|By: Paul S. Cilwa
|Page Views: 6232
|I ponder the changing of the seasons as the temperature drops down to two digits.
I've lived, now, in three corners of the United States so I guess I'm as qualified as anyone to reflect on the seasons and the difference in how they change. I'm moved to do this now that the days here in Phoenix are cooling in preparation for autumn. Today's high will be "only" 97°F.
When I was a little guy in New Jersey and Vermont, I just accepted the current season as the way things were. I think my first inkling that seasons repeat was the second time I noticed the snow melting in spring, filling the gutters of my Garfield street with swiftly flowing water that would carry a bit of flotsam down the block faster than I could follow. I remembered that it had been this way before. Still, the great wheel of seasons was beyond my comprehension; I didn't make the deductive leap that it might happen again.
When I remember my few years in Vermont, the seasons seem jumbled up, as if there was always snow, but also always summer green and autumn tawn, also frigid crisp air but also always blueberries growing from bushes and also always clouds of ravenous mosquitoes. These things came each at their appointed times, of course; but I still didn't grasp the turning of that wheel. Oh, we covered it in school, of course. I even knew the astronomical explanation, because by fifth grade astronomy was a fascination of mine. But the intellectual understanding of the Earth's tilted axis did not lead inevitably to an intimacy of the heart with the procession of seasons.
Maybe that's why, even now, to me "I'm Dreaming Of A White Christmas" is just a song, not a plaintive emotive wail of nostalgia. For me, Christmas is family and presents, not freezing my butt off on a sleigh ride to Grandma's.
Because then we moved to northern Florida, where the winters might bring ice fountains on the front yard, made by keeping one's lawn sprinkler running overnight, but might equally likely bring a warm day suitable for a picnic on the beach.
But if winters in St. Augustine weren't too trying, the summers verged on the border of it. Hot, sometimes 100°F, and with humidity as close to 100% as it was possible to be without actually being underwater, with mosquitoes mixed in for good measure, the only plus summer had to offer was being off school…if we had the energy to enjoy it.
My solution was to become a lifeguard at the beach. The sea breeze kept the mosquitoes inland, and being able to take a cooling dip in the waves anytime I wanted managed the heat. So, for awhile, the end of summer meant to me an end to my summer jobs and a return to school. How my time was occupied was far more significant to me than whether the deciduous trees had leaves or I might be wearing a sweater.
My experience at Navy Boot Camp at Great Lakes, Illinois, was in November and December when the ground was covered with icy white and the wind blew off Lake Michigan with such bitter ferocity that you could get an ice cream headache without the ice cream. I had to walk without my glasses, because the bridge would get so cold and would transfer the low temperature directly through my nose and into my brain. Ice would form on my upper lip from simple exhalations, and when my company stood outside the mess hall waiting for our turn to go in, we huddled together "nut-to-butt" in our dark woolen pea coats and watch caps looking like so many bison trying to survive a storm.
But that was just boot camp. And A school afterwards. By the time spring came, so did my orders and then I was back in Florida.
I spent a couple years in Omaha, and the seasons surely wheeled about me there. But, as a computer programmer with flexible hours, I created my own circadian cycle that had little to do with sun or seasons. I did, however, create a family tradition that anchored on Easter, when I would dress my kids up in new clothes and photograph them hunting for Easter eggs. Holidays helped mark the passage of years but I still didn't really appreciate the wheel of seasons.
And I wasn't alone. I remember one day in Omaha, when a sudden blizzard hit in October, sending panicky residents to the grocery stores to hoard while they still could. I wasn't hoarding, but I needed to pick up some usual groceries and as I pulled into the parking lot, I noticed that the owners of six cars there had left their lights on. Now, I've been known to forget to turn off my headlights from time to time. But if you were driving into a parking lot and saw five parked cars with their lights on, wouldn't you check yours?
As the years passed, I returned to Virginia…then to Florida…and then back to New England, New Hampshire to be specific. But now I was older, and I spent enough years in Manchester to begin to appreciate how the seasons whirled around me, temporally speaking. Just a few miles north of Manchester, the capital, Concord, is very pretty in the winter; but Manchester is mostly just mud. Like Kansas in The Wizard Of Oz, it's all shades of grey, mostly dark grey: The sky, the ground, the winter wear of the shivering residents. It's not as cold as Great Lakes, but it gets cold enough and I had to shovel my walk or risk slipping on accumulated ice.
