My cat, Bill, sits at the sliding-glass door watching the birds play on the grape vines. He doesn’t reveal if he’s hungry for them or not. But he’s at the door, mesmerized. He’s waiting for his moment to slip through the doggy door and attack.
Seeing the juncos, little birds half dark gray, half light, surprises me. They migrate through here in the fall and late winter. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them this early in year.
They remind me that winters aren’t what they used to be. This year has been mild, very mild. We’ve had a couple of cold snaps—just a few days—but nothing to write home about. This week, we had temperatures around 0 for two days. My dogs had problems on our walks and I had to cut them short. Back in December, we had a few days when the temps didn’t top 20. This year, sadly, the cold has been the exception.
When I was a Boy Scout, we had a weekend hike somewhere in the woods of northeastern Kansas. If I remember right, we had overnighted on the grounds of the Benedictine Abbey in Atchison. Either that, we went there for a day hike. It was rough terrain, hills and inclines over rocks and through trees. It was raining one of those sad, lonely drizzles that only happen in the fall.
At one point, I looked down and saw the most beautiful leaf. Orangish-red, it lay flat on the stone, its bright colors in strong contrast to the dark ground and gray day. The trees all around were nearly naked of foliage. I was, as usual, at the tail end of the line, huffing and puffing and wanting everyone to slow down. My head drooped and I stumbled up the hill. My hands were cold and I was wet. I stopped for a minute to look at the leaf. For some reason, it burned into my memory. I can still see it today. It was either maple or sweetgum. I was only about 11 or 12.
It was October 8. I remember the date for a couple of reasons. The first and most important was that I always looked forward to Boy Scout outings. The allowed me an escape from home. I was free from parents and with people who nominally, at least, accepted me. Another reason is that I looked at the calendar before we left. I was so set on that outing that I watched the calendar every day for a week.
This year, fall didn’t come until well into November, two months later than what I remember as a kid. The winters used to be fun affairs. Snow days and sledding in the back yard. In the fog of memory, it seemed it snowed all the time. We had snow days and snow weeks. My siblings and I built elaborate forts at the top of the hill behind our house and then kept building for as long as the snow fell.
My parents used to tell stories of winters even longer than the ones we had when we were kids. It doesn’t mean that more snow fell or winters were any longer, just as my memory of a leaf doesn’t mean that fall and winter come any later than they used to. But on the day they married, January 21, 1962, 21 inches lay on the ground. (On January 18 that year, almost 12 inches of snow fell.) I hardly remember anything near 21 inches. In my adult life, I haven’t see that much snow.
The last winter that was worth its salt was 2010-2011. The snow came late, almost none in December. I went to Berlin January 2 for two weeks. The day after I came back, it snowed eight inches. Then, more came later. It stayed cold enough that we had snow on the ground through February. That was a fine winter, a throwback to those of my childhood.
This winter, we had our first snow last week, a measly two inches. The kids had the day off mostly because the snow fell late at night and the schools could not clear the sidewalks in enough time for classes. Then, it got cold. We’ve been lucky to have snow on the ground for a few days now. But today, it will warm to over 40. Tomorrow, the forecasters say it will top 50, and the day after tomorrow 60.
Also a watcher a believer in anthropogenic climate change, I know some of this is self-administered. I participate in it as much as anyone. I get into my car and drive, I own a middle-class house, and I consume much like many Americans.
I resent it. I don’t want things to get warmer. I love the fact that we may just have increased gray and rain in the spring, as we have the last two years. We may have more violent weather, which I also welcome. But I don’t want winter to be mild. A warm winter is a crappy winter. A good winter is marked with bitter cold and snow and ice. When the days get short, I get to feeling better, and the darker it is the better I feel. Short, mild winters when the sun shines all the time just makes me depressed and irritable.
Since I’ve been bird watching, about twenty years, bird migrations have come to mark the seasons for me. I notice when the juncos come through in the spring and fall. The call of the robin means that spring has firmly planted itself on us. This year, the juncos are extraordinarily early. They generally come through here starting at the end of February or the beginning of March. They often migrate when there’s still snow on the ground.
Now they hop around and flitter beneath the grape vines I have yet to prune. Bill watches, waiting. I hop he doesn’t catch one. If he does, he will bring it in and lay it like a gift on the ottoman or he will leave a pile of feathers at the bottom of the steps to the basement. I hope that they come later next year, or that this year they’ve been wrong. If so, those little things will freeze, but that’s part of what nature sets up for them.
Or, rather, it’s what I’ve done to them.