THROUGH THE WOODS: When is it spring?

Male red-winged blackbird. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

WHAT IS CONSIDERED the first day of spring depends on whether you are using the meteorological or astronomical definition of the seasons. The meteorological is the simpler of the two, because it splits the year into four seasons of three full months each based on the Gregorian calendar. This means that every year spring begins on March 1, and lasts until May 31, with summer starting June 1.

The astronomical season is less straightforward as it depends on the date of the spring equinox, which means the date comes later than March 1, and can vary slightly from year to year. In 2021, the spring equinox falls on Saturday, March 20. The astronomical spring will last until the summer solstice in June. We are enjoying this current warm winter weather and are pleased not to have snow and paying for more heating oil this week. In the meantime, nature seems to think it is already astronomical spring.

A few days ago, I noticed tree buds coming out. Our fast-running brooks have no ice at this point. Down at the site of my parent’s old farmhouse, the snow drops are out and cover the ground in white in imitation of the missing snow. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: L.L. Bean

We children were very fortunate to be born into a family of readers. The bathroom always had a stack of nursing journals and the latest Readers Digest. Other standbys were numerous farm magazines, and catalogs, in particular the L.L. Bean catalog from Freeport, Maine. My grandfather, “Gramp,” was a great hunter, farmer and outdoorsman and he would pore over these catalogs and comment on items he thought looked wonderful and I considered him someone to listen to.

Our family got by and had to be careful with money, so an expensive item from a catalog had to be carefully considered. One of Gramp’s best and older friends had been a guide and commercial hunter, and he swore by the quality of Leon Leonwood Bean products and was usually dressed from head to toe right out of their catalog. He was a dapper gentleman with a darkened line of a pencil mustache, was very particular about looking good, and had excellent guns and dogs. As a country girl I learned a lot from being taken along when these two men went out in the fields. Even Frank’s dogs had L.L. Bean collars and name tags. Back in the 1950s the catalog listed a limited number of items and they were the ones that old Mr. Bean had personally selected and tested himself. You knew that it was the best and that if it wasn’t right, you could send it back. So along with my grandfather I too aspired to the treasures in the L.L. Bean catalog.

My grandmother would listen to us, and Gramp and I would be absolutely delighted with the Christmas presents she had chosen. These gifts were very practical items and one of Gramp’s favorites was a pair of lamb’s wool lined kangaroo leather boots. He spent a lot of time out in the cold during the winter and these boots were very warm and had good non-skid soles for walking on ice. That kangaroo leather was amazingly tough and didn’t scuff or wear. Read more…

THE CATSKILL GEOLOGISTS: The Texas cold

THIS WINTER’S WEATHER NEWS from Texas has been horrendous and we are sure you have heard about it. The temperatures went down to as low as 9 degrees F overnight in the Houston area. It snowed, pipes burst, and food and water shortages resulted. The cold has been called historic and it was. We have a child and two grandchildren down there, so this was a real concern.

Why? We think there is something going on that you need to understand. What happened in Texas has occurred up here as well; it’s just that we don’t notice it so much. It all began with global warming and its effect on the jet stream. Decades ago, when global warming was still just hypothesis, that hypothesis predicted polar regions would warm up a lot more than temperate regions. Northern Alaska would warm up a lot more than New York state. It has. The Arctic has become not nearly so much colder than lower latitudes. Importantly, the temperature boundary between Arctic and temperate climes has blurred.

That led to results that had not been anticipated; the jet stream was affected. We hope you know that the jet stream is a flow of air that undulates up and down as it continuously flows east. See our diagram. This brings us a lot of our weather, especially winter storms. Historically, the jet stream has been a relatively gentle up and down undulation. See the dashed wavy line on our diagram. That is best developed when the contrast between cold Arctic and warmer temperate warm is sharpest.

