About the Weather

 

(video of cut trails after the 12/18/2020 snowstorm)

I live in New England– Massachusetts, to be precise. We can expect comparatively short summers that usually span from some time in May to some time in September. We’re known for picturesque falls that last into October. There’s an odd period between fall and winter that I’ve been told is called “locking time”– something I read about in John Gardner’s fine novel, October LightI’ve lived here for over forty years and have never heard anyone use that term. But it is true thing up here: a period where autumn is gone but winter hasn’t quite come. Then, usually in November, the cold rains come and in December comes the snow.

Winter stays until late March or early April. Then, there’s a tug of war between the seasons until May. It’s not a spring like I used to have back in Missouri– some friends of mind have suggested it be called flush or something similar. In Vermont and New Hampshire I’ve heard it called “mud season” when the top of the ground thaws but the earth below it remains frozen. The result is a mobile slop.

This climate has been my norm for the majority of my life. It’s not completely constant. One December we had Christmas dinner on picnic tables in the back yard. But there are predictable occurrences. There will be at least one– and probably more than one– snow storm where the snowfall will exceed a foot. There will be a few days well below zero. There’s usually a mid-winter thaw to give people hope, followed by a sudden freeze to take that hope away.

My sister still lives in Missouri. Her weather is quite different. Missouri summers start in May with the days going well above 90 and the nights giving partial relief. But the earth warms until there’s not all that much difference between day and night, just a long, sweltering steam bath punctuated by light and dark. Missouri winters don’t really get going until near Christmas– by my reckoning, anyway. And are often gone by mid April. She doesn’t understand why I remain up here. I can’t explain it to her.

My point is that the weather, as an expression of the climate, drives the local behavior. Over time, I think, it influences the culture. Jared Diamond says geography is destiny. As long as we include climate and weather, I think he may be right. It influences my world building when I write science fiction.

Up here, there are always stories of the Blizzard of 1978. Boston was completely shut down– there was not a road or a bridge passable for days. A man tried to walk across bridges to shelter down on the south shore and fell into the harbor and died because he couldn’t see where the snow was covering the water. Power was intermittent at best and out for weeks at worst. There was so much snow to be cleared that municipalities couldn’t figure out where to put it.

Since that storm, there have been as much or greater snowfall stretched over somewhat longer intervals. In 1993, Wendy and I bought our house. That winter it snowed every week or sometimes multiple times a week. At one point there was about five feet of standing snow around us. The banks on either side of the driveway were taller than I was. I had to aim the snow blower properly to shoot over the banks so they didn’t fall on me. We had to pull snow off the roof– the roofs of some houses and buildings were collapsing. We had melted snow running on our inside walls. There were so many claims the following summer the insurance companies didn’t bother sending investigators. They just told us who to call to get things fixed. The ski resorts ran all through June.

BO78 was a big event but it stood out in a climate of similar events.

There’s a difference between climate weather and catastrophic events. If you live on the Gulf Coast, you can pretty much bet a hurricane will strike somewhere. But it’s unlikely to strike everywhere. The storm that strikes Houston will probably not hit Miami.

But climate weather– the weather I’m attempting to describe here– is dependable and it hits everybody. I might get eighteen inches of snow and a town in Maine might get a foot but we’re both going to be clearing snow out. We both have to keep a working snow blower in the garage. We both have to plan for power outages and icy roads. It’s not an event; it’s a feature. Like hot summers in Missouri, winter in New England must be planned for.

Preparing for a climate conditions influences behavior. Behavior, over time, influences culture. Geography is destiny.

This was brought home to me as I watched news out of Los Angeles.

I have a mild fondness for Southern California. I was born there and because of that, I need never live there. That weather is completely different. Those residents have to worry about water and wildfires. Something that touches us up here not at all. On average, L. A. gets 284 days of sunshine a year and 34 days of precipitation. Boston gets 200 days of sunshine and 130 days of precipitation. L. A.’s hottest days average around 85 and the coldest days average around 48. Boston’s hottest days average 82 and coldest days 23. The coldest day in Boston in the last ten years was -9. (We hit -15 that day.) The coldest recorded day in Los Angeles ever was 28F, January 4, 1949. (See here.)

Is it a surprise New England and Los Angeles might have somewhat different characters?

I’ve lived in Alabama, Missouri, California, New Mexico, Seattle, and Massachusetts. The character of each is substantially different. I can’t speak to the source for those differences since I haven’t lived there in so long. But I can contrast my experience.

