The Naked Ground

P1010021Around this time last year, I parked my car, put on my snowshoes, and climbed the steep mound of snow at the edge of the woods. It was cold, but not terribly so, and the light crust across the surface was just enough to make a pleasant whoof with each sinking step. At lower elevations, the snow inside the forest’s edge was only a foot or two deep, but as I climbed higher it increased to three and more. On the high benches above the valley, a comfortable four-foot thick blanket hid most everything.

I spend a lot of time off trails, wandering and traveling in less-beaten, less-accessible places. The rolling topography of New England woods is flattened by a blanket of snow—transformed, really, into a different sort of terrain. Between wind, storms, glaciers, and time, the less accessible parts of the forest are generally strewn with logs and branches, covered with loose soil and leaves, and scattered with heaps of exfoliated rock. The combination of deep snow, moderate crust, and a few soft inches on top makes jumbled forests into new, glorious highways—for animals, and for people who know to take advantage.

When I come upon animal tracks in these conditions, they always seem to be frolicking as much as traveling; they wander from tree to tree, make loops in open spaces, and scatter far and wide. I wonder if the residents of the forest enjoy the temporary freedom to move so much as I do. It is nearly flying to travel so, with the tangles buried four feet below you.

P1050189A few days ago I parked my car and walked across bare ground into the woods. The crunch of each step came from flattened leaves, and from sticks and branches scattered over the top by winter’s powerful winds. At lower elevations, the ground was brown and flat as far as I could see. As I climbed higher I began to see small, sickly patches of frozen gray. The only thing to cover the ground this year has been a glaze of ice and sleet, and now that has mostly melted away. Even at the high elevations, branches and trees are more frosted than buried, dusted with light snow rather than comfortably tucked away.

This winter may swing to be like the last, with deep snow piling up quickly and heavily. Or it may become like the one a few years before, with sunny, seventy-degree days in March. The sap is already running. Some buds are sprouting. Confused amphibians may be finding a few vernal pools from last week’s thaw, and they may find no vernal pools in two months when there is no snow pack to melt away. When thirsty trees turn the groundwater to leaves, the normally rushing streams of spring may become trickles before ever reaching fullness.

Some people have trouble understanding what “climate change” means. As humans, we like to tie it to single storms, or a warm month, or even a whole season. Our minds do not like to stretch much farther than that. The whole of the thing doesn’t fit in our small imaginations.

Like a child on a swing-set, our movements are followed by the movement of the climate. Impelled by our added force, each swing is faster, and steeper, and more distant from the farthest point in the other direction. Each oscillation is less stable.

This is the story of climate change where I live: it is a story of deep variability, in which we see each extreme but don’t recognize its symmetry with the last. We do not notice that six, seven, eight feet of snowfall in a month is the same as none at all. We do not notice that deep drought in August is the same as massive flooding a few years before.

The extremes grow more extreme, and we marvel at each, and carry on swinging. Faster, higher, longer—will we fall off, or will we learn to stop?

With our short, confused memories, I expect we will marvel at that, too.

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