Spring was still muddy but now the grey became tinged with brown, and then green; and the skies brightened to a breathtaking cobalt blue. Leaves would peak out of the branches and then boldly emerge, while the evergreens would shake off their white coats and take on their spring highlights of fresh growth as if they'd all been to the beauty parlor for a makeover. Wildflowers burst from the ground and insects, not all of them hungry for human flesh, would rush from place to place like teenagers trying to locate a rave.
Summer was more sedate. The frenzied growth of spring settled into a calmness, a kind of confidence that maybe the snow wasn't coming back any time soon. Big, puffy cumulous clouds formed and dropped rain and hurled lightning, on occasion but never stayed. It might be cool, or warm, or even hot, all in one day. New Hampshire's state motto, written on its license plates, is "Live Free Or Die" but on summer days people would seriously consider changing it to "Dress In Layers".
The trees usually knew it was autumn before the people did. One day, they'd be green; the next, a few would sport yellow or red jewelry. Within the week they'd all be decked out in their fall finery of reds, oranges, and yellows. Homeowners would be frantically trying to rake and burn their castoffs. And then, almost as suddenly as it began, the process would be complete. The trees would be naked. And then it would be muddy, icy winter again.
I tried to fight it. My boyfriend at the time was a smoker, and when he stepped outside to light up, I'd go with him, not changing from my inside wear of shorts, tank, and bare feet. I figured, the Indians of Tierra del Fuego could do it, so why not I? I got so I could stand in the snow barefoot for the five minutes it took Steve to inhale a cigarette.
The fact that I could stand it didn't mean I liked it. It just meant I was stubborn.
And I still had to shovel the walk in front of my door.
So, when Michael and I got together, and I discovered he'd always wanted to live in Arizona too, we moved there.
But we moved to Snowflake, in the high country.
Snowflake is not named for the weather. It's named for the two families that founded it, the Snows and the Flakes. The Snows have since moved away, but the Flakes are still there. In fact, one of them is our Republican Representative in Washington and he personifies his family name perfectly.
Still, despite the name's origin, it does snow in Snowflake. In the winter. Michael and I moved into a trailer with a wood stove heater, and it would not hold enough wood for the night. Each morning about 4 AM I would awaken by the sound of my breath crystallizing in front of my face, and get out from under my relatively warm blankets to load more wood into the stove and light it. It was me and not Michael who did this, because I slept on the side of the bed nearest the stove. Or something.
We didn't really get a spring or fall in Snowflake, just summer and winter. But the one weather constant was the wind. It blew constantly, day and night, strong enough that if you opened the screen door without thinking about it, the wind would grab it from you and tear it off its hinges. Twice a year only the wind stopped, and then for only a minute and a half, after which it would resume in the opposite direction.
I find long periods of sameness to be tedious. That wind seemed to suck the energy out of everything.
So, now we're in the Phoenix "Valley of the Sun" in Central Arizona. This is the part of Arizona most people picture, when they picture Arizona: Desert, exposed rock, rugged buttes, and, in the summer, heat normally reserved for convection ovens.
When we first arrived here in 1999, the winters had a least a few cold stretches. I remember walking the dogs then, and having to wear my old watch cap and gloves and jacket. But the last few winters have been mild, blending in with spring and fall. So, in effect, we have two seasons here: Summer and Bearable.
It takes two summers in Phoenix to acclimate oneself. Until that's happened, you just can't go outside. It's easy to spot newcomers to the Valley; they're the ones with a sleeping bag rolled up next to their office desks. They eat from the vending machines and just never leave work, having vowed to not enter their car until they can no longer fry an egg on the front seat.
But, inevitably, if you stay you start wanting to do stuff. And there are enough running rivers, and lakes, and nearby cooler mountains, that even the most fervent furnace-avoider ventures outside. Still, the opera and symphony seasons are timed here to avoid summer. And the famous "snowbirds" who come only when the heat leaves, are not here, their houses and apartments abandoned and looking like a set for a post-Apocalyptic Mel Gibson flick.
Because we only get two seasons here, each is about six months long. That means we start experiencing triple-digit temperatures in May, and they continue to October, more or less. Here at work, the summer dress code that allows men to wear shorts remains in effect until October 10th.
Thanks to the nearby Mogollon Rim, a mile-high escarpment that rises just an hour or so north of the Valley, those who miss four seasons, or actually want to see snow in winter—or ski!—can do so. In fact, driving there is actually easier than pronouncing it! ("Muggy yawn Rim")
I've lived in the greater Phoenix area now for ten years, longer than I've stayed consecutively in any other place. And, while I do still find the long, hot summers to be oppressive, I do take advantage of the ways to cool off and so get out more than many people who live in such temperate climes they need never leave their backyards.
And, I think, that's a good thing.