The Discontent of Our Winter

MY CHILDREN have snow anxiety. For the record, this started in the winter of 2011–12 when no snow fell — at all — and sleds, saucers, skis, and snowball makers sat dejectedly on the porch, unused, next to the irrelevant and despondent snow shovel. Week after week, month after month, Faith and Elijah scanned the skies and studied the forecast. When June-like temperatures hit in March, the sight of the toboggan filled them with so much despair that they wordlessly dragged it back to the barn and put it in storage.

Which did not go unnoticed by their dad and me. When had our kids ever put stuff away without being asked? It was as unprecedented as a snowless winter in upstate New York. Nobody had ever experienced that either.

During the unfrozen winter of 2011–12, the grown-ups all walked around saying, “This is crazy!” True enough. When the temperature in the mudroom hits eighty degrees before the daytime:nighttime ratio hits parity, some synonym for insane is what the thesaurus should take you to. But “This is crazy!” also implies that we possess no rational explanation for June arriving in March. And I noticed that my son and his friends never said things like that to each other. They spoke more grimly, along the lines of, Global warming. It’s here. Now we can’t go sledding. Probably ever. So what do you want to do, dude?

When snow and ice finally fell in April — hard enough and fast enough to cancel school — it fell on tulip and magnolia petals and killed off the entire cherry crop.

The toboggan stayed in the barn.

But wishful thinking springs anew in the hearts of children, even in the face of permanent catastrophe, so, after a cherryless summer and a fall with few apples, Faith and Elijah conferred hopefully about the upcoming winter. Last year was a global warming winter. But maybe global warming winters come only every other year. Maybe this year would be normal.

The snow fell. The sleds came out. The snow melted.

The snow fell again. And turned to rain. The ground thawed and great lakes of water filled the low areas, and the sleds that had been parked at the bottoms of sledding hills across the county bobbed around like flotillas of small boats at harbor.

The sight of floating sleds made the adults say, “It’s crazy!” all over again.

The kids just gave up. Let the record show that in February 2013, the children of Trumansburg, New York, gave up on winter. As a season, it was no longer reliable. You could wake up in the morning to a wonderland — snowflakes dutifully falling, the front yard all white, perfect, hushed, squeaky — and by the time school let out in the afternoon, the miraculous world had already reverted back to brown, gray, mushy, yucky.

“Don’t get excited,” said Faith to Elijah right before Valentine’s Day when he looked out the window at first light and announced a fresh snowfall. “It won’t last.”

My children were born just before and after the turn of the century. They are old enough to reminisce about the days before winter went bad and became the crazy uncle in the seasonal family. Faith’s fashionable friends discuss the clothes they used to wear — month after arctic month — when they were little and the snow was piled high from November to March. Kids today, they note with disinterested interest, just don’t have the same relationship to their snow pants.

I think I’m on to something here, and I’d like to make a prediction. I predict that the cohort of kids who are now ten to fifteen years old are going to have a very different worldview than those born just a few years after them. My kids and their friends and everyone roughly their age will, in fact, be the last human beings to remember a stable, predictable procession of seasons.

Let me put a finer point on this. My kids, who are in middle school, know that winter is supposed to be cold and that January pond ice should be thick enough for skating. They possess snowman-making techniques, snow-fort construction skills, and an elaborate ethos about exactly what kind of snowballs can and can’t be used for ambushing the friends of one’s sibling and what body parts are and are not off-limits (no ice balls, never in the face). They have methods for assessing the slide-ability and pack-ability of any given snowfall. They know which methods of tucking snow pants into snow boots work and which leak. They have strong opinions on gloves versus mittens and the proper way to make a snow angel. And yet, for the last two years, they have had almost no opportunity to exercise this knowledge.

Meanwhile, a friend calls to tell me that her otherwise very bright granddaughter, who is of nursery-school age, is having trouble learning the names of the seasons. They make no sense to her. “But grandma, you said that winter was cold!” Winter, when she said it, wasn’t. And there was the added problem of the forsythias. They bloomed this year during a warm spell that spanned the twelve days of Christmas. April showers bring May flowers. When the nursery rhymes no longer match the empirical evidence, what’s a three-year-old to think?

Here are two more stories for the record. Because of climate change, Elijah gave up on Little House in the Big Woods. He liked the first half. But the episodes involving horse-drawn sleighs and maple-syrup snow cones were too painful. He refused to read on. “It’s not that way anymore, Mom,” he said matter-of-factly, and set the book aside.

I was stunned. But then it happened to me. While rereading the poem “Corsons Inlet” by A. R. Ammons — “I went for a walk over the dunes again this morning / to the sea, / then turned right along / the surf” — which had once been the subject of my own master’s thesis, I found that I couldn’t go on. It’s not that way anymore, Archie. And how come, in 1965, you didn’t see it coming? Corson’s Inlet, a last undeveloped stretch of beach in New Jersey, was destroyed during Hurricane Sandy.

I set the book aside. Matter-of-factly.

Not to say that our hearts have all turned to stone around here. Here’s my other story: After days of wild, record-breaking weather, our village winter festival was canceled because of rain and flood warnings. When I told Elijah the bad news on the walk home from school, he began to cry. I told him I was sorry.

He said, “I’m not upset about the festival. I’m upset because the planet’s dying. I know this is all because of global warming.”

This is what I heard myself say: “Look, Mom is on the job. I’m working on it. I’m working on it really hard, and I promise I won’t quit.”

