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SHEELA CLARY: Half emergencies

For me, for us, the current trend toward warmth instead of cold and rain instead of snow is a sadness simple, a simple loss, a long, felt absence of this thing that we love and miss, an absence about which there is nothing to be done.

It’s March 8 and I’m driving south on 41, just past Division Street. A fire truck flashes by me, followed by an ambulance. Their lights are flashing, but their sirens are silenced, a circumstance I am never sure what to make of it except that it must be a kind of half emergency, whatever a half emergency is. (Maybe an LOLFOF kind of emergency, as my EMT friend called them, meaning a “Little Old Lady Fell On the Floor”… and needs help getting back up.)

Then another middling emergency beckons, as I look up from Route 41 and gaze southeast toward the barely still white, much too soon to be totally brown, slopes of Ski Butternut. I don’t know how to feel about the flashing lights, but I know how this other early March view makes me feel — sad with the sadness of knowing there’s nothing I can do to make it better. There ought to be more snow; brighter, whiter snow; snow all over that hillside; snow in the woods between the open slopes; and dirty snow still lining the sides of this road. If the past two full months had been more or less fully white, as winters once were, and if just now in early March the slopes were already three-quarters of the way toward total nakedness at this stage, we would simply say, “Ah well, in 2024 we just had a particularly early spring.” But we have had almost no snow to speak of at all this whole season, have we? Did we have a white Christmas? I think we did, I think we had an inch or two of consolation. Since then, though, I don’t think my son has had a single snow day.

I learned to ski at Ski Butternut in the winter of 1978, back when the main lift, Top Flight, was not a quad, but a double, and you had the option of getting off halfway, where a cheerful dude named Eric would be standing there smiling and ready to help you, accompanied, usually, by the Grateful Dead. As a kid, I read something profound into that halfway point. I saw something applicable to the experience of a whole life when one half of a pair of travelers chose to slide off the chair beside Eric, midway through their journey, while her companion chose to continue up to the top alone. Eric is still there to greet me, in the form of a stone snowman statue, which folks will sometimes adorn with a scarf, or an old photo.

These last few nearly snowless winters, I have sometimes felt like I could channel what I take to be the spirit of Butternut, as its reason for being becomes more and more alienated from the reality of our climate. I see on Facebook that they are closing for this whole rainy week. They are closing the tubing hill for the season on March 10. As for the rest of the mountain, I feel that we, they, will try to limp along, taking things a day at a time, even as my weather app advertises temperatures in the 60s this coming week.

I tutor a young man in Italian, and we started out class this week talking about the weather, as I pointed outside, at the rainy sky. “Non c’è neve. Non c’è più neve in marzo.” (“There’s no snow. There’s no snow anymore in March.”) He said, in English, “I didn’t believe in global warming until this year.”

And I said, “Quest’anno è l’anno.” (“This year is the year.”)

Going into a diatribe about how this quite quick year-on-year warm-up surely bodes the end of the world, and how we are all doomed, is not a productive way to spend my time — or yours. I don’t know what I or you or anyone else can materially and substantially do about this gargantuan, global problem. For me and anyone else who loves winter, it is a personal and immediate sort of problem, too, because our beloved ski area friend will likely have to close earlier than they ever had to before, and we feel we are watching her slow death. I have not come close to getting my money out of my mid-week season pass yet, but I am happy to consider the balance my small donation toward keeping winter going for the long run.

Last year, we got a big, gorgeous storm right in the middle of March after yet another paltry winter, and I recounted here the glorious day of fantastic skiing that I and hundreds of others enjoyed in its wake. The Butternut parking lot was full on a weekday morning because of all the people just like me who played hooky to take advantage of all that glorious snow, and all those people just like me have had so few good excuses to play hooky this December, January, February, and now March. I bet a lot of them, like me, are worried about the future of our pastime as it relates to this place.

Some people crave the return of spring all winter long and celebrate as soon as the temperature stays solidly above 40 degrees for three days running, because it turns their minds toward gardening, or Tanglewood, or any number of other warm weather pleasures. But I am one of those who wants to let our January be January and our February be February and our March to be March. I want to run out at the end of a long snow day and collapse into the soft whiteness, and make snow angels with my son, and have a snowball fight with the whole family, and look out the window the next clear morning and marvel at how the whole world has been transformed again. For me, for us, the current trend toward warmth instead of cold and rain instead of snow is a sadness simple, a simple loss, a long, felt absence of this thing that we love and miss, an absence about which there is nothing to be done.

You could, of course, head north for colder climes. I am really glad I did that this year because last month my family got to have four days of true winter. Our house was nestled in a forested enclave off a quiet Vermont road, and there was a stable, an unmelting foot of snow outside our door, and on our last morning a further light snow was quietly falling, and for the first time all season, it felt like we were living in a true winter; it felt as though the season were manifesting its true seasonal identity. I could have sat on the couch and stared out the window all day long, but instead I skied, and just before skiing, at the top of Killington’s high-up mountain, I skied into a glen of pine trees, and made a 2024 snow angel.

If I am to make my year-round nest here, it seems I must let my winter be a lot more spring, my February be March, and my March, April. I must accept this fleeting, foreshortened season, my favorite, and must look out at what seems unrecognizable, and start to recognize it.

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