Here Come the Storms

Driving rain and roaring thunder kept quiet all winter. Finally now, they push the silent snowfalls and feeble drizzles out of the picture. Springtime storms have arrived with a bang.

In St. Louis, we all have a story about a close encounter: a flood in the basement, a tornado in the neighborhood, hail the size of baseballs. We’ve seen it all, and we’re not afraid anymore. Who doesn’t like a good storm every once in awhile? To Midwestern folk, a big blasting thunderstorm is a little bit like a holiday that you can’t plan for.

The birds stop singing. The leaves start to fly as the wind whips up, and you know what kind of storm is coming. People get excited. It’s a special occasion—everybody’s day revolves around the same event.

And we’re stubborn. Even as the first drops fall and the thunder starts to rumble, you’ll see neighbors out and about walking their dogs, just strolling along without a hint of panic in their step. It’s only when the downpour starts that we finally step inside to stay dry. The whole family gathers around the big picture window or pulls up a chair on the front porch to watch the storm. You wouldn’t want to miss it.

Then the lightening bolts flash across the sky and the thunder grows from threatening grumbles to splitting cracks. This is when dad will say “Count the seconds between the lightening flash and the crack of thunder. For every five seconds, the storm is one mile away.” You count and count, and soon the sound and the light are simultaneous. If you close your eyes, the spray of the rain blowing up onto the porch makes you feel like a fisherman at sea.

Even when the sirens come on, most people brush them off. But if the storm gets serious enough, everyone will hide in the basement. Mom is excited to bring out her emergency crank-powered radio. The wind howls. Hail hammers the siding. And when it’s all over, everyone creeps out together, puts their hands on their hips, and surveys the damage.

Sometimes there are branches down over here and shingles gone over there; hail dents in the hoods of the cars who don’t have garages. Other times there’s hardly a sign at all of the storm that just raged. The golden sun lights up the wet streets, and the raindrops on the grass and windows sparkle. The birds start to sing again, and we know that the danger has passed.

Watching a thunderstorm brings a different kind of satisfaction. Tending a garden or walking in the park reminds us that, in spite of our urban environment, the natural world is always there to welcome us back. But a storm proclaims nature’s power. It brings us the story of a different kind of world, a world where nature calls the shots. And it reminds us that that world still exists.

First Flowers

It only took a week above freezing and a few warm rains to coax the ice out of the ground once and for all. Finally, the earth can be turned over and worked. Anyone with a garden can tell you that—they probably spent a giddy weekend with their hands in the dirt. People creep out of their homes and into the sunlight in slowly-growing numbers just to be outside. Just to look.

Still the green holds out on us, but little hints of color are popping up here and there to bring the news of the thawed soil to the surface. The delicate white snowdrops were the first to arrive a couple weeks ago. Now the daffodils and crocuses pop up out of the grass. Violets, tulips, and irises won’t be far behind. These first flowers are a promise: the big blooming is well on its way.

First, as always, there will be more rain. More mud. More cold nights. Spring is still quietly creeping out, and the people in the city are wary. They aren’t gonna greet it ’til its arrival is more obvious. When spring arrives in full sun and full color, you will no longer be alone with nature when you go outside. The bombastic, lively spring that we’re all waiting for could hit any time—and when it does, it’ll bring crowds out in droves. Every restaurant patio will be bustling. Every path through the park will be jammed. For now, let that little bit of light left in the sky at 7:30 be reason enough to take an evening walk. Go out into the quiet world and find those first whispers of spring.

Snowstorm in a City Somewhat Accustomed

First there are the whispers. The weatherman says snow, but we are doubtful. We’ve all got a boy-who-cried-wolf story about a St. Louis forecast. We poo-poo and pish-posh and ho-hum. Then we go about our week. Only the kids take it seriously because they know unless they believe with all their might, they won’t get their snow day.

Then comes the preparation. The shrugging-it-off gives way to MoDot trucks and landlords salting the sidewalks. Now begins the rush to the grocery store. Everybody’s got to get their soup, their snowmelt, their sleds and their scrapers. At a Kingshighway gas station on Friday afternoon, a man stood in line at the checkout, clutching one windshield scraper in each hand. “Lucky man,” said the cashier. “You got the last two!” The man in line behind him let out a gasp—he’d been waiting to ask the employee if they had any in stock. The first man took pity on him and gifted him one of his two new scrapers—“Well, I’d be evil not to!” he said.

