First of all, I am not going to talk about March because it was evidently postponed until April. As late as March 24 and 25, it was 3 degrees outside my kitchen window around 8 a.m., not to mention March 1 and 2 and the bone-chilling nights in between. OK?
And since my mission here is to introduce some ambivalence into the feeling that this winter has made oblivion seem like a plausible lifestyle alternative, it will just be better not to talk about the past three weeks.
Our Australian newsroom colleague said he heard Mainers are obsessed by the weather before he arrived here in December, and he subsequently discovered it was true. He hasn’t seen it yet, but we also have an irrational love of August, September and October, when the most gorgeous conditions of air, sun, plant life and starlight anywhere on Earth overpower all beauty-detecting faculties, and in that stretch we utterly forget about January, February and March, which even in unremarkable years can kill you while you’re sleeping.
Winter is a battle against natural treachery. Simply driving the car takes a lion’s nerve: On any sunny afternoon, black ice can send you suddenly to your account. The walk to the garage is an icy ambush. Cracks in doorframes and window sills are natural gates and alleys for cold air. In the last stages, every precipitation freezes to a vile and loathsome crust at night and melts to curds and creases of muck by day.
This year the cold has felt bitterer than usual. Some of us, sensing doomsday near, felt sick at heart from the biting outset in mid-December. Sententious, ineffectual soliloquies warning Mother Nature to lay off were being muttered in wind-bitten parking lots by mid-January. Cabin fever madness hit sooner than usual. It has felt like the coldest winter in modern times.
Numbers gleaned from conventional sources corroborate the feeling that it’s been colder than usual. However, its severity may be an illusion. I have a backyard theory about why it seemed worse than it really was. Bear with me, there’s a method in it.
Facts and figures: The National Weather Service says winter temperatures in Maine were about 2 degrees below normal this year. It was “significantly below average” in December, a little above normal for January, and below average in February.
What does this mean, specifically? In Troy, the average high temperature in January over the last 30 years is 18 degrees, and the average low is about 10. In February, the high is typically 17, low about 7. Now I could not find calculated averages for Troy for this year, but eyeballing Internet graphs and charts, it looks like our temperatures were indeed lurking just beneath those average numbers.
In Portland, the overall average high temperature in January is 34 and in February, 36; the average low for both months is 15. An Accuweather chart for Portland shows the average high in January this year was 30 and the average low, 13; for February, the average high was 31 and average low, 13. So a couple of degrees colder, as the NWS said. In Bangor, January averages 27 and 7, and February, 31 and 10; if I understand the NWS report correctly, Bangor’s December-through-February average high was 28 and the average low was 9.
North of us, where it is always colder than we like to think about, Quebec City’s average January high is 21, and average low is 3; in February it’s 23 and 3. Climat-Quebec says the overall mean temperature up there was near normal this January, with some higher and lower discrepancies in different parts of the province, and about 2 degrees colder than normal in February, like here.
So while we were fretting in Troy about low temperatures that probably averaged around 8 and 5 degrees, Quebec was churning along under lows averaging about 3 and 1.
Meanwhile, up in Labrador City, which is about 9 degrees of latitude north of Troy, the normal high on any given January day is 4, and the low on any given night is minus 17. In February it’s not a lot different, 7 and minus 17. An eyeball look at some of their daily numbers for this year suggests they had a winter of more or less normally blood-crystallizing temperatures.
So really, it was not as bad as we thought.
Now here comes the crackpot theory. It seemed colder this year, not because the temperature was hugely lower on average — it obviously wasn’t — but because the temperature was low more relentlessly than usual. We could not stop thinking about it from mid-December on. Morning after morning, week after week, the thermometer on my deck read single digits or lower, except for a few scattered days in January and February. By mid-February it stopped making up its mind at all and flatlined, coming to its senses only when sunshine shoots over the roof and heats the outside component.
Relentless, will-withering cold. There’s nothing you can do about its slings and arrows. You just have to get your mind in a nobler place, and bundle up your bodkin.
The National Weather Service’s official three-month forecast calls for roughly average temperatures in the Northeast. Sometime in there, the last shreds and patches of my imprisoning 7-foot snowbanks will disappear. And this crazy obsession with winter will transform, as it always does, into the madness of summer beauty. Until then, the rest, from me, is silence.
Dana Wilde lives in Troy. His writings on the Maine woods are collected in “The Other End of the Driveway,” available from Booklocker.com and online book sellers. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month. You can contact him at [email protected].