LOCAL VIEW –Arctic April–

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers…

                                                        T.S. Eloit

April is a tantalizing month in New Hampshire, for it can hold the heat of summer and then see that warmth followed by snows. At times this leads to crushing disappointment, but I always disagreed with T.S.Eliot, who called April “the cruelest month”. Down deep I knew the “tantalizing” wasn’t like the Greek legend of Tantalus. It wouldn’t go on and on and never end.  After all, it has an expiration date of thirty days, and is followed by a wondrous thing called “May.” But there is no getting around the fact there is a sort of madness in the air. “March madness” is followed by “April Fools.”

I blame the brilliant sunshine. At this latitude the days are getting 3 minutes longer every day, or 21 minutes each week, and the route Old Sol cruises across the sky is noticeably further north, and his brilliance is suddenly as high as it is on the final days at the beach in boyhood summers, however whereas the shortening of days brings the melancholic madness of Halloween, lengthening days brings overriding optimism.

The uplift of mood is quite obvious in the children at our Childcare, and I notice that when they aren’t bounding like spring lambs they have a tendency to sprawl in the sunshine, no matter how bitter cold the winds may be. One moment they are charging ahead on a hike, and the next I look back and see them halted by a patch of checker-berries.

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The temperature swings can be amazing in April. Our record highs tend to be up around 90°F (32°C) while our record lows are down around 5°F (-15°). To our south the land is warming and fruit trees are in bloom, while to the north snows linger.

The retreat of the snow to the north is accompanied by the reverse of what you see as snows advance south in the fall. Where temperatures are abruptly colder as soon as the ground is snow-covered, temperature are abruptly warmer as soon as landscapes are are snow-free. Where a white landscape reflects the sunshine a brown landscape absorbs it, and during the shorter nights the thawing turf remembers the days warmth, but white snows still provide an excellent base for radiational cooling.

In October north winds have less power despite the far longer nights, for the northern lakes haven’t frozen and their waters radiate heat remembered from the summer. Lakes steam like soup in the chill of dawn. Now the situation is reversed, for the same lakes are ice-covered, and the ice remembers the cold. People who have measured the temperature of lake’s ice (and arctic sea-ice) have discovered the thick ice on northern lakes can be colder than both the water beneath and the air above. The ice remembers the winter, and until it is gone it has the power to resist the onslaught of spring.

Some years the ice vanishes more swiftly than others, but this year the snow is slow to go.

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This is not good news if you are thirsting for spring, and also if you are thirsting for proof the planet is warming. If anything, it can be used as an indication of a coming ice-age. The longer the snows last to the north, the longer the landscape reflects the sun’s heat, and the shorter the arctic summer will be. An ice-age begins when the prior year’s snow fails to melt before the following year’s begins falling.

I don’t even want to think of such a possibility, for I’m craving warmth. And, to be quite honest, in the records available in Concord, New Hampshire, going back to the late 1860’s, I tend to see we have always had extreme variety in our Aprils. The temperatures have been recorded in three or four different locals in Concord, over the past 150 years, so the precision of the records isn’t perfect, but the record-highs and record-lows neither prove the world is warming nor that it is chilling. For example, on April 7 the record high is from 2010 (87 °F) yet the record low is also recent, from 2003 (8 °F). But then the very next day you see the record high is from 1871 (92 °F) and the record low is from 1888 (15 °F).

I know some like to torture and tease these statistics to prove temperatures have risen a few tenths of a degree, or fallen a few tenths of a degree, but my mother always told me it was rude to tease. Anyway, what’s a few tenths of a degree when the weather is wild and temperatures can soar and plunge over seventy?

I have to deal with blunter realities, watching other people’s children, and one thing I have to watch is that the little ones stay off the ice. If there is any greenhouse effect around here, it is that the ice on a pond is like a roof of a greenhouse over the water beneath, heating the water beneath so that the ice thins, even when the temperatures stay below freezing. Children, and even adults, can’t comprehend under brilliant sunshine, ice that was safe on Monday becomes unsafe on Tuesday, even when north winds blow bitter and cold.

The brilliance of the sun is intense, and I have to watch out for sunburns even when children wear mittens and hats. The soil thaws even when it is below freezing, which is quite the opposite from November, when days are four hours shorter, and under the low sun a crust of frozen soil refuses to thaw (when you want to dig the last potatoes) even when south winds warm.

And, of course, as soon as the soil thaws a primitive urge to plant awakes, and absolutely everyone wants to start digging.

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I tend to resist the spring-feverish urge to plant, for I’m an old grouch and have been embittered by years of having many volunteers in April, urging ambition, and then seeing them all mysteriously vanish when the weather gets hot in June, and weeds display an ambition all their own.

Also I remember many April warm spells that were followed by snows.  As a landscaper I had to develop a tactful way of reining back my elderly customers (that my wife called “my harem”) because they were possessed by a sort of panic when the weather got hot, and the tomatoes were not planted. When I couldn’t dissuade them either the tomato plants were killed by late frosts, or they turned a strange hue of purple in cold rains, and then sulked a long time, refusing to prosper even when other tomatoes, planted later, swiftly grew.

In other words, I’ve developed a whole slew of excuses that help me to avoid hard work. In actual fact the old Yankee farmers worked the soil the first chance they got, and planted things like peas, that do not mind the cold. They burned 4000 calories a day, using every hour of daylight to eek a hardscrabble livelihood from a stony northern landscape. Woe unto us, if the survivalists are right, and we are thrown backwards into such subsistence,  for I have become modern in my old age. I prefer getting my peas at the grocery store, and anyway, I doubt I have 4000 calories a day to burn, at age sixty-five.

If I did farm, I’d have to wear a white suit with a black string-tie like a southern plantation-owner, and order others about. I’ve paid my dues, when it comes to planting peas in mud with red hands as wet snow flies. Now I prefer sitting back on the first warm day of April and being the voice of doom and gloom, saying, “It’s going to snow again,” and then smirking when the entire north of the USA sees snow, like it does this morning.

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The problem is that, though I get better and better at avoiding work, work seems to like me. It tags along like a puppy and won’t go away.

As the warmth comes north and fights the arctic, and the arctic fights back, we can get some wonderful winds. The trees roar and sunshine flashes between sliding clouds. A million pine needles each individually glitter threads of blinding white in the dawn, doubling the dazzle, and then, as the wind roars to a crescendo, you hear a crack and crash from the woods.

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Trail is blocked. Sigh. Time to get out the chainsaw.

Hmm. Maybe April is the cruelest month, after all.

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