Early this morning, as I do a lot of mornings, I walked out into the parcel of conservation land, formerly part of a farm, behind my house in Wayland. I didn’t want to miss what could be the last frost of this season.
It was less than an hour after sunrise, and the big white pines at the back of the yard were catching first light against a clear sky as the sun crested the treetops on the low hill to the east. Except for a few birds (and the faint sound of traffic on Rt. 20, the Boston Post Rd., a couple miles away), everything was quiet, still, and cold. Good and cold. I followed the faint path (which I share with the local deer; I’ve got the scat on my boots to prove it) down to a narrow strip of boggy meadow and red maple swamp that runs along a brook. Across the brook the swamp deepens before the ground rises onto a low drumlin and a stand of white pines. I stood at the edge of the meadow. The sky was riveting blue. A pair of Canada geese passed noisily overhead, into the sun. (I’m constantly aware of how fortunate I am to live in a town that’s preserved so much natural beauty, and to live where I can literally step off my back yard into something like, not wilderness of course, but wildness.)
Half the meadow was already in sunlight, and whatever frost there’d been was gone. Early last week, we had what was likely our last real cold snap (17° F) of this crazy winter, and I’d walked this same way, the iced and crusted remnants of our only snowfall since mid-January (just a couple of inches) still on the ground. That was before it got so warm on Thursday, into the mid-to-upper 60s, and everyone was talking about early spring –indeed the Globe, as it happened, ran a piece that day about the unusually early maple sugaring this year in Natick, Lincoln, and Concord (with a big mention of Thoreau Farm’s neighbors at Gaining Ground!).
But then it cooled off as quickly as it warmed, and the past two mornings have been almost seasonable. Yesterday, as I sat in my study around 8 a.m., I looked up and saw a snow flurry swirling outside my window, the flakes magically lit by sunlight through a break in the clouds to the east. It only lasted a few minutes, and then it, too, was gone.
Any day now, in the flash of an eye, that strip of meadow out back, all browns and yellows, will be bursting with green.
I don’t know about you, but the change of seasons, especially the transition from winter to spring and summer to fall, used to be the “best” time of year for me (especially for a guy from southern California, who didn’t grow up with the New England seasons). Now, as nature’s sense of timing gets all out of whack, I have to confess that, in some ways, it’s the worst. There’s an underlying anxiety. (I wrote about this feeling back in December, looking back on what seemed like “the fall that fell apart.”)
Of course, it’s impossible to think about the seasons without thinking of Henry David Thoreau, or to read Thoreau without encountering his deep awareness of seasonal flux. Thoreau’s Journal is governed by the seasons. Walden is structured by them. Essays like “Autumnal Tints” and “Wild Apples” are seasonal meditations.
So it’s fitting, or maybe ironic — or just tragic — that Thoreau’s journal notes are the basis for the important studies by BU’s Richard Primack, tracing the effects of climate change on the flora and fauna around Walden Pond and Concord since the 1850s. In fact, a headline on Live Science just this Friday reminded us, “Thoreau’s Notes Reveal How Spring Has Changed in 150 Years.”
Beginning in 1851, Thoreau scribbled records of the timing of the first spring flower blooms in his journals.
A century and a half later, Richard Primack, a professor of biology at Boston University, and his then-graduate student, Abe Miller-Rushing, followed in the writer’s footsteps, observing the habits of the same species.
An analysis of Thoreau’s observations, those of another 19th-century naturalist and their own modern records indicate the first flowering date for 43 of the most common species has moved up by an average of 10 days. What’s more, species that aren’t shifting their flowering times in response to warmer springs are disappearing.
Primack’s Walden project has been well covered in the past few years, everywhere from Smithsonian to BU Today, which had a nice piece by Rich Barlow on Primack’s collaboration with NASA. And both WBUR and the Globe covered a 2010 study, co-authored by Primack, showing that invasive and nonnative plants around Walden may have an advantage as the climate warms.
Thoreau’s gifts to science just keep on giving. But the more we learn about the changing climate, and the more we come to terms with what it means for all of us, far beyond Concord — and for the kind of lives our children and grandchildren face — perhaps what we need, more than ever, are Thoreau’s gifts to the spirit.
What would he have written in the face of all this? Something tells me he would have been as merciless a scourge of the big-money fossil-fuel lobby as he was of the “slave power” in his own day. One can only imagine how he would have dealt with the radical forces that have altered the very seasons. And yet I can’t help thinking he’d have also found a way to lift us up, stir us, spur us to action. I keep coming back to this passage near the end of “Slavery in Massachusetts,” his great abolitionist address in the summer of 1854, and his sight of an emerging water lily from “the slime and muck of earth.” The passage, which originated in his journal, breaks my heart every time I read it. And then, if I read it again, it somehow puts it back together. Here it is:
I walk toward one of our ponds; but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them; when we are not serene, we go not to them. Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.
But it chanced the other day that I scented a white water-lily, and a season I had waited for had arrived. It is the emblem of purity. It bursts up so pure and fair to the eye, and so sweet to the scent, as if to show us what purity and sweetness reside in, and can be extracted from, the slime and muck of earth. I think I have plucked the first one that has opened for a mile. What confirmation of our hopes is in the fragrance of this flower! I shall not so soon despair of the world for it, notwithstanding slavery, and the cowardice and want of principle of Northern men. It suggests what kind of laws have prevailed longest and widest, and still prevail, and that the time may come when man’s deeds will smell as sweet. Such is the odor which the plant emits. If Nature can compound this fragrance still annually, I shall believe her still young and full of vigor, her integrity and genius unimpaired, and that there is virtue even in man, too, who is fitted to perceive and love it. It reminds me that Nature has been partner to no Missouri Compromise…
Or any fossil-fuel subsidy, I’d add.
Coming out of the woods, on my walk this morning, I stopped at the edge of the open grassy clearing and saw the last isolated patches of ice on a bed of spongy moss in the shadow of the trees. I crouched down, took off my gloves, and broke off a thin, brittle piece of the ice, like a communion wafer, and held it between my thumb and fingers, then let it melt in the palm of my hand — until the burn and sting of the cold passed away.
We could get another snowstorm this month, of course, or even in April — this is New England after all, and you just never know. But something tells me this was the last morning of winter. Ready or not, the forecast looks a lot like spring.
Crossing the footbridge back over the brook toward home, I noticed the water looks pretty low.