But when the Arctic warms up the jet stream is altered. The up and down undulations become shorter and steeper; they become more pronounced. See the solid wavy line on our diagram. Their west-to-east motions also slow down considerably. All this can have a dramatic effect on climate and weather. The down undulations contain the coldest air. When those jet stream undulations spread to the far south, they can bring unusual, even historically cold air into a region where that is not typical. Then, because of the slow movement, that cold can stay put on a region for a prolonged period of time. That’s what has been happening to Texas this winter.

These undulations pass through the Catskills too. You will hear each one described as an Arctic vortex. But, up here, we just do not see them as historic events. But this was a very serious event in Texas. We think you should be watching the jet stream diagrams on your local TV forecasts. You may come to better understand what is happening. And that’s, after all, what our column is all about.

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GREEN THOUGHTS: Horticulture dreaming

FEBRUARY USUALLY FINDS ME in “winter fatigue.” It’s not the cold and snow but their troubling consequences I find daunting. Will the car start up, then stay on the road, will the furnace keep working, will I break my bottom falling on the ice? Our now familiar nemesis, the pandemic, has made solutions like socializing or ambling out to a museum off-limits. Luckily, we gardeners have another option—garden daydreams.

Consider color. The snow finally melts, leaving the brown, garbage-strewn earth; then one day in April buds on soft maples start to show the faintest red. Hillsides become clothed in the pale greens, yellow-greens and maroons of expanding foliage and the pure white of shadbush blossoms. Pussy willow buds explode to reveal fuzzy gray catkins, making honeybees buzz joyfully. Soon spring comes on like a freight train, with chrome-yellow forsythia, Pepto-Bismol pink cherry blossoms, vibrant red tulips. My favorite colors appear at the height of summer. Screaming orange Mexican sunflower, bottle-blue gentian sage and pale, pale yellow Abelmoschus manihot all bloom in the dog days, each blossom as deep and rich as a July sky. Nature makes every color imaginable, but unlike home décor, they never clash or look out of place.

How does gardening feel? In spring my back creaks as I dig and spread compost before planting peas, then the warm air cools quickly after sunset. In summer I don my favorite gardening outfit—faded turquoise bathing suit, work boots, raggedy cutoff t-shirt from a 1999 trip to Maine—slather on sunscreen, and go out to weed. And perspire. Dripping sweat proves that gardening is no sissy activity. I like the dirt and salt on my hands and knees, and sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy. I remember the tactile-ness of vegetables, like the cool curvaceous smoothness of an eggplant, the fragile delicacy of a very ripe, very large Brandywine tomato, or the heft of a melon popped off the vine. Rounding up dumpy, lumpy Hubbard squashes in October measures the bounty of the season, and the mind feels good putting up food for winter. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Adventures of snowmobiling

WATCHING SOME KIDS on snowmobiles has been a reminder of many happy winters touring around the countryside of our farms by snowmobile. We are not sure why, but our father, Donald Kern, was enamored with these amazing machines. We were one of the first families of our area to own one, thanks to Bob Geel of Ghent. Bob raced and sold Skidoos and my father would purchase his racing machine at the end of the season. It was a good deal for us and gave us some zippy rides across our long farm fields.

We four kids were used to being outdoors and riding our horses, so this was just a new and faster mode of transportation. We were already prepared for the weather with ski gloves, thermal underwear, wool socks, insulated boots, balaclavas, hats, and scarves. Steering these machines was interesting and dependent on the conditions and terrain. Varying approaches and techniques were needed for hills, snow depth or icy conditions. We cut trails through our many acres of woods, which challenged us with hills, stone cliffs, low hanging evergreens, and crooked runs. One beautiful afternoon I didn’t realize there was ice under the snow as a sharp turn was made through a bunch of trees and I skidded into one. I didn’t want to hurt the Skidoo, so put out my hand to soften the blow and jammed my hand so hard it bent my favorite turquoise ring, and I couldn’t get it off my finger. Eventually we tapped it back into a round shape and it came off. The Skidoo was unhurt and neither was I. Read more…