I’m not sure if that is a cheer for spring or call for help. Snow will soon be falling. The forecast this morning promised 6 inches (15.2cm) then it was downgraded to 3 (7.6cm) and now it is down to just over an inch (2.5cm). Perhaps it will end up being nothing at all but rain. Snowflakes in early May are not unusual, accumulating snow is. Even if we get 10 inches (25.4 cm) it won’t really mater since it is supposed to be 70F (21C) by Monday. Still, I can’t help but feel like Winter is making a mess of its seasonal death scene. It’s as though Winter has been cast in a bad movie or a Shakespeare tragedy. Winter has received a mortal wound and is dying but somehow manages to go on and on in a lengthy speech and just when you think this will be his last line, he bursts forth with several more. And then after all the philosophical babbling, he still manages to say goodbye to wife and children and friends. There comes a point when ridiculous doesn’t even cover it.
Thinking about weather reminded me of the Sunday Times Book Review essay a couple weeks ago A Man For All Seasons. It turns out Thoreau was such a careful and regular record keeper, scientists are using his journal to do climate research. Thoreau recorded the leafing out and blooming dates of hundreds of plants and trees from 1852 to 1861. He also took temperature readings, noted migrating birds, measured the depth of ponds and streams.
A number of the plants Thoreau observed have disappeared from the Concord area, but scientists have been able to study 32 spring-flowering native plants that are still around and compare them to Thoreau’s observations. They have found that the average spring temperature has risen from the 42F (5.6C) of Thoreau’s time to 48F (8.9C) in our time and plants are flowering about 11 days earlier. Yay for shorter winters, right? But the danger is that some of these plants need specialist pollinators and it isn’t clear that the needed pollinators are keeping up with the changes.
As wonderful as Thoreau’s naturalist documentation is, the man himself could be a real jerk. On April 30, 1844, twenty-six-year-old Thoreau and a friend out for a walk through the Walden woods, stopped for lunch. They fried a fish for their meal and accidentally set fire to the woods. They tried to put it out but it was no use. While Thoreau’s friend went to summon the fire department, Thoreau climbed up to a bluff to watch 300 acres of Walden woods burn.
Thoreau wrote about the fire in his journal but not until four years after it happened. He said he had felt guilty but no longer. He pumped himself up and decided he was God’s agent:
‘Who are these men who are said to be the owners of these woods, and how am I related to them? I have set fire to the forest, but I have done no wrong therein, and now it is as if the lightning had done it. These flames are but consuming their natural food.’ …When the lightning burns the forest its Director makes no apology to man, and I was but His agent.
What an ego! For a very long time there were people in Concord who continued to harass him about it, but Thoreau ruffles up his feathers and is offended! After all, he “had a deeper interest in the woods, knew them better and should feel their loss more.” Now that’s chutzpah!