It seems to me that weather, and specifically winter, drives much of the character in New England. People prepare for the coming winter up here more than I’ve seen anywhere else. When I lived in Seattle I saw an inch or two of snow or sleet that would melt in the subsequent rain. In L.A., it didn’t happen. In Alabama, cold weather could always be depended on to be temporary.

But here, people think about what could happen if they run out of heating oil. They think what might happen if/when the power gives out. Come fall they make sure the snow blower is working and get it fixed if it isn’t. They get fresh gasoline for it. They check the furnace and get more wood for the stove if necessary. They make sure the back up generator goes on if they have one. Not everybody does the same things. People in apartment buildings of course do things differently.

But the first topic of conversation after a snow storm is always how much snow did you get? And people know how much they got.

There’s nothing special about New England in this. It’s just that winter is the center around which the region turns. Other things happen: drought, tornadoes (not many), floods. But winter drives the regional thinking.

Other places have different climate considerations. Out west, it’s water. In the summer you can’t turn on television news without some mention of the water supply. In the mid-west, it’s farming weather. In the southern mid-west and deep south, it might be floods– there’s a reason all those Depression dams were built down there. Or it might be the heat.

Each of these climate features torque the culture of the area. I had a friend who worked in politics in Chicago. He told me that anyone, city councilor or mayor, who didn’t handle the snow properly was bounced out soundly next election.

Geographical variation drives local behavior. People think about the weather. They talk about it. Boring conversations about the weather only happen in places where there isn’t any. And there are not many places like that.

That said, I’ll end with a note about New England.

People up here have a reputation of being unfriendly. I don’t find them that way but I can see how some might. There is a strong belief that you can mind your own damn business. Atheist? Don’t care. Republican? Don’t care. Dump your snow in my driveway? I’ll come for you in your sleep.

At the same time, I’ve cleared the snow from my neighbor’s driveway and they’ve done the same for me.

You don’t always get who you want up here. But you do get who you need.

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About the Weather — 4 Comments

  1. I was born and grew up in the midwest. Winter is the overwhelming fact of life in North Dakota as much as it is in New England for the small family farm — which is what most of the state was then. Now it’s more Big Agriculture, which there, as everywhere else, is an extractive capitalist industry, rather than the self-sufficient condition of the small, diversified family farm, of course.

  2. We lived in Maine for 18 months when I was a kid. Snow days at school had to have 2 feet of snow, broken water mains, and a dead furnace. In Bethesda, MD a snow day happen if there was a threat of an inch of snow. Portland, OR closes down early. Up here on Mt. Hood we have provisions for the school children who live at Government Camp, 4000′ elevation, but those who live in the village at 1500′ go to school unless the power is out and the snow plows can’t get through.

    Then too, up here on the mountain we tend to measure time in seasons and generations rather than digital minutes. Need a repair man? He’ll be out next spring.

  3. I grew up balanced between city life (New York City) and country life (rural southeastern Massachusetts). I recall a snowstorm that marooned us in the Massachusetts house–a barn that was in the process of being converted–with snow deep enough that when I walked out into the path my father had shoveled I could not see anything but snow on both sides and sky above (okay, I was a short kid, but that must have been 4 feet of snow). We had no heat, and few of the rooms were insulated, so the whole family stayed in one small room downstairs, all of us sleeping in one bed. It was an adventure–but as a lifestyle it would have paled real fast.

    In New York a heavy snowfall made everything more… festive? When the plow finally swept down our side street, pushing mountains of snow between the parked cars, a bunch of us took turns clambering to the top of the snow and “sledding” down in a cardboard box. I suspect there was real sledding in Central Park, but we were 50 blocks south and no one was hiking up there.

    I was living in Boston during the blizzard of 78, and actually went in to work the next day, because I had broken up with my boyfriend and didn’t want to hang around the house all day. I remember people cross-country skiing down Massachusetts Avenue–again, there was a festive atmosphere which would have paled if it had gone on too long.

    My tolerance for cold–never high–has diminished in the years I’ve lived on the West Coast. Snow is pretty; it’s a nice place to visit, but I don’t want to live there.

  4. Thanks, Steven. Yes, climate patterns definitely impact culture! Here in the Pacific Northwest, we endure months of gray skies and rain that lead many to depression along with sales of “SAD lights.” And now with climate change, we can expect more rain but less snowpack in the mountains, which we depend on during the drought summers (yes, drought in our land of green). And now wildfires are a standard feature. Can humans adapt to the changes we’ve caused? (Reference your fantastic novel “Jackie’s Boy.”) We’re losing a lot of species, including our iconic Pac NW Orcas.