And then I cried. And not only because my son believes himself to be alive on a dying planet, but because all the generations of parents before mine have been unable to deal with the facts and mount a response of sufficient scale to solve the problem, meaning that all of us now have a monumental task before us. I cried because keeping my promise makes me arise before dawn to get on buses, puts bullhorns in my hand in faraway cities, may yet land me in jail, and, in these and other ways, takes me away from my children so that I can prove them wrong.

Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream and several other books about climate change, ecology, and the links between human health and the environment. She was an Orion columnist for six years. Author photo: Laura Kozlowski.


  1. If you try to tell people really bad news about the planet they say”You have negative energy…”

  2. Well now you’ve made ME cry. And I’m glad. Please don’t ever shelve that bullhorn. You ARE inspiring others to take action.

  3. My hope is for more people to embrace the painful truth rather than doing the ostrich head in the sand routine. It is hard to understand why so many cannot grasp the perilous ground on which their children/ grandchildren’s future rests. Keep sending the message and Thank you.

  4. Thank you for this hard to read yet deeply moving article. I have a three year old granddaughter who WILL experience snow in the woods of Michigan due to our “crazy” spring when she visits from Seattle tomorrow. But she has taught me about rain…they play outside in all weather. “It’s wet, GamMary, bring a towel!”

  5. Sandra’s article and my family’s own experience of the 2012/2013 non-existent snow fall in Seattle redefines the term “season affective disorder”. My kids awaited the snowfall like Christmas morning, and it never came. Their dismay palpable. Years ago I realized the significance & importance of seasonal changes on my own mind, body and spirit when I lived in Florida for a few years after living most of my life in Western New York. While in Florida I felt stagnant and adrift. It was not until I moved to a location that experienced distinct seasons that I began to feel whole again. The discontent is very real and we experience it at a cellular level.

  6. We live in North Texas, right across the Red River from Oklahoma. This April, 2013, we have broken records for late freezes and frosts. Last year was the hottest on record. The drought in our territory is the worst ever recorded, and that includes the Dust Bowl years. The birds and the butterflies are disappearing. God bless the starlings and grackles; the fire ants the salt cedars; the rats and the possoms and the coyotes and the feral hogs. if kinder, gentler times return, Mother Nature can and will take the tough gray survivors and out of them, return the earth to a creation of dazzling diversity. Keep hope; live as if; stay brave.

  7. Thank you for your beautiful writing and inspiring leadership. Sometimes I am not positive what instrument I hold, or if I’m worthy of the need, but I am grateful for your urgent invitation to join in playing the ‘Save the World’ symphony, and I will play as best as I can.

  8. Please examine this photo from space showing snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere today vs. 2006 on the same ay March 3o.

    Rutgers University has historic records of snowfall and this year has set many new records. Here is the Northern Hemisphere Winter data and as you can see snow has been increasing.

    While well heeled types lament over lack of snow in their back yard to go sledding, many children/grandchildren died this winter from record snowfall and record cold around the globe. Sometimes a view from space rather than just the backyard window, can open one’s eyes.

  9. The planet is not dying. It will be here a very long time after we humans– one of a long line of finite species– have vanished. What distresses me is our collective striving to be sure we leave it a barren rock unfit for the habitation of any other species. We are the first species arrogant enough to believe no other higher life form may be expected from evolution.

  10. This is so poignant, and yet there is hope both in your children’s awareness and honesty, and also in your commitment to working to solve the problem rather than giving up. We hear a lot about the expected agricultural, economic, and health crises that accompany global warming, but the cultural loss when the seasons are no longer the same and when places are lost also has a huge impact that we are only now beginning to realize. Thank you for helping us see that.

  11. Sandra, thank you for fighting for our kids and our planet. I am brought to tears every time I read your column because, like you, my heart breaks for my child and what she is inheriting. In my opinion, your columns exemplify the great hope of having children: that we will, in the end, figure out how to heal our planet–for the people we love the most depend on it.

  12. These conversations need to be broadcast more widely. Too many frivolous distractions in the media and misrepresentations of the bottom line issues in our nation’s politics are clouding the most horrific ethical issue humans have faced. Killing one another and wars are always stupid — but killing what sustains us is absurd. The Earth will survive us. Still if everyone who reads and weeps did something, each day, or even each week that helps, the grass roots efforts could prevail. Activism has as many faces as people. Each one of us can do something to make a difference. The time is now!

  13. I’ve lived most of life in Chicago and Upstate New York. This expresses my climate anxiety perfectly. Winter has always shaped my understanding of life, and that sense of understanding is gone now–by coincidence, the first “global warming winter” I was aware of was my first out of college, and so I’ll always think of winter as a childhood thing. Thanks for affirming.

  14. The problem is fossil fuel. The solution is the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR), a safe form of nuclear power, which the media wont say a word about because of all the ad money from fossil fuels. But you’ll find it online.

  15. How are we to instruct the children; how are they not to repeat our mistakes; how are all of us at a minimum to try and go forward sustainably, if those elders with knowledge refuse to share an understanding of what the best available science tells us about the population dynamics of the human species that is causing us to grow exponentially in a patently unsustainble way and by so doing, to destroy everything we claim to be protecting and preserving for those who come after us?

  16. The truth is so hard and so empowering.

    PS – I’m working on a Sustainable Narrative Project would love your input if you have time.

  17. So glad to have snow in Southeast Iowa right now, but I can remember recent years with very little snow. I recall childhood years when snow came early in November and stayed throughout the winter into March, and sometimes April. Yes, we are changing the planet, sad to say.

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