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A Yankee Notebook

April 7, 2014


MONTPELIER, VT – Probably the first sure sign of spring after a longer-than-usual winter in the Northeast is the increased volume of kvetching on the Internet by people who ought to know better than to try to second-guess its arrival. You can’t help but feel for some of them; they’re living on hope. Their heating oil and money are about gone, their cars won’t start, their dooryards are sheets of ice, and their cranial sinuses painfully blocked. For them, the term “blue state” is about a lot more than political inclination.

The sugar-makers, while tense, seem philosophical: It’s always happened, and for now will continue; we just don’t know when. The skiers, though the end of their season approaches, seem almost happy about it. They hurtle downhill in crazy costumes on sunny Sundays and try to water-ski without a boat across small ponds at the bottom of the hills. They post cell phone photos of themselves, smiling broadly behind sunglasses, titled “Shorts and T-shirts at Smuggs!”

Our house faces solar south. The dining room, where we breakfast, has windows facing south and east. At the spring equinox the rising sun shines in that east window and casts the shadows of its mullions straight down the dining room table toward, me sitting at the west end. I noticed this morning that the shadows have begun to angle a bit as the sun has moved north.

If I look to my right, out the big south window, there’s nothing but good news. The chickadees and their constant buddy, the red-breasted nuthatch, are suddenly competing with newly arrived migrants at the feeder. The warblers are back. And beneath them on the floor of the oil-spotted deck, a family of mourning doves quietly pecks away at the seeds and chunks of suet that drop from above. Nine feet below them, there are occasional tracks in the snow – little paws, big paws, large bird tracks, and split hooves – of the scavengers who dare to come close to the house.

Out back, it’s a different story. The deer who bed in the abandoned beaver swamp a couple hundred yards to the north are clearly as sick of winter, and as desperate, as the folks with low oil tanks. They’re on the move, and it turns out we built our house directly athwart their accustomed main route to the fields across the road. Evenings, it’s like “Night of the Living Dead” out there: dark figures on every side of the house, stealing back and forth through the spruces in search of browse uncovered by the strengthening sun. If we drive past them, they just look up in annoyance. But the sound of the car radio – even NPR – sends them bounding.

I put out rolled corn daily for the wild turkeys, who let me know if the service is a bit late. Yesterday they attracted an interesting guest, a red-tailed hawk that perched grumpily just outside Mother’s office window where it could keep an eye on both the turkeys by the barn and the bird feeders out front. But the turkeys were obviously too big for it to tackle, and the little birds too quick; so after a while it leaned forward and went looking for other opportunities.

Mother’s got a small rock garden out back with a statue of the Virgin Mary that hides the head of the drilled well. At the moment, poor Mary is still about two feet under a major snowbank, and may not emerge till May. If she had a Twitter account with her down there, she’d probably express much the same sentiments as the folks back there in the first paragraph.

None of us – even those of us who really don’t care much how long winter lasts – can possibly appreciate how hard a spring not only New England, but the whole northern hemisphere had 198 years ago, in 1816. That year, spring never really came. The previous April, Mount Tambora, a large stratovolcano sitting atop a subduction zone in the Indonesian archipelago, blew its top in an eruption that was actually heard 1200 miles away in Sumatra. It was the largest eruption in recorded history, raining ash and cinders downwind for hundreds of miles, darkening skies around the globe, and lowering the average global temperature about 1º Fahrenheit.

The effects of the eruption were enhanced in New England by several other factors: The 400-year period called the Little Ice Age hadn’t quite ended yet, and temperatures were still lower than they have been since; many farmers hadn’t returned (or would not be returning) from service in the War of 1812, so farms were short of help; sunspot activity was noticeably lower (in fact, people could see the sunspots without injury because of the thick haze of “dry fog,” or volcanic dust); and land transportation was still difficult, making it harder to move emergency supplies to where they might be needed. Rain didn’t disperse the dust; it was above the clouds. Some preachers claimed it was the Day of Judgment (They did it again at the start of the Dust Bowl 115 years later). Others, looking for a scapegoat, blamed Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with kites and lightning. The potato crop failed in Ireland, an ominous precursor of the Great Famine of 1845.

There was hard frost every month of the year. This wasn’t especially hard on people used to hard winters in uninsulated houses, but the effect on agriculture was devastating. Every time there was a warm window, farmers rushed to sow a crop, only to see it blackened shortly after it sprouted. The price of corn doubled, and that of meat dropped by half, as farmers sold off animals they couldn’t feed. Quebec City reported snow drifts in early June; a storm in July killed young vegetables; and August 20th saw snow on Mount Moosilauke, just east of the Connecticut Valley.

This spring won’t even approach “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death,” as it was called afterward. But the syrup of 2014 will be all the sweeter for its long-awaited arrival.

Photo by Willem lange