Winter may be conceding defeat, at long last, (though they are still getting May snows to our west, in Denver and Minnesota). After our bit of sleet here last week, the south finally broke through the veritable wall of chill that always seems to keep New England cold, even when the Mid-Atlantic states swelter, most every April (and, this year, into the first half of May).
The dividing line between summery-warmth and early-spring-chill is often shown on weather maps by a warm front approaching New England from the south. We Yankees watch the approach of this warm front with both hope and cynicism. On rare occasions it flies right past us: I recall one hot spell in the first days of April (in 1990?) when we hit 90ºF, but such events are rare. More often the warm front stalls. Things conspire against it’s progress. The waters south of New England is chilled by winter; mountain ranges to our west allow cold air to crouch low, and to refuse to budge. To our west the warm front may proceed north to Albany, Burlington, Toronto, even Montreal, but it dips south to the east, and can’t cross New England.
The warm front is attached to a storm to our west, and the south winds ahead of that storm are assisted by high pressure to our east, (which is a westward extension of the Azores High, locally known as the Bermuda High). As the storm is deflected to our north by this high, it eventually finds a “weakness” and proceeds east to our north, “over the top” of the high pressure. As the storm passes to our north it drags a cold front south, and the cold front usually passes over us just as the warm front is tantalizingly close, brushing the warm front (and all its warm air) out to sea.
If the cold front is powerful, then clear, crisp weather follows, but if the cold front is feeble, and if the Bermuda High is strong, the cold front becomes stationary just to our south, and dreary weather continues, as the stationary front eventually becomes a warm front as the next storm approaches. Sometimes the front undulates like bumps on a shaken jump-rope, and a series of weak storms pass. But this isn’t all that interesting, unless you are a meteorologist. In fact it irks you, if you are stuck in New England, suffering cold and cloudy weather, craving spring.
By May, to our north, the nights are getting short and the days very long, and there is simply no way the north can generate arctic air, with so much sunshine. Rather than “arctic fronts” the cold fronts start to be called “polar fronts”. Also the boundary between the north and south retreats north, as does the “storm track”. Therefore it is usually May when we finally see some truly summer-like air make it this far north. Hallelujah!
I will post all the interesting maps at the end of this post, but, knowing some are bored by maps (an attitude which I fail to understand, but respect), I’ll simply state what we experienced.
One thing I should mention is that an indicator of clean waters, called by some “the State Bird of Maine”, appears just when the weather gets nice. It is called “the black fly.” It is a reason many who move to New Hampshire depart after a summer or two. If you work outside, as I do, you tend to like cold mornings, as black flies don’t pester until temperatures approach 60ºF, and also you tend to like breezy days, when swarms of insidious insects try like heck to swim upstream and get to you, but fail, just downwind.
One nice thing about this cold and wet spring is that the chill kept the black flies at bay. I got lots of vegetable gardening done. However it was also weather great for growing grass, but not so great for mowing, as the grass was too wet.
At this point I should mention another thing. I draw a distinction between gardening and gardening. Eh? My distinction boils down to this: “Can you eat it?” I spent years, even decades, working as a so-called “landscaper” for charming, rich old ladies, producing a crop you could have stored in a teacup. It wasn’t a total waste, for my work did feed me, my wife, and five children, but it bugged me that no actual food was produced. The old ladies had money, and their pay bought food, but all our work in gardens produced no actual food. Therefore, to this day, I have an almost allergic reaction towards non-productive gardening; (IE: “landscaping”.) I don’t mind growing sunflowers (seeds are high in protein), or roses (rose-hips are high in vitamin C) or day lilies (buds and wilted blooms make a delicious soup) but I very much mind cutting the grass. No one eats the grass. It might be acceptable if the cut grass was fed to livestock, which you could eat, but it isn’t.
In any case, my wife doesn’t want to hear my brilliant arguments. When the grass at our Farm-Childcare gets long, she believes we look more “professional” if it is cut. Because I believe I should chose my battles, I meekly cut the damn stuff. Fortunately it has been so rainy this spring that I haven’t often had the ability to cut the damn grass. But consequently the grass has gotten deep. I have noticed my wife giving me glances of an aggrieved sort. The time has come to act, or face consequences.
