This winter started early with a foot of unexpected snow mid November, and then 13 days later temperatures in the 40s and 50s invited the ground to turn dry and brown again. Then a few weeks into December, the temperature dropped below freezing, and it snowed just enough inches to cover the ground in bright white. We got a few weeks of ice skating on the rink that my husband likes to clear on the lake, skied some loops around the field in shallow tracks, and our two year old took her first runs down the sledding hill through the wisps of grass that poked through the snow cover. Then it got bitterly cold, and we woke up to wind chills of twenty below zero for a week straight. And now, at the end of January, the temperature is 36 degrees, the sun is out and the snow is succumbing to the heat once again. We made a snowman, and he’s shrinking as I type this. I’m not sure he’ll make it a full week. My skis are languishing by the back door, despondent in their respite from use. The snowshoes are sitting by the door, waiting to be needed.
The last few years I’ve noticed that winter is no longer the winter I knew in my childhood. Winters of my youth on the South Dakota prairie were cold, snow-filled and windy. Snow days were a given every year, and I got stuck driving home on early release days in my rear wheel drive car more than once in high school. Massive snow forts ruled the yard and fields across the road, and my brothers and I did our best not to break a leg trying to use cross-country skis to slalom down the hill behind the house. Ice skating on the frozen river runoff channels to “Lost Lake” (aka a cattle pond) defined the afternoons and weekends for months on end. Frozen toes, icy eyelashes and red cheeks were the norm. Snow and below freezing temperatures came in December and stayed until March. There were surely warmer years and colder years, and some unusual weather during those times, but it feels different now. Now the ice forms and thaws, I’ve started to expect rain in December, and snow falls and melts away before we can get our bearings. There are no massive snow forts in my current rural Minnesota neighborhood. This freeze and melt cycle keeps repeating, creating conditions that are unpredictable and different than I want them to be.
Sandra Steingraber writes,
Meanwhile, a friend calls to tell me that her otherwise very bright granddaughter, who is of nursery-school age, is having trouble learning the names of the seasons. They make no sense to her. “But grandma, you said that winter was cold!” Winter, when she said it, wasn’t. And there was the added problem of the forsythias. They bloomed this year during a warm spell that spanned the twelve days of Christmas. April showers bring May flowers. When the nursery rhymes no longer match the empirical evidence, what’s a three-year-old to think?
It’s no secret that the climate is different now than it was in the 1980s when I was a child. It continues to change as I type these words, and our human culture as a whole doesn’t know how to make the choices and changes to do what is necessary to start to heal what’s broken. There are those who say it’s beyond healing and we are headed for crisis, no matter what we do. There are those who say that if everyone would just change their light bulbs, we’d be moving the right direction. There are those who say “why bother?” when they realize the minimal impact changing a light bulb has in the face of what truly needs to happen to right the course the earth is on. There are those who disengage from culture and try to live off the ever powerful grid in every possible way. There are those who holler and fast and chain themselves to bulldozers to try to win a battle in a war that seems like it will never end.
Yet even those of us who know the facts and find them compelling and important still write blog posts on computers made with non-biodegradable plastic parts that are powered by the fossil fuel that needs to stay in the ground for things to have any hope of taking a positive turn. Even those who are committed fully to living in a way that is life-giving and sustainable for ALL life on the planet still find themselves traveling by automobile or drinking water that has been piped in across a desert or unexpectedly navigating a situation where the only option is to choose the lesser of two evils.
So. I’ve noticed that winters look and feel different than they did 25 years ago and that it’s probably not going to back to how it was then. A lot of people have noticed that, I think. I don’t know the answers on how to change the trajectory of the culture in which we live. But I do know that we have the answers somewhere, even if I won’t see them play out in my lifetime. That’s what keeps me changing my light bulbs and saving money for solar panels and planting an organic garden: The hope that the answers that are buried within the human collective — within the planet itself — will start to make their way into the freeze and thaw cycles that are so disorienting and feel so raw.
Maybe when we start to look for the answers in the discomfort of the unknown, we’ll see the way through.