Geese Overhead in January: A Changing Winter

John Kassel

Courtesy of rkramer62 @flickr. Creative Commons.

Has anyone else heard Canada Geese overhead in the last few days? I have, at our apartment in Somerville, MA. It’s a delightful sound, of course, but it’s the middle of January! This is the time for dead-of-winter slumber and the deep freezes that keep New England’s natural communities healthy and continuing as they are. Geese overhead in January is not a good sign.

Gardening companies and plant nurseries know the calendar. Seed catalogs are arriving, right on time. New England growers envision their gardens, select varieties of vegetables and fruits and, with the bounce of hope and excitement that this brings to a gardener, place their orders.

But what will this growing season bring? Very possibly too much rain (if recent experience continues), pests we’re not used to because they won’t be killed by deep frost over a warmer-than-usual winter, or other alterations to the web of life that has evolved in our region over the past thousands of years.

In 1990, the USDA plant hardiness zones in New England ranged from the subarctic zone 3 across the northern tier to temperate zone 6 across much of southern New England. As of 2006, zone 3 had shrunk to barely a sliver, and zone 7 appeared in the south – the same zone as Northern Louisiana. And that was 6 years ago. What is it now? What will it be in 10 years? I highly recommend, where you can watch a brief animation of the shift (click “play” and “reset”).

The big idea in Bill McKibben’s recent book, Eaarth, is that our planet has already changed – it’s not the same as the one we used to know. Growers in New England know this because they pay attention to it. In the coming years and decades, we’ll all see it. It will be unavoidable.

This change will help us focus our work at CLF. It must. Successfully adapting to a fundamental shift in climate – in a way that is affordable, promotes healthy communities, and promotes a resilient natural world – is vital for New England to thrive. What exactly that will require is not yet clear – to anyone. The strategic priority-setting process we have now embarked upon at CLF will set us on course to figure that out – continually, over time. It will require us to be as resilient as our natural world needs to be.

I believe we will keep ourselves on that course, in part because the reminders of the importance of doing so are obvious – like increased flooding and shrinking winters. And geese overhead in January.

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