How’s the weather


Witch hazel

Last week was Spring Break at Framingham State, so today was the first time I’d been on campus in over a week. It’s been an unseasonably cold spring: in Newton, our tulips started to sprout leaves about a week ago and then promptly stopped, their growth stunted by a dismaying string of below-freezing nights. I’d hoped that the end of Spring Break would coincide with the arrival of spring weather, but instead, today is cold and gray, with the forecast calling for a nor’easter and overnight snow.

Given how slow spring is in arriving this year, you’d think that a sparse sprinkling of witch hazel blossoms next to the library at Framingham State–the first flowering thing I’ve seen all spring–would be enough to bring a hint of cheer, but any cheeriness was quashed when I checked my Flickr archives and found this:

Witch hazel

This is what this same witch hazel shrub looked like last March 7th, just before a storm brought sixteen inches of fresh snow. That wasn’t the final snowstorm we had last March–we got another eight inches on March 19th–but realizing that this time last year, we had snowdrops blooming under our eaves…

Snowdrops in snow - March 27 / Day 86

…was enough to drive me to despair, given that this same spot is still buried under a remnant of all the snow J has raked off our roof this year.

Cervantes said comparisons are odious, and Theodore Roosevelt said comparison is the thief of joy. Had I nothing to compare this weather with, I might be content that there is something blooming, somewhere. Instead, I look at that image of last year’s snowdrops–my calendar image for the month of March–and feel a bit like a child who’s been told there will be no Christmas this year. Yes, the spring will arrive, eventually, but how will it compare to the Photos of Springs Past?

Not yet hammock season

All the times J and I have passed this hammock on our way to or from our local T stop, I’ve never seen anyone lying in it. Still, there’s something soothing about the sight of an empty (and thus inviting) hammock hanging between two trees, even if it’s the middle of February and the snow is puddled with melt water.

Well-dressed

Today and yesterday have been mercifully mild: February thaw. The last looming glaciers of icy snow thundered from our roof on Friday, and there are bare patches of muddy ground beneath the towering pines that fringe our neighbor’s yard. Yesterday we had lunch in Jamaica Plain, where the sidewalks were thronged with window-shoppers, baby-strollers, dog-walkers, and more than a few people sitting outside eating ice cream: a defiant thumbing-of-one’s nose to Old Man Winter.

Dirty snow / buried bench

Old Man Winter isn’t done with us yet: there’s a chance of snow showers tonight, the possibility of more snow on Wednesday, and rumors of snow next weekend. Everyone knows March is a fickle month–in like a lion, out like a lamb–but that doesn’t matter right now, when the temperature is well above freezing and our ears thrill to the sound of bird calls and dripping melt water.

Afternoon commute

Today’s snowstorm arrived right on schedule, the flakes starting to fall at Framingham State around 10:30 am, while I was in my office conferencing with students from my morning class. By the time the college canceled afternoon classes and I left my office around 2:30 pm, the snow was already ankle-deep and still falling.

Snowy tree

This is the second time in a row that my afternoon Tuesday/Thursday class has been canceled because of an early dismissal, and it’s the third time this semester I’ve driven home through falling snow. In each case, my commute from Framingham to Newton has been slow, messy, but otherwise uneventful. I don’t really mind driving home in snow if I have the luxury of taking my time…and when work lets you out early, you have no real reason to hurry.

Driveway

On these snowy drives home from campus, I’ve been impressed at how calm my fellow commuters have been. When Atlanta saw three inches of snow several weeks ago, there was widespread panic, but New Englanders are well-practiced at winter driving. Here in Massachusetts, we joke about the obnoxious aggressiveness of so-called Massholes, but in a snowstorm even the most assertive drivers become calm and focused.

Whenever I’ve driven home in a snowstorm, I’ve been struck by a sense of cooperative camaraderie amongst my fellow commuters. We seem to share an unspoken understanding that we’re all trying to get home, and rushing or driving aggressively won’t help. Even in stop-and-go snarls, I find drivers maintaining a safe distance, calmly changing lanes, and letting cars merging from side streets or parking lots to go ahead: small courtesies offered in an attempt to keep a smooth traffic flow. There’s nothing like a snowstorm to (temporarily) cure a Masshole’s tendency to speed, tailgate, or cut off other motorists.

Snowy street

Although I’m always relieved to pull onto my own street at the end of a snowy drive, I don’t necessarily find these commutes to be stressful, just attention-intensive. Driving home in the midst of a snowstorm is a powerful form of mindfulness practice; you can’t hurry the journey, so you take each slow moment as it comes. The worst thing you can do when driving in snow is to make any sort of sudden movement, so everything you do slows to a calmly steady, sedate, and intentional pace. Whether you’re inching in stop-and-go traffic or cruising at 30 mph, the key is to stay steady: no jerking stops, no lurching starts, and no sudden swerves or turns. Instead, you spend a lot of time coasting, tapping your brakes to warn the car behind you as you gradually slow to an eventual stop. There’s no slamming of brakes in a snowstorm, just a patient tap, tap, tapping. Instead of tensing into a skid or swerve, you follow your breath, your secret mantra being “slow and steady all the way home.”