Yesterday would have been a perfect day to mow, as it was hot and muggy, and the black flies came swarming out. Back in the day I could keep them away by chain-smoking, as they don’t like smoke or nicotine, but since my lungs told me I had to quit such fly-repellent, I have found an inferior repellent is the exhaust of a mower. But yesterday, just when the grass started to dry out, the humid heat would produce a drenching downpour, and therefore the best use of my time was in the vegetable garden, where I produced future food for humans by planting seeds, and was present-tense food for clouds of hungry black flies.
Today would have been a perfect day to work in the vegetable garden, as the surge of tropical air fed a storm passing to our north, and as it strengthened it brought south a cold front, and then, as the departing storm strengthened further, the winds increased to a point where the average speed approached 20 mph, and a few gusts approached 50. There was not a black fly in sight.
At this point I should mention a final thing. At the northern latitude where I live you had better plant as early as you can. You have a limited “window of opportunity”. The growing season is so short that many crops will fail to mature, if you wait too long. Furthermore the sun is as high in late May as it is in early August. Farmers know that, after early August, the sun gets too low, and growing slows down. If you plant a bean after early August, it may sprout more quickly than it does in May, but then the sun is so low the bean grows in slow motion. If you plant in May you see results fast.
Therefore, on a breezy day in May, without a black fly in sight, the last thing I wanted to do was mow the grass. Yet I had to do it. I approached the mower with a bad attitude. To my own amazement I swiftly felt I was more lucky than I believed possible.
The grass was so long (and my rider-mower has such problems) that I had to creep, and the job took forever. (I exaggerate, but it did take hours.) Yet by the time I was done I felt blessed, for I can think of no other way I could have been forced to sit on my duff outside, and witness how wildly beautiful a windy day in May actually is.
There are times it is good to see what an ass you are. Behind my mower, I left cropped turf, basically a Marine crew-cut, as ahead of my mower I witnessed long grass responding to the wind. Have you ever watched long grasses on a windy day? How they ripple and shimmer? And sink and bound-back? How beautiful grass can be, yet what beauty was I making? Producing cropped turf behind me, that fed none? (Maybe this experience should make me more understanding of those who cut me down, feeding none). In any case, it was amazing that the long grass I detested, when I began, became grass that was my guru:
What a wonderful windy wind it was
With gulped air clear from Canada; sky clear
As well; green grasses displaying the laws
Of brisk breezes; bounding far faster than deer
On the run; and shining and shimmering,
Rippling in clear sun’s pure white: A cool light
So different from yesterday’s simmering
Tropical humidity: Sheer delight
Whisking away the wetness; sweet sighing
Drying the dampness, then deeply roaring
To make new-leafed boughs bow, and trying
To make grasses bow. But bowing’s boring
If you’re hay in the wind. Instead, you prance,
And make ups-and-downs be part of your dance.
(To those of more scientific inclinations, I hope to find time to update this post with meteorological maps explaining the situation which led to the above sonnet.)
Here are the promised maps, (from the Weatherbell site, which offers a 7-day free trial subscription, if you love weather maps.)
Yesterday’s map shows a strengthening 995 mb low departing over Nova Scotia, with strong breezes (blue) in its wake, and a cool, Canadian high-pressure pulled down over the Great Lakes to our west. The “Bermuda High” that gave us warm south winds is weakened to a small circle off Florida, partially by a sub-tropical storm (actually given the name “Andrea”) moving through it and out to sea over Bermuda. As “Andrea” fades northeast the Azores High, to the lower right margin, will again extend west and combine with the unusually strong (for southerly latitudes) 990 mb low over Nebraska, which gave Denver snow on its cold side, and which is drawing warm air from the Gulf of Mexico on its warm side (and causing tornadoes where the cold and warm clash), and south winds will surge north again.
The Canadian High suppressed the above-normal warmth (red) to the southeast states, as much of the north and west was below-normal. (Blue, green and purple.) The cold and rain to the west is seriously delaying spring planting in America’s breadbasket.
The warmth is expected to rebound in the east in two days:
And then a ripple of cold again rides “over the top” of the high pressure, perhaps giving us thunder in three days.
The upper-air 500 mb maps have shown a stubborn ridge in the east, and deep trofs to the west that are forced to head north and then ripple up and over the eastern ridge. Yesterday’s map showed above-normal pressures weakened to the east by “Andrea”, (light red) as the trof to the west is impressively below-normal (purple). The last trof, which was impressive out west, is far weaker, as it reaches Maine.
If this pattern persists some places out west might not be able to plant at all, which makes my small, experimental garden a little more meaningful.