Burton on the Bay
By Bill Burton
Spring in January
I fear we’ll pay for these shirt-sleeved days
This past summer and fall have been so cold and miserable that I have from despair kept no account of the weather.
New England farmer Adino Brackett: 1816
In the northeast, the year 1816 went into the books as the year without a summer. Some called it poverty year, others 1800 and froze-to-death. Now, nearly two centuries later, we’re witnessing things the other way around.
Will ’07 go down as the year without a winter?
Today, Saturday, January 6, 2007, in what would ordinarily be chilly or worse, I spent much of the day on a chore more associated with winter than the weather of the day. I was in shirtsleeves taking down Christmas decorations, and I was too warm for comfort.
On the south lawn amidst the brown leaves lately blown atop my daffodil garden, green shoots were as high as eight inches. I was tempted to switch chores: clear the soil in the daffodil garden and wait for the yellow blooms.
What a scenario: Greens with red ribbons adorning the rail fence, and behind it a blooming garden of spring flowers. The vision was something akin to those houses that have icicle lights hanging from rooftop gutters year-round.
What Do the Maples Think?
This year, I promised myself, would finally be the one when I would tap the big red and also the silver maple on the front lawn for maple syrup. I knew it wouldn’t be very sweet, but for the past 50 years I’ve had the urge to make syrup as I did when a boy in New England. Indians south of sugar maple country did it with other maples, and I’m curious whether adding some diet sugar to the maple sap at some point in the process will remove some of the bitterness.
A NutraSweet-spiked genuine syrup from my own trees on my waffles, I assume, would be more accommodating to my diabetes than traditional syrup.
But perhaps this won’t be the year for my sugaring, and not because of my usual procrastination. This year, how can one figure when the sap will run? Or even if it will run. Where is the sap anyhow?
Normally it goes south in the maples in late fall, then in February starts moving back up. With trees that are tapped, some of it exits via the taps.
The thermometer on the porch read 75 degrees at 2:30, as I went to the maples to check them out. I have a third one of about four feet high I planted four years ago to replace a diseased mature tree; already it has tiny red buds appearing on its branches. In 80 years, I’ve never seen that any time in January, and it’s still early in the month.
Surely, winter weather is coming (but that’s what they thought about summer weather in 1816), so I also speculate what this will mean to trees as well as the daffodils and other growth. Such a change in weather pattern, methinks, is bound to stress trees and plants. So is it appropriate to tap the two mature maples? I’ll be watching things closely.
Signs of False Spring
I noted something bright yellow in the lawn. It wasn’t a daffodil, though a few show signs of budding. It was a dandelion. Normally, I would have dug it up and given it the heave-ho, but not this time. I left it for observation.
I returned to the fence and the job of removing the greenery; it seemed everyone in Riviera Beach was walking the dog, and many wore shorts. Convertibles passed with the top down and occupants in shirtsleeves. I saw neighbors I rarely see from December to March. The grass on the lawn is greener than I’ve seen it in many a midsummer, and on it were several robins looking for a meal. One pulled up a fat worm.
I wondered if, Rip Van Winkle fashion, I had slept through winter and was awakening on St. Patrick’s Day. I went to the dogwood tree on the east lawn to see if there was any activity involving a shad run. Tradition has it that when dogwoods bloom, the shad will run. I noted nothing to tempt me to go shadding.
But in this curious non-winter, other fishes are available. White perch are still being caught in the Bay, crappies are biting like they do in early spring and reports of largemouth bass and walleye catches cross my desk almost daily. What will all this mean for our upcoming trophy rockfish season? An earlier spawn could mean many fish will have dropped their eggs and vamoosed by the time the best catching could be expected.
So many uncertainties, from fishing to horticulture.
The Summer That Never Came
But we’re so much better off than those who endured a summer without summer hereabouts. New England bore the brunt of that catastrophe, but Marylanders and Virginians didn’t find things too rosy.
June skim ice and snow flurries were reported as far south as Virginia, while in Philadelphia there was sufficient ice that “every green herb was killed and vegetables of every description much injured.” In New England, farmers watched helplessly as their gardens blackened and newly shorn sheep perished.
From June 6 through 9, severe frost occurred nightly from Canada to Virginia. Ice was an inch thick in Vermont, and frost killed almost every corn crop in New England, a severe loss seeing corn was the primary staple of the Northeast at the time. Thousands of songbirds froze to death.
The frosts of May were pretty much forgotten by June and farmers replanted. At noon on June 5, the temperature at Williamstown, Mass., was 83; but by 7am the next day, it had dropped to 43. Heavy frosts developed four days later in much of the Northeast.
It still wasn’t over, though a spell of warmer weather came and new crops were again sown. July brought another cold spell followed by still another on August 20 followed by more severe frost at the end of the month and still again in early September. More than a few New Englanders pulled up stakes and joined the migration to the Midwest.
Freak or Fate
So here we are today enjoying record-low wintertime (by the calendar) energy consumption, near balmy weather outdoors and ignoring a planned snowshoeing seminar at a Baltimore sporting goods shop all the while somewhat bewildered by the winter of no winter, which admittedly is more hospitable than a summer with no summer.
But, my appreciation is tempered. I think of the words of my shirt-sleeved mailman: “Looks like there’s something to that global warming talk.”
It’s not my nature to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I’ve been wondering the same. That’s a worry much greater than the price of heating oil and no skiing.