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!

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