Sunday, April 3, 2011
spring sprung awry
I never really appreciated spring as a season growing up in California. I did like March, when the winter rains were still with us, and the neighbor's willow tree would begin to green. But the San Francisco Bay Area didn't really have four seasons, just two - raining and dry -- a typical Mediterranean type climate. When I decided to go "back east" to college, a big part of my decision was weather; I actually wanted a real winter, with snow and cold. That real winters resulted in real springs was a bonus that had not occurred to me.
My first year of four seasons in Oberlin, Ohio was full of incredible discoveries. I'd fantasized about what it would be like to walk in falling snow; I learned what it was like to live with two feet of snow on the ground for two weeks, and that walking on icy walks was a real art form. The biggest discovery of that first year was the spring sequence of blooms and color, although I didn't realize the first year that it was an annual occurrence. The sequence that began with the brilliant yellow of daffodils and forsythia, and ended three months later with wild roses. In between came tulips, the flowering fruit trees, red bud, dogwood, irises, blackberry blossoms and heavenly scented lilacs.
Over the next forty years I found that where ever I spent spring -- Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, or Maine -- that the sequence of spring was the same, only the timing differed. In Ohio, the daffodils and forsythia appeared at the end of April just in time to liven up the last weeks of the semester, in Kentucky, daffodils and forsythia made their yellow splash during spring break in March, in Pennsylvania the yellow blossoms always appeared just after graduation in late April.
Over the past decade, climate change has shifted the start of spring, and its daffodils and forsythia earlier, by nearly two weeks, but the sequence seemed to remain largely intact. This spring, however, the sequence seems a bit out of whack. For the first time in my memory, the daffodils and forsythia came early as they have for some time, in early March, but strangely they hung on longer than usual. Suddenly the flowering fruit trees blossomed white and pink and are already fading to green leaves while the bright yellow forsythia was still in full bloom - and it is past April 1st.
The most startling discontinuity of this spring has been the redbud, which began blooming one full week ago, in March, while the forsythia and daffodils were still bright yellow, and the flowering fruit trees still clung to their pink and white blossoms. This is an entire month ahead of what was normal blooming time for redbud ten years ago.
I can remember driving to Elizabethtown, Kentucky back in 2002 on April 25th and being blown away by the hundreds of miles of light purple redbud along the roadsides. Over the past decade the time for redbud blooming has slowly crept forward. Last year the redbud was in full bloom on April 16, when I drove to Harlan for a faculty meeting. But a leap ahead another two weeks to April 1st to be in full bloom is astounding, and disturbing.
It's as if what was once nearly three months of sequential blooming has been compressed and overlapped into a few weeks of March and April; with the life span of some flowers extending much longer, while others come and go more quickly. The scientists who study climate and and seasonal changes refer to this disruption of established patterns of plant flowering as "desynchronisation" (see: Dr Malcolm Clark and Prof Roy Thompson, and suggest that it could create problems for animal species that depend upon reliable plant food sources for seasonally timed reproduction.
It's one thing to read about the science. It's another thing to have it so clearly visible in one's own front yard.
Photo of redbud from April 16, 2010 by sgreerpitt