Friday, May 27, 2016

Hot and cold

The most difficult part of living in the north country isn’t the cold. Rather, it’s the heat—which comes on like a bomb before one’s body can acclimate.

For three-quarters of the year, it’s cool here, and one of those quarters is usually cold. I’m no fan of days that don’t get above freezing, or nights that drop to twenty-five below zero, but at least when it’s cold you can keep adding clothes when outdoors, and another log to the fire when indoors (or just turn up the thermostat for you oil, propane, or electric folks).

When it’s hot, however, you can’t take off your skin. It’s hard to justify central air conditioning in a cool-for-three-quarters-of-the-year environment when you’re self-employed with restricted cash flow. And it’s socially unacceptable outside the home to do the next best thing and take off all your clothes. (Naked isn’t a desirable option, anyway, because by the time the air gets warm enough that you want to, the bugs are out—and a lot of them bite.)

Hot and cold, of course, are relative conditions. For my body, 35 to 45 degrees (Fahrenheit), on a sunny day, is the best temperature range for outdoor labor. It’s cool enough to keep your skin covered against cutting and bruising, but warm enough that you can remove layers once your blood gets churning. Depending on what you’re doing, you might even work up a sweat and peel down to a T-shirt. Not so if you’re just standing around, or working with cold items bare-handed, or if it’s wet or there’s a stiff breeze.

45 to 60 is the best range for light recreational activities, and work like gardening. The plants may disagree about that temperature range, but it lets you move comfortably in lightweight long sleeves and pants for skin protection, or T-shirt and shorts if you don’t mind dinging your forearms and shins. Bugs are less pernicious at this range, as well.

60 to 70—tops—is my comfort range for short clothing or none at all, just as this is the preferred temperature range for most people indoors during winter. Higher temps than these usually come with humidity, and that’s when my energy gets sapped. Over 80 and I can barely move. Over 90 and I’m semicomatose. Tough to stay productive in that condition!

People in southerly climes might wonder why this is a problem. It’s because we don’t get a chance to ease upward gradually. We acclimate to the norm of cool and getting colder. Come springtime, however, temperatures spike and rollercoaster, sometimes ranging 50 or even 70 degrees in a single day. After months of consistent teens through 40s or 50s (woo-hoo! Heat wave!), suddenly there’s a gorgeous day of 62 and you can fling open the windows and roll up your sleeves. But overnight might bring a killing frost, followed by three wet days in the 40s. Then another pop up to, say, 54. Then 71. Then down again. Up again. Down, up, down, up, down—and suddenly it’s 88, sunny, and humid for almost a week. At that, most of us northerners topple like trees!

While we’re going down, plant life is thrusting up at a rate that’s almost scary. Growth and reproduction have to happen in a short window, so sometimes it feels like we’re watching a fast-forwarded film. Unlesslawn mowing is your favorite recreation, it’s impossible to keep up with the grass growth. And weeds in the garden. Until July, when suddenly everything shuts off then reverses, like that strange suspension in water when the tide changes.

For now, however, entering Memorial Day weekend—the official launch of summer, calendar be damned—it’s freaking hot and we’re praying for a thunderstorm to cool things off again.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Open winter

My vocabulary gained a new term this year: open winter.

I picked up the term from hearing other people in the region use it. Both the term and the experience are new to me after a lifetime in New England and upstate New York. We’ve had snowy winters and less snowy ones, colder ones and warmer ones, wetter ones and drier ones, earlier ones and later ones, but this year set a record for the combination of least snow and mildest temperatures. The effect was a strange undulation between November and March, all the way through the months in between.

It’s an interesting contrast from last year, which was frigid for prolonged periods, and the year before, which was old-fashioned in its snowiness. This year we had a few modest snowfalls which melted clear to the ground within a few days. White to brown, multiple times a month. The frost in the ground was superficial, whereas last year it ran so deep, people were losing water. Our neighbor had frozen underground lines for eight weeks!

The pond iced over late, melted open a few times, and reclosed. Just this week, it closed and opened inside twenty-four hours. Over the whole winter, there was only one subzero period, and that quite brief. The most dramatic temperature swing occurred in February: minus twenty to plus fifty in three days. A seventy-degree change in midwinter!

Mainly we’ve had rain this season. It’s weird to hear the dry streams and the nearby river coursing loudly when normally that doesn’t occur until April. If all that rain had been snow, we’d be half up to our eaves with it, and not seeing dirt until May or June.

The problem with open winters is that ours is a seasonal economy. Many families make half to all of their annual income from snow-related enterprises, so they were badly hurt this season. For the rest of us, it’s been a boon. Dramatically reduced firewood and oil consumption. Way less wear and tear on plow trucks and snow blowers, not to mention our backs. No ice dams on the roofs, no impassable driveways—heck, we could have gotten away without putting snow tires on our vehicles. And mud season is almost nil.

The intermittent temperature spikes let us (and the cats) go out in the yard and do things, twice in shirtsleeves. Fewer wild animals and birds died from starvation or freezing. The downside is the ticks coming out a month early. Daffodils have broken through almost a month early, as well.

The extreme of this season is a result of El Niño, which has saved the severely drought-affected regions of the west and southwest. I am happy to swap moisture bonanzas with the fruit and vegetable basket of the country. Other people aren’t so happy, as they’ve been walloped with weird weather their own which hasn’t been so benign.

Still, for those of us with an artist’s eye, the season has been beautiful. If not white and silver coated, it’s been a gorgeous study in all the middle-tone earth colors and constantly changing skies. Soon the landscape will be green again. With all the ups and downs of recent seasons, I can’t imagine what the next few will be like!