The city-wide anticipation rises to a panic as even the most determined of the naysayers give in and run out on last-minute missions. So begins the fervor. Dad’s at Dierbergs calling mom to see if they’ve got flour in the pantry. The kids are hollering. Target sells out of sleds. Highways pack tight with people fleeing for the homestead. On the unplowed neighborhood backroads, little cars are pushed uphill by friendly neighbors. The bartenders and baristas pray that the owner will have the goodwill and decency to call up and set them free before their car gets buried. Some are luckier than others. Then the telltale blue banner goes up on the bottom of the screen on the local news: here they come, the closings. The students are giddy.

And here in the midst of the fever-pitch-frenzy comes the reveal: it has come. They were dead-on, right on the money. The snow is here, and here in huge mounds…it’s coming down and it’s stopping for nobody. The highway is jam-packed, come to a stop. For every living creature in town, this storm is the highlight of the day.

In St. Louis, we all know what to do when a big snow hits. We aren’t unaccustomed to snowstorms. We aren’t afraid. The panic that overtakes the city doesn’t come from fear—it comes from an insatiable urge to launch into those old snow day rituals we partake in every time. God forbid you get caught without cookie dough or hot chocolate! You won’t have another day like this for God-knows-how-long. So after you’ve made it through the treacherous traffic, the holiday commences. You shut the door behind you and split a six-pack with your significant other. You suit up to go sledding or shovel neighbors’ driveways. You swap horror stories about the traffic with everyone you see. When the whole city comes to a halt, anybody who’s able will gladly take their customary sabbatical. It’s tradition!

Whatever you do, don’t miss the most precious moment of these snows. Late at night, when everyone else is asleep, crack open your door and take a long look. The soft white glow lights the night sky almost lavender. And listen. The downy drifts soak up the noise of the city. Even the sounds you can hear seem distant, soft. There is the sense that nothing could go wrong on this night. All is peaceful. All is well. A summer night holds a buzzing energy, the heat of potential and possibility. But a snowy night holds you in its palm and whispers, “rest.” So close the door behind you, and, turning in for a snug winter sleep, surrender.

The Season of Stars

“Cold is the night when the stars shine bright.” So one saying goes, and though the stars themselves aren’t really shining brighter in the cold, there’s some truth to the old adage. Cold nights sometimes make for clearer skies since cool air can’t hold as much moisture as hot air can. And, in wintertime, the stars that we are facing are brighter-burning than the ones we face in summer. Thanks to these radiant winter stars, you might even be able to make out traces of some of the beautiful winter constellations, even in the center of the light-polluted city. Indeed, winter is the season for stargazing.

51027017_338874040045851_5090226000327868416_nOrion visits our night skies this time of year and makes sure you can’t miss him. He sports some of the brightest stars in the winter sky. Orion is a hunter, lunging forward with his sword drawn for a fight. His right knee is Rigel, and his left knee, which is not quite as bright, is called Saiph. At his right shoulder is the star Bellatrix. His left shoulder is the conspicuous Betelgeuse, a red giant.

Another bright red giant, Aldebaran, is the fiery red eye of the bull, Taurus. Within the Taurus constellation is the Pleiades star cluster, whose 7 brightest stars are the muses that Orion pursues forever across the night sky. And Sirius the dog star is the brightest star in the night sky, Orion’s loyal pup who will stick around and be visible all winter long.

Orion is probably the constellation you’ll have the best luck seeing from the city center, but there are other winter constellations around that you’ll have better and better luck seeing the farther out you can get. Gemini is a winter constellation, and its two brightest stars, Castor and Pollux, are visible from the city. Auriga, Cassiopeia, Perseus, Pegasus, and Andromeda (in order from bright to dim) are also major winter constellations that you may have better luck viewing a little further out. Leo is more of a spring constellation, but late at night, it too will begin to become visible as winter wears on.

