Cold snap beautiful--and ominous

Story highlights

  • A severe cold front swept across the East Coast and the Midwest this week
  • Jay Parini: It's hard to think about global warming when it's so cold
  • He says he's used to very cold weather and enjoys it despite the discomfort
  • Parini: Only those with their heads buried in the sand don't believe in climate change

It's hard to think about global warming when it's so cold that you can't suck in the air without pain.

I stepped out on my porch in Vermont this morning -- I live in an old farmhouse with a panoramic view of the Green Mountains -- and could hardly breathe. The thermometer had dipped well below zero. I heard on the local radio that it was 70 below zero on Mount Washington, in New Hampshire, taking into account the wind chill.

But I'm used to cold weather, having spent most of my adult life, almost four decades, in New Hampshire and Vermont. In fact, I remember the cold snaps of old, back in the 70s and early 80s, when for weeks on end the temperature would hover around zero, maybe creeping up to 10 or 15 at noon, when the sun looked like a pale and cheerless disc in the sky.

There was a strange exhilaration in those sub-zero weeks: the sense of a vacuum, a silence that amounted to noise. You couldn't inhale, as it made your lungs ache. Your nose-hairs froze and breathing was difficult. Your glasses steamed up when you stepped into any building. It was important to dress in the most thoughtful ways, with layer upon layer of clothes, including a good set of silk underwear. Earmuffs were essential, as well as big fur hats, thick gloves, insulated boots and wool socks, the works.

Jay Parini

I have a photo that I love of the old poet, Robert Frost, in a winter hat with long earflaps, in heavy boots, a stick in hand. He is walking through a snowy field not far from where I live. He often wrote poems about being alone in the woods or fields in deep snow. I think, for instance, of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" or the ferocious "Goodbye, and Keep Cold," where he says: "Dread fifty above more than fifty below." He's speaking to a stand of trees that seem not to mind the arctic weather, these resilient "Maples and birches and tamarack." I'm afraid that human beings rarely like it when it gets so cold.

Only a week ago, I paid a fleeting visit to Key West, Florida, where it was almost 90 under the palm trees. Coming back to Vermont late one night, only a few days ago, I stepped from the airplane into the dark, icy weather, and I wondered how I could stand it. When I got to my car, the thermometer on my dashboard told me it was 10 below zero. And the wind howled as I drove through the dark snowy mountains to my house. Was I crazy to live in such a climate?

This morning I met a friend, an elderly Vermonter, in a cafe. He said to me, "I don't know about you, but I feel comforted by this cold snap. It reminds me of the old days, before global warming. I feel as if the world isn't completely out of whack."

I doubt the world isn't out of whack when, on Wednesday, it was colder in New York City than it was in part of Antarctica. This is imbalance on a global scale, and it doesn't provide much comfort to move through a brief cold snap.

We know that vast shelves of ice are melting at the poles. We know that this past year was the hottest on record. Only those with their heads buried deep in the sand can believe that climate change is not upon us and that fossil fuels are not changing this planet in ways that will make life difficult for our children and their children. Something has to be done, and quickly, or we'll be passing along to our heirs a ghastly wreck of a planet. We will have proved dreadful and selfish stewards of this precious earth.

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I don't expect the cold to last, not like in the old days. Yet while it does, for a brief while, I plan to enjoy it. I'm going to bundle up tight today -- silk underwear, hat, gloves, and insulated boots -- and go for a walk in the woods, just to savor the depth of silence, the sense of a world brought to a point of absolute and unimaginable stillness.

Like Frost, I will say to my Vermont neighbors with a wry smile: "Goodbye, and Keep Cold." I know they will smile back.

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