The Good, The Bad, And The Muggy

I’m a born and bred Midwesterner, and the hardy survivor of dozens and dozens of Ohio summers. And yet, it didn’t take many COVID-caused summer days in Maine for me to forget just how that brutal combination of heat and moisture made the Midwestern air feel—until I came back to Columbus a few days ago and was smacked in the face by July.

In a Stonington summer, the temperature rarely exceeds 70 degrees, and if it touches 80 it’s a heat wave for the ages. It’s always cool at night, and a gentle, crisp breeze is usually blowing. It makes a walk on a summer morning a pleasant and invigorating experience.

But in the Midwest the steamy summer air descends on you as soon as you leave your air-conditioned space and clings to you like a living thing. It makes even a predawn walk a sweaty, sapping experience, and there’s really nothing you can do about it. Even a severe thunderstorm won’t cool off the air for more than a few moments.

Some refined Midwesterners say things like “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” when complaining about this kind of broiling summer weather. I always thought the word “muggy” was more apt, though, because the weather is akin to a mugging, where combination of heat and moisture are like a physical assault and rob you of your cool and calm demeanor, leaving you damp and bedraggled.

Midwestern summers are the reason air conditioning was invented.

Elsa’s Punch

Elsa arrived in Stonington yesterday and proved that even a depleted tropical storm can still pack a wallop. High winds rattled the windows, shook the trees, left our side yard covered with downed tree branches and twigs, and—as feared—broke off two of our towering delphinium flower stalks.

The storm also showed that I don’t have a future as a drainage engineer. Despite my best efforts to remove rocks and take other actions to discourage the pooling of water in the down yard, this morning’s sunrise illuminated a large new pond in the low-lying area, as shown below. In fairness to my drainage promotion efforts, Elsa brought so much rain in such a short period of time—between three and four inches in the space of a few hours—I’m guessing that even professional efforts would have been overwhelmed. The downpour left some of the lupines and ferns I’ve been trying to grow in the area partially submerged, and only time will tell if they survive the dunking.

Gardening and yard work projects are always subject to the whims of Mother Nature, and all you can do is accept her consequences and move forward. One positive in all this, though, is that Stonington had been experiencing a drought. After yesterday, I think there is a drought no longer.

On The Boil

Lobsters can get hot. When they are fresh from the lobster pot, steam cascading from their shells just after being deposited from the pot onto a lobster trap, you need to let those bad boys cool before you begin cracking shells and dealing with the boiling water to be found in every crack and crevice.

Fortunately there is a pretty scene, looking out over the islands off of Burnt Cove, as you wait for the steam to dissipate and the lobsters to cool. You take a sip of your wine—more than one, actually—and revel in the setting sun before you start to crush those shells and extricate the tender, succulent lobster meat. You see the setting sun carve a fiery torch into the surface of the salt water, and you wonder why anyone would want to be anywhere else at this special moment in time.

Then the sun sinks lower, and you understand Homer’s reference to the wine dark sea, and you relish the taste of the absolutely fresh, steaming lobster meat, and you hope that this summer will last forever, even as your conscious mind knows that it cannot.

A Texas-Sized Hailstone

Hail is one of those meteorological phenomena that is on the weird edge of the spectrum of weather. A storm rolls through, you hear the rumble of thunder and the crash of lightning and the patter of rain drumming on the roof and windows–and then suddenly the patter becomes a sharp, loud rattle because the rain has turned into hail. You look out your door to see what’s going on and are shocked to find that your patio and yard are covered with pea-sized icy pellets, even though the temperature is far about freezing.

What causes hail? The National Geographic explains:

“Hailstones are formed by layers of water attaching and freezing in a large cloud. A frozen droplet begins to fall from a cloud during a storm, but is pushed back up into the cloud by a strong updraft of wind. When the hailstone is lifted, it hits liquid water droplets. Those droplets then freeze to the hailstone, adding another layer to it. The hailstone eventually falls to Earth when it becomes too heavy to remain in the cloud, or when the updraft stops or slows down.”

Even small hailstones can cause a lot of damage to cars and roofs, and really bad hailstorms can be deadly: the National Geographic piece linked above notes that 250 people were killed in a hailstorm in India in 1888. If you’ve been in a bad hailstorm, it’s not hard to see how that could happen. If you’re outside when baseball-sized chunks of solid ice start hurtling down from the skies and one of them has your name on it, there’s not much you can do about it.

