). And it felt strange to me, as if I was neither in Canada, nor in Europe, but more like in an "unknown territory" where all my usual points of reference were starting to be swept away.
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