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March 16, 2013

The winds of change are in this spring air

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The Daily Star

---- — Right now, there are spring flowers blooming outside the window of my childhood bedroom.

I know this because it is mid-March. And in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, where I grew up, spring rolls out in an orderly procession of blossoms that stretches uninterrupted from February through May.

As a kid, spring was my favorite season. The slow unfurling of it, heralding the end to months of the Pacific Northwest’s signature gray, wet weather, was to me a season of unending joy. Each day, it seemed as though the world was more alive, more colorful and more vibrant. Even the rains that had before seemed dreary and oppressive took on a fresh and exciting quality.

I was shocked by my first spring in the Northeast. The season was unrecognizable, veering from snow one day to stifling heat the next, mixing in raw, wet, windy days that taught me the meaning of “mud season.” I waited and waited for one of the verdant, fresh spring days of my youth, and they never came. So I concluded that spring was a bust, and set my sights elsewhere.

But after several years in this climate, I’ve developed more of an appreciation for this subtle season. While I still grit my teeth at the unpredictable chaos of weather, I have learned to look beyond the mud and dirty snow to see the true face of an upstate spring — to detect the subtle patterns amid the chaos.

I can’t look out my window and see springtime writ large across the landscape. But I can see it in small glimpses. On the branches of the trees that I pass, once-bare branches are now bristling with small buds in fractal-like configurations that differ from one species to the next. And despite a woefully empty feeder, my front porch is once again being visited by a few hardy birds, who are stirring and singing again after a quiet winter.

As we all do, I have become acclimated, not only to the climate itself, but also to these signs of the changing season. But even as I do so, the world around me — around all of us — appears to be changing.

In January, while reporting on 2012’s unusual (and warm) weather, The New York Times included the shocking statement that “nobody who is under 28 has lived through a month of global temperatures that fell below the 20th-century average, because the last such month was February 1985.”

Locally, this trend brought spring to us earlier than usual last year — in a sense. Many plants budded out early, only to get nipped by a late-season frost. The apple trees on my property, which the year before had mounds of apples beneath them, bore only a handful of wizened fruits — a fate shared by many commercial growers across the state.

Climate change is a hotly disputed topic, but it would seem that many take what they see in their own communities as proof positive (or negative) of the bigger picture. After Superstorm Sandy hit New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo pointed to the record storm surges as evidence.

“There has been a series of extreme weather incidents,” Cuomo said after the storm. “That is not a political statement, that is a factual statement ... Anyone who says there’s not a dramatic change in weather patterns, I think is denying reality.”

Cuomo’s position is not a scientific one, and neither should we draw too many hard conclusions from only the data we can personally observe. After all, this year’s upstate weather patterns have been fairly unremarkable. We’ve had some snow and some cold temperatures, but nothing shocking on either end of the spectrum. Should we take this to mean that last year’s heat wave was a fluke? Or is this year the fluke, and last year part of a larger trend?

I don’t know the answer, but I know there is something to be said for knowing your environment, and understanding what is typical and what is abnormal. As I look out my window at the slowly melting snow and see the light striking at a slightly different angle today, I know that spring is coming. After more than a decade in upstate New York, I have learned some of the signs of this season. And I have seen enough, even in that time, to know what is “normal” and what isn’t.

But I fear that the chaos of recent weather patterns may in fact be the new normal. And I am sad to think that, no matter where I live, I may never again experience the orderly springs of my youth.

Emily F. Popek is assistant editor of The Daily Star. She can be reached at epopek@thedailystar.com or 432-1000, ext. 217.