The Naturalist's Journal

Contributing Writer

Every time February 6th rolls around on the calendar, I get a peculiar tingle. The date, however, is not the one marking the time I met my wife Pam, nor my wedding anniversary, the birth dates of my kids and grandkids, or even the first entry in this Journal, which actually happened a few days earlier some 42 years ago—Groundhog Day 1978, to be precise.

Rather, the tingle surfaces on the 6th because that’s the anniversary of the Great Blizzard of 1978, the remarkable nor’easter against which all winter storms are to be measured in the modern era. To be sure, I’ve read that the Even Greater Blizzard of ’88—that is, 1888—was much, much worse, but, contrary to what my granddaughter Stasia would tell you, the ’88 storm was before my time... well, well before my time. (“No it wasn’t,” she would reply. “You’re really, really old.”)

I wrote about my Blizzard of ’78 experiences a couple of years ago, in celebration of the nor’easter’s 40th anniversary, and I had to take a Sacred Oath that I wouldn’t inflict a reprise on readers until 2028, assuming my editors, cardiac handlers, pacemaker batteries, and brain cells make that kind of endurance possible... and that I remain in the good graces of the Good Lord of Longevity.

If you’re interested in what I had to say in its entirety, you can access the Journal entry here:

For the purposes of this edition, I hope no one will mind if I highlight one section of that effort, in which I uncovered Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction made on Groundhog Day 1978. Just before 7:30 in the morning on February 2nd, the “Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary” was pulled from his climate-controlled tree-stump burrow atop a hillock in western Pennsylvania, and delivered, to his top-hatted friend with a facility for Groundhog-ese, the following translated message:

“My faithful followers, I could clearly see, 

a beautiful, perfect shadow of me. 

Six more weeks of winter, it shall be!”

Forty-two years ago, I laughed this off and, based on the appearance of hordes of cold-hearty invertebrates called snow fleas, predicted an early spring. We know who got the better of that prognostication. Snow remained on the ground until almost the beginning of April that year, and a number of us were more than a little concerned about a return visit by the almost unimaginable conditions that, the previous May, had given us the Great Mother’s Day Blizzard of 1977 and more than eight inches of snow at apple blossom time. 

Alas, for this column, I won’t know what Phil has to say about the remainder of this winter in time to react to his prediction. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the rodent, in a mock-Yiddish accent, told his handler:

Winter, schminter.

Shadow away.

Early spring is here to stay.

Increasingly, a mild, not-at-all-like-February is not a hard thing to imagine, and as global climate change makes its presence increasingly felt in the local environment, I can’t help but wonder about the ecological future. I’m guessing that there are many readers who would greet a Snow Moon rising over a snowless landscape with something akin to genuine glee, and while I certainly won’t be joining any June-in-January (or February or March) celebrations, even I, winter lover that I unapologetically am, have to admit that the cold season can be a considerable challenge. OK, pain in the posterior.

On the ridge, this begins with the seemingly endless quest for firewood. I got my first woodstove, a barrel-shaped Ashley, in the early 1970s, and since those hippy, semi-back-to-the-land days and nights, I’ve been providing my own household warmth about as directly as possible. I have, I need to admit, made accommodations to age and a touch of infirmity—my cardiac team expressly ruled out splitting wood by hand on account of a non-zero possibility that a misplaced thwack with a maul could snap the line linking my pacemaker with my heart and create the need for a new Journal creator—but I can still wield a chainsaw and lift, load, and stack my harvest, much of it these days the result of power company tree-management projects—bless you, Eversource—and an increase in climate-change-driven storms, which have gotten stronger and more frequent (no blessings to polluters here). Admittedly, it’s a lot of work, and I guess I could come up with something easier in my so-called retirement, but the stereotypical guy things, golf and fishing (sorry, Todd Corayer), have never taken hold. Besides, I’ve always loved the hard labor of making my own heat and, it turns out, all that toil is good for my heart.

All that discipline is good for my head—and soul.

So, like the birds and all the other critters I spend the rest of my time outdoors monitoring, life these days and nights is all about keeping the “home fires,” both literal and figurative, burning. But as I embrace what no longer seems like a daily grind—as I near 70, the ability to work is more a daily blessing—I look at my brown, snowless surroundings with more than a hint of trepidation. While I would welcome a “snow day” and its mandate to put on cross country skis and snowshoes and just play... well, after I’ve finished shoveling... the woods really need that white blanket.

Snow is more than winter moisture. Snow is winter protection, to say nothing of the promise of a better spring growing season. This, I realize, sounds at first hearing like a contradiction, but, far from being problematic, a blanket of white insulates plant roots from temperature extremes and prevents frost from reaching too deep into the earth. This is a boon for the green world, and, over the long span of evolutionary time, it’s what the citizenry of the natural world has adapted to. For the current cast of nature’s characters to work, winter snow is a life-giving requirement, not a life-ending misery. The woods are already reeling from recent challenges, droughts and gypsy moths among them. An end to snow, or winter as we’ve known it, may result in almost unimaginable changes to the landscape in the eyeblink span of a human lifetime. Perhaps that newly returned—or never left—robin is banking on the cold season’s demise. Maybe we’re no longer going to be able to make maple syrup. It’s sadly conceivable that climate change may put an end to all the travel delights that snow made possible.

I suppose that at least some of the snowbirds will greet this prospect with glee and be able to return north early. I, on the other hand, hope Phil brings more shadowy news and augurs a more appropriate rising for the Snow Moon.

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