If Winter Comes

They were forecasting a clear night in Ottawa—a bad thing.  Without cloud cover the temperature would drop hard and painfully, like a frozen bagel landing on an unprotected toe.  Add a 50 km/hour wind and it felt like minus 26 degrees.  Centigrade?  Fahrenheit?  At that temperature, who really cares?  It was Day 2 of spring in Canada, the 2004 version.

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?  – Percy Bysshe Shelley

Well, yeah.  In this country, spring can be far behind even when spring comes.  That memorable year, Ottawa celebrated the vernal equinox with steady snow.  And it wasn’t just the nation’s capital getting what taxpayers everywhere might see as its due.  Calgarians woke up to a skiff of snow, and Gander hit the national news with a 40-centimetre skiff.  Then North Bay and Edmonton joined the club.  Finally, a blizzard swept across the Prairies, gladdening the hearts of farmers whose crops were in ground so dry they appreciated even fluffy moisture, but dismaying the rest of us.     

Struggling to stop living in the past—or at least to stop holding a grudge about it—I took a few minutes recently to ask the question:  Whither spring in Canada, the 2011 version? Apart from the left coast, the news isn’t good.  The ‘highs’ across the country are mostly below zero—double-digit below-zero highs in Yellowknife and Cambridge Bay—and the forecasts use profanity that has no place in the poetry of spring: ‘wind chill’, ‘flurries’, ‘mixed rain and snow’.  Even where the mercury should creep above zero, something else is likely to go wrong, as in la belle province where relative humidity near 70% will translate reasonable sounding temperatures into a bone-chilling cold, in either Official Language.

An optimist is the human personification of spring.  – Susan J. Bissonette

Our calendars embody optimism pretty well, I’m thinking, in claiming that spring starts on the vernal equinox.  Well, maybe spring means spring in Victoria most years, but spring-by-the-calendar finds many of us still engaged with winter in all but name: enjoying, tolerating, or suffering depending on our nature and our sense of humour.  My sense of humour about winter wears a little thin after St. Patrick’s Day (the only source of green to be found, most years).  Enough, already.

My mental state has sound scientific roots.  Since the 1960s, psychologists have studied ‘cognitive dissonance’: the distress caused by encountering information that contradicts what we think we know.  There’s a distinctively Canadian version that merits study, although it hasn’t received it yet.  ‘Calendrical dissonance’ manifests itself when the calendar flatly states that a season has started or not yet ended, yet all our experience protests otherwise.

I’ve suffered from calendrical dissonance for at least 30 years, at venues from Edmonton to Ottawa.  I’m not talking about the occasional sloppy blizzard in June or September.  These I take in my stride: I am, after all, Canadian.  But struggling through crusted, hip-high snowdrifts on Hallowe’en, a full seven weeks before the official start of winter—OK, that irks me.  Yet if the early onslaught of winter is offensive, surely a late onset to spring is a crime.  That would make Canadian spring a repeat, nay, a chronic offender, lagging the calendar like a child inexplicably reluctant to come out to play.

Measure your health by your sympathy with morning and spring…Thus may you feel your pulse.  – Henry David Thoreau

As it turns out, Hank, there’s nothing wrong with my pulse.  My heart thrills to spring’s arrival every year—just never in March.  So what’s the problem?  Confounded expectations, that’s what.  I hate pretending it is spring when it is not, and I’m tired of hoping that this year it will be different.  The cost to the economy of our collective calendrical dissonance is still unmeasured; the cost to our national psyche, surely unimaginable.

If there’s a bug you can’t fix—highlight it and call it a feature. – Various attributions within the software industry.

Climate-change discussions reveal scientific disagreement about the global consequences of our actions, but there’s no scope for hope, false or otherwise, at the local level: we really can’t fix the weather.  Maybe, though, we can change how we talk about the seasons.  I happen to have a modest proposal: let every community decide for itself when spring begins.  Some communities will go for fixed but more realistic dates than the vernal equinox.  That’s fine.  Others will go for variable dates, choosing community-specific harbingers of the gentle season.  That’s fine too.  This is Canada: we can do anything we want.

Up along the Arctic Ocean, Cambridge Bay might choose the first day the bay is clear of ice, sometime in mid-June.  Good for them.  Prairie folk might watch for the first crocuses to appear; Ottawa and points east might wait for a whole week clear of salty slush.  That works for me.  And the Left Coasters?  They may go for a date even earlier than the vernal equinox.  Let them.  See if we care.  A people who plant winter pansies don’t really get it, you know?

Spring has sprung, the grass is riz—I wonder where the birdies is?  – Anonymous.

We can’t control the weather.  But when we can finally celebrate spring when it really is spring, we will know that we have taken responsibility for our own mental health.  Let this be a first step in knitting up the ravelled edges of our national psyche.  When we’re ready for the next step, maybe those pesky poets can help us after all.

And if a new date for Spring comes, can Winter’s be far behind?

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7 Comments

  1. MC

    I moved to Ottawa from Windsor many years ago, and have suffered from ‘calendrical dissonance’ ever since. It took me several years before I realized that when Ottawans speak of spring, they mean end of May, early June, not the early March I was used to. (It was 18 degrees Celcius in Windsor last Thursday!)

  2. Dave

    Not only is the label “Spring” premature but now we also have to cope with an earlier daylight savings time. It use to be that this time shift was a sign of Spring. Who cares if there is more sunlight at 7PM when it is -20 degrees.

  3. Alison Uhrbach

    I read this as I live through another spring day with a “Heavy Snowfall Warning” ! Although we commented as we shovelled… “it looks a lot like the last weekend of May did last year” .. which unfortunately is true!

  4. John Benn (my partner) says we’re now on “the right side of summer”. True enough, but the older you get the faster time clicks past which is great in winter — but it also means, alas, that summer moves past at the same breakneck speed.

    Oil painter John spent his third winter outside painting — even at -23C — so if anyone can welcome a day when even one of six layers can be flung off…

    He also says, dryly, “In Canada, the supply of winter far exceeds the demand.” He’s British and doesn’t grumble. THAT’s the only thing that gets Canadians through it I think. Don’t worry, Isabel, sooner than you want, we’ll all be bitching about the humidity.

  5. steven

    Btw, according to some Ukrainians I know, in the Eastern (European) tradition, the first day of spring is March 1.

    Wikipedia sez that a meteorological definition of the local seasons is: warmest three months are summer; coldest three are winter; the gaps are spring and autumn. A quick glance at Environment Canada data for Ottawa suggests that this definition makes June-July-August summer, December-January-February winter, and thus March-April-May is spring.

    (That Wikipedia page also has the amusing (from a Canadian perspective) remark: “For most temperate regions, signs of spring appear long before the middle of March, but the folklore of 21 March being the ‘first day of spring’ persists…”)

    Anyway, I fully support your call for local definitions of spring, to suit local needs. I propose the last day of classes, which is usually some time in the first half of April. (Perhaps students can form a coalition with hockey fans — isn’t the end of the NHL regular season at about the same time?)

  6. Carolyne

    The thematic critics in Canadian Literature (that would be the likes of Margaret Atwood, D.G. Jones, John Moss), who believe that the Canadian literary tradition has been defined in large part by the Canadian climate have been much criticized for being so narrow. But when you think about it, our collective psyche is defined by the climate… look how much we talk about the weather… And who would we really be had we been born at or south of the Equator? How would this have changed us? I never cease to wonder…

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