Four Seasons—in One

(Credit: anokarina via Flickr)

“Today, it’s spring,” I announce to myself, taking the cheery tone kindergarten teachers use with the recalcitrant. Deep inside, I am still stomping my foot, because this is all wrong. It is still winter. Last week, there were a few sunny, chilly days that felt like late fall, and now the air feels warm and moist and an ice storm melted into spring rain in a matter of hours—but it is still winter.

We are losing the sequence of the year.

The old St. Louis joke of “Don’t like the weather? Just wait a minute” —which, it turns out, is also the special joke of dozens of other cities—is far too cute to cover the menopausal swings in temperature, the winter lightning storms, the flash droughts that fry our Midwestern crops. “Weather whiplash” is more accurate. Climate change is not just heating us up (last year was the second-hottest on record, ending the warmest decade ever) but mixing us up.

And losing our seasons changes everything.

Remember those careful old-fashioned wardrobe rules? I will be damned if I am going to stop wearing sandals on Labor Day if the temperature is going to shoot into the nineties for two more months. Forget all that clever off-season storage, too: We need to be able to dig out clothes for at least three seasons. It is harder to plan menus: The heavy, cozy foods and soothing hot drinks we relish in winter lose their appeal when the temperature spikes. Events we plan by season—autumn bonfires, winter stargazing, spring camping trips—are now brave rolls of the dice.

So much of our culture—poetry, film, fashion, art, food, ritual, sport, music—makes sense on a seasonal grid. If Vivaldi were composing today, he would shrug and hand us four dissonant symphonies with sharp atonal interruptions. Take away the seasons, and we lose our orientation: Where are we in time? Where are we in the world? The year’s steady journey through its seasons is not only practical but archetypal. Hate winter if you must, but we need its uncompromising frozen landscape, a death that allows rebirth. Without endings, it is hard to have beginnings.

I worry that bears will forget hibernate; that plants will have to evolve a way to count how many days hit a certain temperature. As for us, medical science estimates that we need two weeks to acclimate when we move someplace much warmer or colder, but these swings last only a few days then swing back, so we never acclimate. I will ease myself into the day’s warmth, beginning to feel that delicate hope and promise of renewal, that indolent tingle that comes with spring—only to have to readjust to bleak winter, now feeling extra chilly and betrayed instead of winter cozy. Flowers will bud, then freeze. Caterpillars will hatch, then find no food.

The checkerspot butterfly was wiped out in the San Francisco Bay area for just that reason: volatile temperatures threw off the timing of the larvae, so the caterpillars had not grown big enough to survive the summer drought that kills off their food. Those sudden freezes used to seem such a cruel trick, a joke played on nature’s exquisite timing. But that timing, which allowed plants and animals to dance each other into life, is being thrown entirely out of sync. Iced-over berries and plants cannot be foraged. Like people pushed us to the breaking point, plants and animals will lose their resilience if whiplash keeps jerking them about.

The larger, more dramatic effects are already easy to see in California, where five years of drought ended in 2016 with the second-highest winter rainfall on record, producing lush grasses that, as heat and drought returned, helped fuel severe fires. Last year, after a wildfire raged through Montecito, a deluge of rain caused mudslides that sent houses tumbling.

Here in the Midwest, the damage takes more insidious forms. Nitrogen fertilizers, for example, stay in the soil through a drought. But if a deluge follows, all that nitrogen is washed from the fields at once, polluting rivers and streams and leaving a scum of rotting fish corpses.

After such drama, it feels trivial to whine about the sinus headaches, the inflammation triggered by rapid swings in barometric pressure, the intolerance of heat and cold because the extremes come before our bodies are ready, the changes in blood pressure and sleep patterns and mood and even DNA, which normally urges cells to inflame in winter and retain water and burn fat in summer.

But there are economic shifts, too—when ski resorts go bankrupt and ice fishing is impossible and huge moneymakers have to get cancelled because of extreme weather. And there is a huge psychological shift, for those of us accustomed to living across four seasons, to change gears by the day or week, losing the rhythm and consistency that lets us love the seasons in the first place.

While researching his lyrical book Underland, the British naturalist Robert Macfarlane talks to a man in Kusuluk, Greenland, after “the year of no ice,” in which the sea ice had melted away from the fjords by June. Clouds of mosquitoes were paying their first visit. Macfarlane calls the time “unweather,” stealing the Old English unweder to describe weather so extreme it seems to have come from elsewhere. The man tells him that “new species have come here, old ones have gone. There is thunder and lightning sometimes in autumn… It is a change to our spirit, as well as our lives.”