There are plenty of bright stars that you can see from within the light-polluted city, but it’s hard to identify which is which when you can’t see the dimmer stars near them for reference. The best way to fix this issue is to go somewhere more remote. But if you can’t get away, there are astronomy apps out there that will tell you which stars you’re looking at when you point your phone at the sky. Once you have identified one or two stars, you’ll be better able to guess at the surrounding ones. Physical star charts are an even better tool, especially if you want to start to learn to identify the stars on your own. You should also get away from nearby lights as much as you can—it’s not just the glow of the city as a whole that affects your eyes—the lights immediately surrounding you also affect your ability to see stars since they change the way your eyes adjust to the darkness. If you have lights on even in your own backyard, turn them off. The pros will even read their star charts by a red light because the less energetic, longer wavelength has a much less significant effect on your eyes.

If you can get away and want to make a night of it, Broemmelsiek Park Astronomy Site in St. Charles is the perfect spot. It’s open to stargazers 24/7 and since it’s dedicated to looking at the stars, the light pollution is purposefully limited. The Saint Louis Astronomical Society (SLAS) is another great resource. This group holds frequent events that are free and open to the public. There’s no need to sign up ahead of time, either. You just show up and get ready to learn—educated members of the group are there to answer questions, and they’ll let you use their telescopes. They’ve even donated some telescopes to the St. Louis Public Library system, so you can check one out and use it on your own.

It just so happens that we in St. Louis are at the same latitude of Ancient Greece. So as you look up at the mysterious constellations, don’t let it slip past you that you’re seeing those stories play out across the night sky exactly as the Greeks did when they first told the tales of the stars. And even if you don’t study the stars in great detail, don’t forget when you step outside and start to shiver: the clear skies of a cold night are perfect for turning your eyes upward.

The Days Grow Longer

With the holiday season coming to a close, it seems the dead cold of winter is ready to settle over us. We return from New Year celebrations or long holiday vacations and grit our teeth. We prepare ourselves for the months of cold that still lie ahead, we grunt and we hunch and we bundle.

But watch closely in this heart of winter, and you will see that it is a time of good change. With the winter solstice behind us, the daylight lingers just a little longer each day. Every night, darkness falls later than it did the night before. At first it comes later by just a matter of seconds, then minutes. By the end of January, the days are growing by two minute intervals. From now until the summer solstice, the daylight will increase exponentially.

When the new year comes along, it makes us feel like something in the world has reset. There is a sense of fresh opportunity. We make resolutions and try to better ourselves. Remember as you step into this new year that sudden leaps of change are much less common in nature than unhurried marches, sometimes hardly detectable. As you make an effort to better yourself, keep pace with these slowly lengthening days. They are steadily growing.

The Last Gift of Christmas

A Christmas tree has adorned the White House practically every year in American history. As far as we know, there have been just four years that the White House didn’t have a tree, and Teddy Roosevelt is responsible for three out of the four. They say that the nature-loving president saw deforestation happening in the name of the tradition and refused to get behind it.

These days our Christmas trees come from farms, not from wild forests. From time to time, somebody who’s thinking along the same lines as T.R. will say that they like to reuse an artificial tree  instead of cutting down and killing live trees year after year. But all things considered, nowadays a live Christmas tree is more environmentally friendly than an artificial one by a long shot. An artificial tree is usually used for about 10 years. Once it’s discarded, its plastic branches will shine unscathed in a landfill for a hundreds of years to come. Your live tree will decompose naturally, and it’s doing good for the earth long before you’re cutting it down. Trees take 7-10 years to grow to marketable size, and they spend their lives putting out oxygen into our atmosphere and soaking up carbon through the soil that surrounds them. They improve the landscape for wildlife, too–your Christmas tree might’ve been home to birds who spent their summer at the farm. The demand for live Christmas trees increases the number of trees planted. Every year in the United States, 100 million Christmas tree seedlings are planted and 40 million are cut in winter. 

