December 21st, 2019
In places like the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, snow dances fall under the category of “be careful what you ask for.” Like Buffalo or the Sierra or the Rockies, it’s a part of the country that can see major dumpage—snow measured by the meter rather than centimeters. Some years, the last thing in the world you want to do is encourage more of the stuff. Nonetheless, they have something called the “Heikki Lunta snowdance song” in Hancock, MI, a venerable tradition dating back to 1970 in which the locals beseech the snow gods for big snows in order to run the snowmobile races.
We got about 1.15 meters of snow (45”) back at Thanksgiving, so I’m just looking at those Michiganders beseeching their Finnish snowblower gods and I ask, “What in the hell are you THINKING?”
When I was a kid in Ottawa, the last thing anyone except us kids wanted was a big snow on Grey Cup weekend. (Canada has a Thanksgiving Day, but it’s at a more sensible time when crops are actually still being gathered and the whole country hasn’t iced up for the winter. You see, it usually dropped below zero about then and stayed there until late February, so any snow that fell was likely to still be there as stubborn patches of berm ice the following April.)
For adults, it was a nightmare season, shoveling and rock salt and “square tires” (the old style automobile tires used to freeze at night, including the flattened portion in direct contact with the sidewalk, resulting in a bump every revolution of the tires that persisted until the tires became warm enough to be malleable again.) They had snow chains back then, but it was usually easier to just use them to hang yourself than to put them on the wheels. There were engine blankets that prevented engines from freezing on really cold nights, but they carried their own risks. Bad enough that you had to get on your hands and knees on a minus twenty-five degree morning to shoo any cats out before starting the car, but you sometimes found yourself poking a skunk with your house broom—with predictable results. I know, because it happened to my Dad one winter. He smelled like the neighbor’s terrier, aka, “the world’s dumbest dog.” Dad’s just lucky Mom didn’t make him set out side that night in a tub of tomato juice. On the plus side, we didn’t have to smell the blood pudding that was his choice for breakfast for a few weeks after that. The skunk odor was an improvement.
Side streets, covered in white ice (very compacted snow) became favored locales for games of shinny, or pick-up hockey games.
Another more dangerous pastime involved grabbing the rear bumper of a bus leaving a stop and sliding along behind the bus for several blocks until it reached a heavily traveled street and the ice got patchy. It was a major bust if a cop saw you doing it. Not for you—for the cop. There wasn’t a cop alive who could catch a 10 year old boy on ice and snow. Most people put on weight in the winter. Not the police of Ottawa—we saw to it that they got lots of exercise and fresh air. Just doing our part to support our local police, ma’am.
Poor cops couldn’t even just shoot you in the back as you ran away. That would have caused talk. Hell, a lot of them didn’t even pack guns.
Ottawa wasn’t as far north as some places I’ve lived, and the longest night was about as long was either of America’s Portland’s. But it FELT more like the Solstice people think of when they think of polar bears eating Vikings and vice versa. You could go out on a dark, cold porch at 5pm, and watch snow dust sweeping across the white ice streets in taunting little eddies, look at the unforgiving and unwinking stars of a polar night, and feel your cheeks beginning to crinkle from the cold, and you knew, in your heart, that winter had finally arrived, and was going to dominate your life for the next three months or so.
It’s changing, of course. Temperatures of 10 and even 20 above are seen in March and sometimes February, the streets are normally free of ice and snow, which is a shame since many of the buses are now electric, eliminating the face-full of Diesel exhaust that was the price we paid for getting a free bus lift.
Still, that doesn’t mean the old style winters are gone. The polar vortex wobbles around more, and as a result, while most winters are warmer than they used to be, if the vortex settles over eastern Canada, then you could get a winter every bit as vicious as the ones we experienced as kids when our biggest concern was avoiding getting caught between a polar bear and his Viking.
For me, it’s the beginning of the countdown to meteorological spring. Officially, that’s March 1st. The calendar says March 21st, and my wood pile says April 22nd. In any case, it’s a turning point: the days have stopped getting shorter, and the weather will start getting warmer, slowly at first but with increasing confidence as the Earth rolls around the sun to the equinox, which is when Vikings balance eggs on the heads of polar bears. That is why there are no more Vikings.
In Australia, it’s the summer solstice, and a nightmare summer awaits. Fires are blazing along the east cost of the land, and extreme heat and winds turn them into infernos. The entire land mass set heat records on consecutive days this week, going from 40.3 on Tuesday to 40.9 on Wednesday to 41.9 yesterday. That’s the average high temperature, 107.5F, for an area larger than Europe. And the seasonal winds are building as the temperatures continue to climb.
Australia isn’t alone, just six months out of phase with the North American west coast, much of Brazil, Europe and much of Russia as the global warming change dubbed the pyrocene spreads like the fires in Australia.
But the seasons turn, and nothing humans do can change that, and respite will come. Hang in there, and be careful and courageous.
And don’t lose hope. Never lose hope.