Buried patio furniture

Today was sunny in the aftermath of last week’s snowstorms, as so often happens. In Saturday’s storm, we got about five inches of new snow, which was less than we’d braced for…but that fell atop the eight inches we got last Thursday. Tomorrow, the forecast calls for another three to five inches, one storm layering atop the previous one. After so many storms, three, five, or even eight inches of new snow doesn’t sound like much: just add it to the pile.

Front door icicle curtain

Today, as I said, was sunny, but the temperature never rose above freezing. Still, the icicles that fringe our eaves and curtain our doorways dripped and elongated in the sun, and I found myself hoping the snow piles would sublime under the sun’s radiating glance, passing straight from solid to vapor: snow piles slipping away as mist. Although it’s true that snow piles sometimes shrink on dry and windy days, I can’t say we have any less snow tonight than we did this morning. Still, it’s cheering to see the sun baking exposed patches of road even though too many of our neighbors still haven’t cleared their sidewalks.

Buried birdbath

Later this week, the forecasters promise temperatures warm enough to melt some of the snow: anything to make an inroad on so much accumulation. Although J dutifully trudges through knee-deep snow to fill our backyard bird feeder, it will be a while before the sun sees the bottom of our backyard birdbath, and even longer (I suspect) before it’s warm enough for any brave bird to dip a tentative toe in its brisk bath.

The perfect man...on sale

Friday is my usual grocery day, so yesterday I took advantage of a one-day respite between snowstorms to stock up on provisions for the week. The grocery store parking lot was more crowded than usual, with enormous snow piles taking up a whole row of parking spaces. As I approached the store, a handful of college guys in sweatshirts and slouchy jeans poured out of a car and sauntered in ahead of me, making a bee-line for a colorful display of flowers, chocolates, and heart-shaped balloons. Obviously their girlfriends have trained them well.

A singing spot of color

In the produce section, an employee stood by a display of boxed strawberries and a chocolate fountain, a throng of women waiting in line to select the berries they’d dip. All over the store, lone men steered shopping carts laden with ingredients for a romantic meal, the pasta, salad, and garlic bread in their carts clearly indicating that Valentine’s Day is Dad’s turn to cook.

Icicles on a gray day

What I didn’t see at the grocery store yesterday were panicked people hoarding milk, eggs, and bread in advance of today’s snowstorm, as sometimes happens earlier in the season. This is the ninth snowstorm we’ve had this year: I know because we’ve kept a tally of “snow events” on our refrigerator, another mark added every time we get more than a broom-sweeping’s worth of snow. After eight snowstorms, we pretty much know the drill: we know to hunker down during the storm, dig out as soon as it stops, and return to usual the next day. After eight snowstorms, you might say that Mother Nature has us well-trained.

Fruity snowman

One of the things that sometimes surprises folks who live outside New England is how quickly we dig out from snowstorms here. My mom in Ohio, for instance, will sometimes ask whether we’re still snowed in a week or so after a New England storm that’s grabbed national headlines, and she doesn’t seem to believe me when I insist that even after we’ve gotten a foot or so of snow, life in the greater Boston area typically returns to “winter normal” within a day.

Snowy patio

We got about a foot of dense, heavy snow in our latest storm, and although yesterday was a snow day for local schools, by afternoon, the roads were plowed and J had cleared our sidewalks and driveway. I don’t teach face-to-face classes on Wednesdays, so yesterday was a stay-at-home grading day for me, and the only time I ventured outside was in the morning, before much snow had accumulated, and in the evening, when I shoveled a patch of snow inside the entrance to our backyard dog pen so the dogs wouldn’t face a wall of snow when I opened the gate. By this morning, everything was back to normal, the dogs eagerly clambering into their snowy pen and the main roads being clear down to the pavement. Being “snowed in” for a day is pretty much all we allow ourselves here in New England, with everyone returning to work and their usual routines the morning after.

Snowy seats

I don’t know if there’s a meteorological basis for this, but it’s often brilliantly sunny the day after a snowstorm. This means you’ll be rewarded if you dig out quickly, as today’s sunshine will finish the work you started yesterday. After every snowfall, you’ll see an occasional “Masshole” driving with a foot of snow atop his vehicle, but anyone who isn’t either new to New England or a jerk knows not to inflict their roof-snow on the hapless driver stuck in traffic behind them. If you clear most of the snow from your car, sidewalks, and driveway the afternoon after a snowstorm, the next day those surfaces will be baked bare by the sun, even if it’s an otherwise cold day. But if you let snow accumulate from one snowstorm to the next, heaven help you when you do try to dig yourself out.

