Saturday, February 13, 2016

Fimbulvinter, and the Time of No Birds

Salem, Massachusetts is a place of great significance in my life. I've been there twice, both times with people who meant very nuch to me. Both times we stayed at the Hawthorne, a beautiful old hotel situated right in the heart of town, within walking distance of all the interesting spots. My second and so far last visit there was in early 2002. (This was before Salem became a major tourist destination, where reservations for October need to be booked weeks or months in advance, and tourist traffic blocks access to the city for hours at a time.)

I planned a third visit in January 2014, with another friend who meant (and still means) a great deal to me. This would be a birthday present to myself, and a present to her to celebrate some significant changes in her life. She was at an inflection point in life - in more ways than we fully realized at the time - and this would likely be the last time she would have the ability to just run off and do something for a few days. We would stay at the Hawthorne, visit all the touristy stuff, and wander around in the guise of two writers with a vague interest in the occult, immersing ourselves in the historical and spiritual richness of Salem. 

Still, something felt wrong in the days leading up to our planned departure.The weather forecasts were ominous. Record cold was predicted for the northeast, particularly for New England. Some strange weather pattern called a "polar vortex" was about to bring a persistent pattern of arctic cold to the area. By this time I had been working in the travel industry for over a year, and knew enough to scrutinize the cancellation policies for the Hawthorne before I committed to a reservation. As is typical, the policies did not allow cancellations on the day of check-in, nor for a period of time before that. If I booked a room and had to cancel due to weather, I would probably be out rather a lot of money.

I decided to take a chance. We would make the four hour drive to Salem without reservations. We would book a room upon arrival there, maybe even see if we could get a last-minute deal on an unoccupied extra-spacious upper-floor room with a view of Salem Common and a history of spectral manifestations. I called the day before our planned departure and confirmed that they had plenty of availability.

Then all hell broke loose. Or, more accurately, froze over.

The polar vortex slipped into position, sliding down from Canada. It took up residence over Boston Harbor. Temperatures dropped to record lows. Salem was on the edge of the coldest region in the country. Snow was falling, cars were freezing up, the state of Massachusetts was issuing dire warnings about health and safety.

We canceled our trip.

It was just as well, I suppose. The Hawthorne became an emergency shelter of sorts. All that availability probably vanished as the place filled with people needing rescue from the cold. Walking around Salem was suddenly out of the question. At best we would be trying to huddle around the fireplace in the Hawthorne's spacious lobby, along with several hundred other people.

(It turned out to be for the best, anyway. The inflection point in my friend's life proved to be far sharper than we realized.But I was right in thinking this would have been our last chance to do this sort of thing together.) 

The Polar Vortex of 2014 was brutal. Temperatures in Northeastern Pennsylvania plummeted sharply, and stayed there. The deep freeze would have effects that lasted well beyond the end of Winter. Pipes froze. Roads shattered as years of built-up water that had seeped into cracks and had never frozen suddenly froze and expanded, creating about four years of potholes in a week. Some hardy perennials, like my butterfly bushes, froze and died.

Some wags stated that Ragnarok, the great apocalyptic war of Norse Mythology, was upon us. It seemed fitting: after all, Ragnarok is to be preceded by Fimbulvinter, the great and terrible Winter. And it sure as heck felt like Fimbulvinter was upon us, or at least the fraction of us who lived in the Northeast. (Most of the rest of the U.S., and most of the rest of the world, was experiencing one of the warmest Winters on record. But it was cold in New York, and in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., and that was enough for political decision makers and media types stationed in the Northeast to declare that it was ridiculously cold for everyone.

The Winter of 2014-2015 saw a repeat of the pattern, but this time with more snow. Snow fell throughout the season but never melted. Each new snowfall would sit atop the frozen relic of the previous snowfall, building up higher and higher. Then the deep freeze came again, dropping temperatures even lower than the previous year. More potholes, more frozen pipes, more lasting damage. Boston would build a pile of relocated snow that would not fully melt until July. Senator James Inhofe, R-OK, Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and longtime climate change denier, brought a snowball into the Senate chambers and declared climate change a hoax.

The deep freeze that year did more than just kill a few plants. Something seemed fundamentally different in the Spring. Something felt...eerie, post-apocalyptic. Something was missing. Something I couldn't put my finger on, even as I wandered around and took pictures of buds and blossoms. I strained to figure out what it was. After I while it hit me.


Rachel Carson, decades before, had warned of a "Silent Spring." Her warning regarded environmental buildup of pesticides. As pesticides like DDT were used more and more extensively, they would accumulate in the bodies of animals of all sorts and become more concentrated the higher you moved up the food chain. Birds were especially susceptible. Pesticide use would affect not just the birds but their eggshells, resulting in loss of clutch after clutch of eggs. Over time, extensive use of pesticides like DDT would wipe out bird populations. The songs of birds would be silenced. Spring would be without birdsong.   

The Spring of 2015 was silent in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Not because of pesticides, I believe, but because of the severity of the Winter that had preceded it.

I began taking note of the absence of birds. No great flocks making daily flights to feeding grounds. No masses of birds congregating on wires or in trees. No sequences of Red-Winged Blackbirds, House Finches, Purple Finches, and Goldfinches at my feeders. No screaming flocks of birds demanding their morning treat of stale bread.

This happened:

These are cherry blossoms, photographed on April 29, 2015. I planted this tree in 2002. It follows a pattern every year: it puts out some blossoms in the Spring - not many, sometimes just on a few branches. Those blossoms get pollinated and begin to swell into little green proto-cherries. By Mother's Day in mid-May, birds have stripped off most of the developing cherries, leaving only a handful to fully ripen - which they promptly eat. In the first twelve years of this tree's residence in my yard, I had eaten perhaps a dozen cherries from it.

This was the cherry tree on June 9, 2015:

This was not normal. May had come and gone, June was upon us, and now I was faced with hundreds, maybe thousands of ripening cherries on a tree that would normally be stripped bare. In the weeks that followed I ate many cherries from my tree. I also learned that cherries have a very short season for picking - they went from not-quite-ripe to withering on the tree in less than two weeks. The cherries that filled the upper reaches were even worse. I couldn't reach them, and there were no birds to eat them, so they just withered and rotted.

Birds returned, eventually. Not all of the species I'm used to seeing. Not in the numbers I'm used to. But by the end of the Summer the air was again full of the sounds of birds.

The Winter of 2015-2016 was, up until the end of 2015, one of the warmest in memory. January of 2016 saw some seasonably cold temperatures, nothing too brutal. In late January there was a highly stratified snowfall, an inch or so in Scranton, four to six inches in Nanticoke, a foot in Hazleton, much more in Philadelphia and New York and Washington, D.C. But in Williamsport, in Boston - nothing. No snowfall.

And now, in the second weekend of February, we are looking at another Polar Vortex.  No massive snowfall like the Valentine's Day storm of 2007 is expected, but temperatures are expected to plunge to painful lows again. Will this be another persistent cold snap, creating damage that will last beyond the Winter? Or will it be short-lived flirtation, with the warm temperatures of the December 2015 returning? We'll have to wait and see.

Fimbulvinter probably isn't upon us. But will we hear birdsong in the Spring?

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