It’s hard work to grow marketable trees successfully. Farmers spend a lot of time carefully trimming the trees to get that ideal cone shape. In spring and summer, common pests like wasps and worms have to be removed. On a pesticide-free farm, this means picking off bugs and fungi by hand. The changing climate is making farmers’ job even harder. Dry conditions are bad for tree growth because evergreens need a lot of water to thrive, and some farms’ crops have suffered. Pea Ridge Forest, located in Hermann, Missouri, is a popular destination for St. Louis families who want to choose and cut their tree on-site at a farm. At Pea Ridge, the dry summers and mild winters of recent years have made it increasingly difficult to grow successful crops of Christmas trees. This year, the farm bolstered their own crop with trees shipped from Michigan and the Carolinas.

In colder climates like those, it’s much easier to grow fir trees. Growing firs here in Missouri takes lots of extra water, sometimes even the installation of irrigation systems. It’s much easier to grow pine trees here, so the Scotch pine in particular is a popular choice for Missouri farmers and their customers. Pine trees are the most resistant to warmth and dryness, which also means they’ll hold their needles the longest after they’re cut. Our homes are way too hot and dry for an evergreen’s liking, so it’s good to take this into consideration when you’re thinking about what kind of tree you want and how long you want to have it displayed. Firs will hold their needles second-longest after the pines, and the spruces come in last.

Inevitably every year comes the twinge of sadness when you must take down the Christmas decorations, and the tree along with them. Most of our decorations are packed away safely for the next year. It’s only our live Christmas trees to which we must say a permanent goodbye. But while the ornaments and ceramic Santa Claus sleep packed away and useless til next winter, the Christmas tree makes itself useful in a new way. It can be turned to mulch for next year’s garden. It can be burned as firewood. If you want to provide winter shelter for birds and rabbits, you can lay it down in your backyard and leave the strings of popcorn for them to eat. You can also donate your tree to be recycled by one of the city parks. 

Even if you don’t make practical use of your tree, the last Christmas gift you give each year is to return a real tree to the earth from which you cut it. No matter where the tree ends up, it will rot away and give back to the earth the gift of the nutrients it borrowed while it was living. And this period of decomposing and giving back will last long past its fleeting moment of glory in your bright front window.

Unpredictable December

December is a month that reminds us that we can’t anticipate everything. This year it began with snow, ice, and a bitter cold that’s faded now into rain, fog, and a mild chill more reminiscent of fall than winter. Comforting as it is to enjoy the warmer days or stay cozied up inside, everybody’s bound to be caught by surprise sometime this winter. Early this month, a spit of unforecasted sleet caused a midday exodus from the Missouri Botanical Garden. A woman ran for her car with her child so stiffly bundled in a puffy pink coat that she bounced helplessly on her mother’s shoulders. A middle-aged man hunched headfirst into the wind. He plowed on forward, slow and steady, looking not surprised by the weather, but personally offended. A group of brightly-dressed third-graders marched in a long, trailing line behind their steadfast teacher. She walked with calm posture and her head held high, a quiet “don’t-you-dare” as she led them back towards the school nearby. The children, bouncing and laughing, seemed hardly to notice the spitting sleet.

Winters in St. Louis are like this: unpredictable. The average amount of snowfall in December is 4.4 inches, but that number doesn’t reflect the wide range of each year on record. It isn’t unusual to get less than an inch of snow in December, nor is it unusual to get close to eight inches. And the average low temperature doesn’t usually get too cold until January, but anyone who’s lived here awhile knows that there’s plenty chance of a plummet at any moment. Missouri’s climate is notorious for being all over the place, and so many things besides the cold can make for a fiercer winter: the bitter wind racing between the buildings downtown and creaking the old, tired trees; sharp little sleet pellets biting at the face; the dry winter air cracking the fingers and palms of a people so used to sauna-like summers. And yet, a week out, many of us are checking the forecast and crossing our fingers for a cold, snowy Christmas Eve.

Maybe that’s why the old, familiar traditions of the holidays feel so comforting and warm. In the face of the cold outside and the uncertainty of an upcoming new year, we treasure this holiday for which our oldest friends and closest family members will gather together and do those things which we have always done. That’s why a warm Christmas Day in St. Louis always feels unsavory even to those who hate the cold the most—even if it’s just for a day each year, we want to feel that there is a supernatural warmth that comes from sharing gifts and customs with the people we care about in spite of the harshness of the world outside. As for whether we’ll get a cold and snowy Christmas this year, there’s not much to do but wait and see.