I have spent the past weekend traveling—a few days in southern New Hampshire, and now in coastal Maine. I have been experiencing weather and, by extension, climate not normally my own.
Of New Hampshire….
The Ashuelot River looked like an overfilled bathtub. The swimming beach at the nearby Swanzey Lake (which is more properly a pond) looked as though the tide had come in. Puddles escaped out of ditches and inched across trails. Everywhere throughout that part of New Hampshire was water, water, and more water. I used to live thereabouts, which is how I recognized the water level as unusual, but I have seen the rivers high before. The odd thing is that when the Ashuelot runs high, it usually turns a chocolate-milk color with eroded sediment. Most rivers, in my experience, do.
This time the river ran dark, its standard low-water color.
The paradoxical color told me that the high water wasn’t the result of rapid storm runnoff but of the slow, even seepage of the water-table, the low-water pattern of movement transposed to a much wetter version of the landscape.
Indeed, friends reported that it had started raining back in November and more or less never stopped, although the air was dry during our visit. One said she’d heard that although the rain has been deeply and dramatically unusual, the water-table is actually normal, now. So many years of drought had actually dried out the land so much that it took a six-month-long flood to make up the difference.
But if the water table is normal, is the high river and everything else likewise? Was the Keene area as I knew it always warped by drought?
Here on the coast, now, the story is cold. The neighbor who brought his child to see our dogs told us he couldn’t work this spring—he digs clams, and otherwise harvests the sea—because until recently the harbors were frozen. This was the first week of the season temperatures rose above sixty degrees. Everybody’s talking about the cold, late spring.
My question is—is the spring really cold and late? Or is it a version of normal we haven’t seen in a while?
I don’t know whether the wet and dry of New Hampshire or the cold and warm of Maine are especially symptomatic of climate change, but this uncertainty regarding normality certainly is.
Emotionally speaking, we recognize climate change is a sickening, frightening abnormality. The heat wave in January, the drought that eats whole reservoirs, the hurricane making landfall where no hurricane should be. But to recognize the abnormal, one must have a feel for the normal, and “normal” has been a moving target for decades, now.
It’s not unusual for winters warmer than the historical average to feel cold and long and hard because recent winters have all been warmer yet.
When your landmarks are moving, how can you be sure where you are?