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December 2016

Seasonal Disorder

When the only constant is change

The woodchucks disappear. It happens gradually, the family of “Woodys,” as my kids call them, no longer sunning themselves on the boulders that ring our backyard. It’s not until a week of unconsciously scanning the lawn from our stairwell window that we realize they’re gone—and we know they are. By early fall they’re blobs the size of obese housecats, ready for suspended sleep.

The flash of cars and trucks speeding down our hill to the Jay covered bridge is gone too. This summer it was cramped chaos at the bridge’s parking areas—fishermen and swimming-hole regulars were joined by swarms of Pokémon GO gamers, led to our landmark by their devices. These people were easy to spot: smartphones held in front of faces or handlebars or dashboards as they captured pretend creatures in a virtual world. They came at all hours, the cockpits of their cars lit up in deep night, disturbing the usual blackness.

In August, two dozen vehicles in our hamlet were ransacked—iPods, cell phones, loose change and jewelry stolen from driveways along Route 9N all the way down to the covered bridge. I was quick to blame the Pokémon players who seemed so indifferent to our landscape—our real landscape. When I told a friend in law enforcement that the syringes in my glovebox—an emergency stash for my child with a medical condition—had also been snatched, he dismissed my theory and said, “Welcome to heroin. The person who did this likely lives within a mile of your house.”

Things change.

Bits of burgundy color the tips of maples. The Woodys pick up the signal. Wild turkeys do too. Drive a rural road and you’ll see them scrambling, the adults distracted troop leaders, their poults too close to the shoulder, not sure where to go or what to do but urgently aware that something’s supposed to happen.

Ask just about anyone around here—until it’s time to dust off skis—and they’ll lament the coming cold, pushing tank tops to the back of the drawer, already missing the ice-cream stands that shutter after Labor Day. The past has taught us that summer is a blink, to squeeze the swimming, gardening, socializing and staying up too late by the campfire into a sliver of time. When it’s over, the pace slows and bins of sweaters and blankets are brought up from the basement. 

Last November it stayed unseasonably warm. A black bear, out past its late-fall bedtime, sprinted across the Northway, near North Hudson, and collided with my friends’ Subaru. Into December, ski hills—unless sprayed by man-made snow—stayed naked. On Christmas Eve some Adirondack hamlets hit a record-breaking 60-plus degrees, as surprising as a morning cocktail. People played golf. They posted selfies on stand-up paddleboards. Outerwear was shed in giddy celebration.

Then came the uneasiness. Winter carnivals, pond-hockey games and fishing derbies were canceled. Was it El Niño or Arctic oscillation or just a peek at our future?

I’m old enough to remember North Country winters that required snowsuits over Halloween costumes and plows that pushed snow into roof-high slopes. Sometimes it snowed in May.

Scientists report that in the future we’ll have less snow and ice; winters will shrink, as they have the last century. We’ll pack the season into a crack while warm weather will dominate with stretches of sameness.

Everything will change.

Our forests. Our economy. Even regional small talk like, “Cold enough for ya?” And then there are the Woodys. As the air chills, Marmota monax begin hibernation, their heartbeat slowing to five beats a minute. That portion of their life cycle is followed by waking in March, for love. What will happen to them?   

This year’s winter could bring blizzards, ice storms, heat waves—right now it’s anyone’s guess. The hard part is what comes later—saying goodbye to what might not come back.

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