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.