Today, on my early-morning walk, I was brought up short by a bright yellow dandelion. This wouldn’t be notable except that it’s the third week in December and we live in upstate New York. This is an area formerly famed for its cold winters and where folks used to joke, there are two seasons here: winter and the fourth of July. This is an area in which there was yearly competition between local cites – Rochester, Buffalo, and Syracuse – over snowfall totals. Fifteen years ago, when we moved here from central Pennsylvania, the first snow fell in November and the ground was snow-covered until late April when spring reluctantly began to appear. That year, it snowed on commencement day, the second weekend in May.
At this point, the cynical or skeptical reader is probably saying, well, that was no doubt an unusually cold winter and we’re just experiencing an unusually warm one this year. I wish it were so, but consider a few of the facts. Since the beginning of the 20th century, coinciding with the start of the industrial revolution and concomitant carbon-dioxide emissions, our earth has been slowly but steadily warming. Scientists tell us there is more CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere now than there has been for at least the past 650,000 years. In just the past 10 years, the rate of warming has appreciably increased so that it’s now warmer here than it was in Philadelphia in the 1960s when I was growing up. In fact, the 10 warmest years on record have occurred in the past 15 years, and 2006 was the warmest year ever.
Apparently the ‘50s and ‘60s were an anomaly in terms of temperature. We boomers were the fortuitous recipients of childhood winters filled with skating, sledding, and snow fort building. Even in southeast Pennsylvania, we could usually count on a white Christmas, and several school closings due to snow were typical each winter. Sometimes we couldn’t even get out our driveway, a long, gravel one, prone to drifting. Those days we would eat a hurried breakfast, and then dress in bulky snow suits, warm socks, high boots, and mismatched hats, scarves, and mittens, and venture outside to a transformed winter landscape. We spent hours playing, only coming back indoors to eat, go to the bathroom, or change into dry clothes.
Weekends we would often go ice skating on the nearby reservoir which froze each winter into an attenuated, bumpy rink. Families skated together, fathers fumbling with red fingers to tie skates, mothers reminding everyone to be careful, children and teens racing across the ice and then being rejuvenated by small fires on the banks and sips of hot chocolate.
Even on days when we had to go to school, a small group of us would walk (yes, walk) together, snow pants swishing, and use our book bags to slide down snow-covered hillsides by the road on the way to school. During recess periods (yes, recess; yes, in the plural), we investigated the changes made to our playground by the thick, soft white stuff. Winter vacations might be spent in the Poconos or Vermont where the ice froze so thick that you could drive a truck on it.
And so we passed the winter months, our lives bounded by the changing seasons. Now, in a horrible kind of symmetry, children in the northeast U.S. rarely truly experience weather variation. Houses are warmed and cooled, as if by magic, school buses stop at each house, ice skating is done, if at all, indoors on loud, brightly lit rinks that are open year ‘round. As we continue to warm our atmosphere by heating and cooling houses that are 50% bigger than they were in the 1950s, driving bigger cars more miles, and flying more often, we become less and less aware of the damage we causing. We who are privileged are cocooned from what many call “bad” weather. Kids don’t go outside to play at school anymore unless it is “nice”; at a growing number of schools, they no longer go outside at all. The adults in their lives go from climate-controlled homes to carefully warmed or cooled cars to hermetically sealed buildings for their work, shopping, and entertainment.
This way of life is convenient, easy. But much has been lost as winter fitfully retreats into our memories. I feel like someone who is confronting imminent death: at first I was in denial; now I am grieving. Perhaps some day I will accept the inevitable loss of a season felt deep in the bones. But for today, I feel an ineffable, ever-present sadness. And so I grieve for a way of life that is no longer. I grieve for the loss of a childhood where winter meant something and global warming didn’t loom large. I grieve for a planet under siege by those who should be its stewards. I grieve for winter.