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Stonehouse Diary – The Strange Season

Where has winter gone? The February photograph on the bank calendar hanging in the kitchen shows a bare pecan grove laden with snow. The caption says the photograph was taken “near Brunswick” Missouri, which is about an hour and a half’s drive northeast of Columbia. It must have been taken before Global Warming, when Midwest winters were harsh and bitter and folks had to lay in extra supplies in case a blizzard came through and made travel to towns impossible.

I’ve now spent eight winters in our beloved Ozarks and only two came close to measuring up to the calendar photograph. The first was my first winter here. Weather forecasters on the radio had called for a light dusting of snow to fall in the middle of the night. Instead we got a foot and I awoke to find the homestead’s tent cabin roof sagging about three inches from my nose. Thankfully, the roof didn’t entirely collapse. Still, as heavy as that snow was, it melted in three days and my emergency supplies weren’t touched. The second was in 2007, when the historic ice storm that devastated Springfield and areas to the north hit. Our area didn’t go unscathed. Enough ice fell at the homestead that I couldn’t get out for eleven days. Not because the weather stayed so cold, but because there was one patch of steep road that only got an hour of full sunlight a day, so it took eleven days to melt the four inches of ice accumulated there.

This winter has been so mild that it’s becoming disconcerting. We’ve had some cold days, but only a few have failed to rise above the freezing mark. We’ve had a couple of snow flurries lace the countryside in white, but nothing heavy enough to build a decent snowman. Only once this season have I needed to run the truck’s defroster to melt ice on the windshield. And now, with this incredibly unseasonable warm spell, the Easter lilies in the back yard have sprouted and put on eight inches of green shoots. The ground is covered in tender grass. The berry bushes and multiflora roses along the fence line have unfurling leaves and long stretches of new growth. Quickly swelling buds have appeared on many trees. Many of the buzzards that didn’t leave last autumn are being joined by early arrivers from the south. The other day a yellow jacket buzzed around the eaves looking for a place to build a nest. A horsefly troubled one of the horses. Two houseflies repeatedly smacked the windows on the porch.

Usually, all this life and growth and vibrancy would thrill me, but at this time of year, temperatures in the fifties and sixties come burdened with concern. It’s unnatural. Enticing, but unexpected. Like bait in a trap. Clement as it is, nature has become confused.

Bert and Dean say they’ve seen plenty of years when winter rushed in at full force in February, March and even April. They say the plants and trees may yet have a shock coming. If they don’t, I fear that we do. With winter temperatures well above average and spring coming on six weeks early, summer is suddenly looming large. If this warming trend continues, it could be a hot one. Very hot. Add even five degrees to our average daily high temperatures in July and August and it’ll be a real scorcher. And if it is, oh my! If the sun withers the grass or the ground dries up, the hay I’ve saved this winter will be needed to feed the goats and horses in summer.

But even if temperatures stay mild and rain plentiful the yearlong, what about the bugs? What’s to temper them from coming out of hiding early and eagerly fulfilling their genetic impulse to go forth and multiply? And multiply some more? Will chiggers and ticks take over the woods? Will wasps and hornets lay claim to eaves and rafters? Will sweat bees hover during summer labors, and flies harass windows and doorways? Super populations tend to lead to super harm. Consider swarms of locust. And termites. And bees.

No one knows for certain if this new weather is a result of global warming or simply a warming trend that will fade with time, but even the USDA folks are taking note of the change. After more than a decade of watching the mercury climb, they just updated their national hardiness map, moving much of the Ozarks’ coldest expected temperatures up five degrees and all but the northwest corner of Douglas County from growing zone 6B to 7A. Warm-loving varieties of plants are in this year. Cold-loving, not so much.

Farmers are taking note, too. On a recent trip to Springfield, I noted four enormous fields were freshly turned. It’s too early to plant most seeds, but the USDA’s final spring frost date for our area, April 15, is looking like an overestimate. A gardener friend mentioned that if the weather stays on the same track, she’s going to have to plant her broccoli and spinach and cabbage before Leap Year Day or it’ll be too warm in April for it to mature.

But who knows?

The jet stream that has been lollygagging over Canada may come zipping south again, bringing with it frigid arctic air and snow and (Heaven forbid) ice. All this buoyant youthful growth and optimistic waking bugs may get slapped back underground. The lawnmower thawing out in the basement may get to hit the snooze alarm, sleep in for another month or two. The haystack in the barn may dwindle, the dogs stop shedding, the kettle on the stove start whistling again for cups of cocoa and pumpkin spiced cappuccino. While I don’t relish the cold, it would at least feel normal.

But for this week, when the days are so warm that the windows are open in the house and the nights are so mild that the ice breaker is left leaning against the fence, it’s hard to know what to do. Should I prepare for a garden or check the propane level on the tank? Should I plan on salad or stew for supper? Perhaps, for now, I’ll set aside my concerns and just delight in these days gloriously giftwrapped in warmth and sunshine and all the optimism of coming spring. There are worse ways to spend a winter.