Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Our view to the south
Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he'd often say in his homely way that "he'd sooner live in hell."
Robert Service, "The Cremation of Sam McGee"
Tall people are everywhere these days, but when I was a lad there weren’t so many, and I stood out, as the saying goes, among my high school classmates. They used to greet me with “How’s the weather up there?” This question must have been quite a striking witticism when first uttered in ancient Ugaritic, but it had sunk into tediousness by the mid twentieth century. Nonetheless it perhaps contributed to my morbid engagement with meteorological lore.
I went off to college on a mountain top where impenetrable fog would descend for days at a time. I continued my education at Oxford where drizzle was the default setting for daylight hours, which in winter ended about three-thirty in the afternoon. I suppose there is some advantage to precipitation you can’t actually see. Eventually I found myself gainfully employed as a junior professor at the University of Wisconsin.
There were certain winter days in Madison that were classified as “thirty, thirty, thirty”. The meaning of this was that the thermometer was registering thirty degrees of frost, the wind was blowing at thirty miles an hour, and the life expectancy of an assistant professor left unsheltered on the streets was approximately thirty minutes. One day early in 1964, after walking through such conditions from my house to the University library in approximately twenty-six minutes, I congratulated myself upon my continuing existence to the librarian lady at the desk. “Boy,” I said, shaking the ice follicles from my garments, “it’s really fierce out there.”
“Really?” she replied. “I don’t pay much attention to the weather. Which is a pity, seeing that it’s the only thing some people can talk about.” It was not absolutely clear that this remark was offered as a personal rebuke, but it struck home, since the only people I knew who were duller than those who talked about the weather were those who talked about television serials.
I could have spent a happy career at the University of Wisconsin except for two things, both unfortunately non-negotiable. The first was the size of the institution. It was huge, at least for my spiritual metabolism. Sometimes I had to take a campus bus from one classroom to another. The other was the severity of the protracted winter. When it snowed on Easter Sunday I knew that eventually I would have to move on.
Opportunity to do so came far more quickly than I could have anticipated, and we moved on to Princeton--where it snowed on the first Easter Sunday of our residence. Here, at least, the snow was regarded as an aberration worthy of clucking comment in the local freebee press. I have now lived in this same New Jersey town for almost fifty years, and I have collected much grist for my meteorological mill. The situation is somewhat confused. We have a man-made lake, a century-old gift of the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. It is fairly long and fairly narrow, and in its suitability as a racing course for rowers it admirably fulfills one of its principal intended purposes. In my early years in Princeton we often skated on the frozen lake in the winter. What you need for safe and pleasurable skating is a hard and enduring freeze that is not accompanied or soon followed by snowfall. We had episodes of such conditions at least once or twice a season practically every year until—until we didn’t. Then we had many successive years without skating, so many that at some point I no longer felt I was of an age to be skating anyway.
I regarded this as valid evidence of at least a local long-term warming trend consistent with the hypothesis of man-made global warming that was becoming a prominent topic in popular discourse over the past three decades. It was not scientific evidence in a rigorous sense involving carefully recorded and graphed data; but it was scientific in the way of old country folk, whom I have always admired, who base so many of their actions on conclusions drawn from their empirical experience of natural phenomena.
But we are now in the midst of this winter—if not the winter from Hell, at least the winter from Fargo. The long-frozen lake lies unskatable beneath successive carpets of thick snow. I have learned that I can fall on the ice even without the help of skates. I have done so twice, painfully. My biceps bulge from shoveling snow. My bank account shrivels before the demands of the gas company. That’s how the weather is up here. But what is the meaning of it?