All of this is to explain why I was interested when I saw this story this week about the hailstone, pictured above, that set the record for the largest recorded hailstone ever to fall in Texas. This whopper, which fell near Hondo, Texas on April 28, weighed in at a hefty 1.26 pounds and was at least the size of small football when it crashed through a tree on its way to the ground. Fortunately, it didn’t hit a house, car, animal, or person.

It just goes to show you that things are bigger in Texas. And it also shows you why, during the thunderstorm season on the Great Plains and Midwestern United States, you want to be sure not to be caught outside when a bad thunderstorm rolls through.

Relishing The Cool Of The Morning

Like much of the rest of the country, Maine generally, and Stonington specifically, is experiencing a heat wave, with temperatures in the 80s in the coastal areas and 90s inland. But unlike the rest of the country, Maine isn’t really equipped to deal with high heat. None of the houses in our area are equipped with central air conditioning, for example, because there is absolutely no need for it during a typical summer, when you expect highs in the 70s during the day and lows in the 50s at night.

That means Mainers deal with the heat using the techniques many of us remember from our pre-air conditioning childhood. A heat wave is a time for wide open windows and ceiling fans, and wishful hopes for a hint of a cool breeze to sweep through the room. It’s a time to stay outside a bit later as the sun goes down, until the mosquitoes drive you indoors. It’s also a time to savor the early morning moments of cooler air before the sun rises and the heat is cranked up again. And the views just before 5 a.m. aren’t bad, either.

Heat waves are a challenge up here, but eventually they end. In the meantime, the ice cream shop downtown is making a killing.

Colorado River Cool-Off

It’s been in the 90s in Austin, and pretty humid, too. But it’s nice when there’s a river that’s handy. In Austin it’s the Colorado River —not the one that goes through the Grand Canyon—and people were taking full advantage today.

There were tons of kayaks, rafts, and floats on the water, and hardy teenage boys were jumping off a pedestrian bridge into the river. Not a bad option on a hot day!

Amidst The Mist

Fog is a curious phenomenon. For one thing, sounds seem to carry differently when Stonington is socked in by a heavy fog, as it is this morning. The growling sounds of the lobster boats heading out to sea seem to be amplified by the moisture in the air, so that it sounds as if the boats are very close by when it is clear they aren’t. And familiar scenes look different, too.

But the visual effects of fog can also be surprising, and varying. Sometimes it renders things, like the boats at anchor above, blurry and indistinct, like a grey aquatic dreamscape. In other places the fog acts as a kind of backdrop that frames the structures in the foreground, giving them a different cast. The old dock and green boathouse below, located next to the post office, are a good example of this effect. I’d never paid much attention to them before, but amidst the mist they look spindly and delicate and haunting.

Fog makes the morning walk more interesting for me, but makes the morning work more treacherous for the lobstermen.

Framed By The Fog Bank

We haven’t had a lot of fog in Stonington so far this summer. Earlier this week, though, a fog bank that was a real pea souper rolled in and thoroughly blanketed our little promontory on the Greenhead peninsula. Last night it was clear, but when Betty and I went for our walk this morning, it became obvious the fog hadn’t gone away—it just withdrew to a more strategic position offshore, creating a situation where it was bright and sunny ashore but grey and obscured on the bay. When we passed the mailboat dock, we could see the fog out there, squatting on the surface of the water, clutching the more distant boats in tendrils of mist, and making it impossible to see even the nearby islands in the harbor.

On days like this it’s hard not to think of the fog as being almost like a living thing.

Cutting Through The Mist

It’s been rainy and cool all weekend, and today fog and a ground-hugging mist were added to the mix. Fog and mist don’t stop the intrepid lobstermen of Stonington, however. Betty and I watched this solitary fisherman navigating cautiously through the murk and returning to dry land—although, given the wet conditions, it would be more accurate to say “solid ground”—this afternoon, just before another cloudburst drenched us all.

Spring Snow At Schiller

Much as I hate the idea of snow on the ground on April 21–and more snow falling, even now–I have to admit that the snow gave a pretty new look to Schiller Park during my walk this morning. You could still see some of the color of the flowering trees beneath the layer of snow, and the heavy, wet snow on the leaves brought many of the limbs of the trees over the sidewalks down low, requiring you to duck and steer between low-hanging branches as you walked. And snow bombs, with clumps of snow being shaken off the trees and falling on we pedestrians below, were a constant hazard.