Snow topped

This morning I had to scrape about an inch of overnight ice and snow from my car before beginning my morning commute, and when I arrived on campus, I parked in a spot I knew would be sunny in the afternoon. When I return to my car tonight, I won’t have to clean it, and it will be ready for the weekend, when the forecast calls for yet another storm. Here in New England, we don’t take long to dig out from snowstorms because we know the next layer of winter precipitation is never far around the corner.

New England Aquarium

Last semester I taught a student from a tropical climate who asked on our first 20-degree day whether the weather in New England would get any worse. “Oh, yes,” I replied, to my student’s immediate and obvious dismay. “There will be single-digit and below-zero days when 20 degrees feels warm.”

New England Aquarium

I don’t know how that student from a tropical climate is doing now that we’ve entered the frigid days of late January. When I drove to campus this morning, the temperature was in the single-digits, and my brief walk from car to classroom was razor-sharp, the wind cutting through me rather than blowing around. On some days, it’s so cold you can barely catch your breath, the cold knocking the wind out of your lungs like a fist to the chest, and this morning was one of those days.

New England Aquarium

This afternoon, I waited until the temperature rose to 20 degrees to take a short afternoon walk, and even then I only dared to walk around the block, nearly counting the steps back to my warm office. On a cold, brilliantly bright day, it almost hurts to look at the sharply monochromatic landscape, the streets and sidewalks blanched with salt and the snow lacerated with exaggeratedly contrasting shadows. On a cold and brilliantly bright day, everything seems too sharp, and you long for the warmth of bright color and the solace of softly blurred edges.

New England Aquarium

What an excellent opportunity, then, to revisit some of the photos I took when J and I went to the Aquarium on a November day that felt just as bleak and cold as today. “Can New England winters get any worse than this,” I might have wondered then, and my immediate and dismaying response must have been “Yes, they can, and that is why you should take plenty of pictures, saving up shots of warmth and color for a frigid late January day to come.”

The forecast said rain

Today is the first day of spring semester at Framingham State, and we have a snowstorm predicted for this afternoon and evening, with potentially a half foot of snow arriving by tomorrow. That’s how the so-called “spring semester” works in New England: you start in snow, then you end in spring. In between you navigate the bitterly cold days of January, the interminable month of February, and the spring-fever of March, when every ounce of your being longs for sandal-season. When April, May, and the end of the semester come, you feel like you’ve earned every last moment of warmth and light.

The forecast said rain

Whereas fall semester starts when New England is at her prettiest, spring semester begins in the dreary, dismal days of midwinter, when everything already feels worn and tired. Both the semester and the year are new, but everything else feels like a trudging slog. It’s easy in September to get your fresh-faced students excited about new ideas and new beginnings: everyone has new outfits, new school supplies, and a new resolve, and simply stepping outside into the brisk autumnal air is refreshing and invigorating. Serving up the same inspiration and energy on a cold and dreary midwinter day is much more challenging.

The forecast said rain

On Saturday morning, before the first fat snowflakes of what had been forecast as rain began to fall, I went into our front yard to look for snowdrops. Last week was unseasonably warm, and I’d heard rumors that snowdrops were blooming early elsewhere…and indeed, there were a few grayish-green shoots poking out of the earth beneath our eaves: the first hint of (eventual) spring flowers. Now, of course, those tentative sprouts are buried under snow and more snow: it will be a while, it seems, before our snowdrops emerge from the snowdrifts and bloom in sun. What starts in snow needs to continue in snow for a few months more.

Leaf bags and snow flurries

…you can shoot a single photo showing snow flurries (which appear here as blurry white streaks) falling on a curbside arrangement of brimming-full leaf bags.

Reddened hydrangea leaves

Late November is a challenging time for photographers. Most of the leaves have fallen and been bagged, leaving both the trees and ground bare. Most of the color has drained from the landscape, and there isn’t yet any snow to brighten the scene. The sun is well on its way toward setting in the late afternoon, leaving us to contemplate long, cold nights.

Although I usually rail against Christmas displays that appear before Thanksgiving, in the darkening days of November, I make an exception for Christmas lights. When the days are gray and the nights are long, any source of extra light is appreciated, especially if it is accompanied by a spirit of festive good cheer.

This is my Day 26 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

As above, so below

Today has been unseasonably warm and humid, a day that seems almost eerily out of step with the natural order of things. Many of the remaining leaves came down in last night’s wind and rain, which means the ground is carpeted with a fresh layer of leaves that are nearly as colorful as those still clinging to the trees: as above, so below.

This is my Day 18 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

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