As I walked, I thought the park looked different in this snowfall than it does during the winter months. It took me a while to figure it out, until the bright green, grassy circles that surrounded every leafed-out tree clued me in. The canopies of leaves were shielding the grass from the snow and holding it above. Unlike their skeletal look after a winter snowfall, the trees looked full and bright, almost as if the snow were flowering buds. That thought almost made the falling snow and the cold tolerable.

Spring Snow

The temperature started to plummet last night, the clouds rolled in, and this morning we woke up to a fresh—and utterly unwelcome—springtime snowfall, as shown in this picture from our screened porch taken a few minutes ago.. The temperature is right at 32 degrees Fahrenheit now and is supposed to rise gradually, but it’s not going to get above the low 40s today.

In short, it’s not exactly an ideal spring day.

That’s Midwestern weather for you. It defines unpredictability. April 20 and 21 is pretty late for snow, but the folk wisdom in these parts tells us that late snows and freezing temperatures at the end of April or even early May aren’t unprecedented. The prevailing view is that you shouldn’t plant flowers until Mother’s Day, in order to avoid a belated hard freeze that kills or cripples your new plantings. That little nugget of local gardening doctrine, which Mom repeated on an annual basis, obviously is based on years of harsh experience.

And this year, the folk wisdom has been affirmed once again. I’m glad I haven’t done anything in the planting arena before now. I’ll also be glad when the snow melts and we get back to a reasonable approximation of spring.

Springtime At Schiller

During the week we were out in Arizona, spring arrived in central Ohio in a big way. Trees are beginning to leaf out, flowers are showing their colors, the grass is a bright green, the flowering trees are in their glory, and there is a gentle, floral scent of spring on the freshening breeze.

It is a beautiful time of year, and there is no better place to enjoy the delights of spring than Schiller Park. The garden club has been busy, and the grounds of the park look marvelous. This morning, conditions were perfect for a stroll through and around the park, with cool temperatures and bright sunshine. I wasn’t the only person who thought this was a good idea, either; the park was packed with people, and dogs, all enjoying a romp outside in the beautiful surroundings. We’ve all got spring fever, and a great park like Schiller is an ideal place to let the fever take hold.

Dry Heat

There’s really no need for a big thermometer on a hiking trail—especially in Arizona. Hikers know what the weather is like, obviously: it’s hot as blazes! And if you’re not already well-equipped with a hat, sunscreen, and plenty of water, a few degrees aren’t going to make a difference.

The last few days the temperature has hit 90 degrees and stayed there. When I took my hike today, starting at about 1 p.m., it was 90 out, and there was no one—literally, not a single soul—on the trails. When I looped back around 3 p.m. it was still 90 out, and I saw two intrepid hikers as I neared the trail head. Those were the only people I saw on some very cool trails.

People around here call it a dry heat, because there is no humidity. Unlike the Midwest, where 90 degrees would mean you’re dissolved in sweat, 90 is much more tolerable here— but it’s still hot. If you don’t have a good hat and water, you’re begging for a case of sunstroke and cramps.

That Outdoor Urge

Yesterday the temperatures were still cold, but it was bright and sunny. It’s clear that we are on the cusp of spring, and I felt this irrepressible urge to go outside and do something. Not just take a walk — actually do something that would fall into the “outdoor chore” category.

So I gave in to the impulse, bundled up against the cold breeze, put on my sunglasses, and went outside ready to do just about anything. I swept out the back porch to remove all of the leaves and dirt and dust that had gathered there over the winter, swept the patio stones and the brick walkway, surveyed the trees and shrubs, and picked up leaves and twigs so that the backyard and patio would be free of debris and our little pod of grass would have the best possible spring growth conditions.

Then I moved to the front of the house, swept the front steps and the brickwork, swept the front sidewalk, and collected and disposed of the flotsam and jetsam that had emerged from underneath the accumulated pile of snow in our front beds. I even retrieved a plastic grocery bag that was blowing down the street like a tumbleweed, and then used it as I walked up and down the street to pick up some of the inevitable post-snowmelt litter, so that our neighborhood would be ready for spring, too. At the end of the process I surveyed my efforts and internally pronounced them as good.

I’m a big believer in the notion of human beings reacting, instinctively, to seasonal changes. I certainly feel that I do. The days grow longer, the sun shines, the world grows greener bit by bit, and you can feel a surge of energy after the winter doldrums. It’s a good feeling.