New York Times Op-Ed is “Weather Feigned”– Maine’s March 2012 Was Crocuses, Not Dr. Zhivago

Bear with me here, sports fans.  I refer you to a column on today’s Sunday New York Times Op-Ed page, entitled “Weather Vain,” by a columnist who lives in Belgrade Lakes, Maine and is a Colby College professor. The singular focus of the column is Maine weather, and its’ supposed effect on those who live in Maine. It should have been entitled “Weather Feigned.”

Manchester, Maine, on Feb. 21, 2012 (17 mi. from Belgrade Lakes). Note all the bare ground — and this preceded Maine’s greatest March Heat Wave in the last 100 years.

Because I live in Maine, I read it with some eagerness; upon finishing it, my first thought was Churchill’s great quote: I should think it hardly possible to state the opposite of the truth with more precision.” I recalled crocuses blooming in March — all over Maine — and one very long, two-week stretch of bizarre, sometimes beastly hot weather, with a couple of 80 degree days. There were forsythia bushes in bloom in March, and hipsters in Bermuda shorts.

Then I read it again and had some self-doubt– after all, the Times wouldn’t publish a column so full of factual errors — it must’ve been April I was thinking of.

So I went back and looked at some evidence. Here’s my chart of the daily (Wunderground) weather stats (compiled, laboriously, from each day’s listing), for the period Feb. 23 through April 1.

—  A couple notes:
1) These figures are for Augusta, Me., 15 miles or so from Belgrade Lakes ;
2) The figures are less thorough for February, since the focus of the article is March.
3) “Viz” means visibility in miles,. One of the hallmarks of a blizzard is winds in steady excess of 25 mph — if you’ve even been in one, you will know that.
4) Precipitation figure is bolded, in inches.

Feb 23 —  .27  mean temp 38, fog, rain,
Feb  24 —  .35   mean temp 34, av. wind 4, gusts to 10,  viz 6 mi,  fog, snow
Feb 25 —  .09   mean temp 32, av. wind 10, gusts to 18,  viz 7,   snow
Feb 26 —  0
Feb 27 —  0
Feb 28 —  0
Feb 29 —   0

March:  These figures read from left to right: Mean temp, max temp, Precip, Av. Wind, Gusting to, Viz, and then special events
March 1 —  Mean Temp 20;  Max Temp 26; Precip .16; Wind 12 mph (Gusts to 26), Viz 2 mi.,  Events: fog, snow
March 2 — 20, 28, 0,  7, 13, 8
March 3– 30 36 , .51 3 12 3,  fog,rain,snow
March 4– 34, 40, 0, 6, 10, 9,  snow

March 5 — 22, 30, .01, 9, 13, 6
March 6 — 19, 30, 0, 5, 10, 10
March 7 — 32, 46, 0, 4, 8, 10
March 8 — 47, 57, 0, 8, 14, 10,
March 9 — 36, 45, .13, 11, 22, 9,  rain
March 10 — 28, 35, 0, 5, 13, 10
March 11 — 36, 48, 0, 5, 10, 10
March 12 — 46, 64, 0, 3, 6, 10
March 13 — 50, 62, 0, 5, 14, 9
March 14 —  34, 35, .01, 9, 13, 4
March 15 — 31, 39, .01, 8, 15, 9,  snow
March 16 — 32, 36, .19, 2, 7, 6,  rain
March 17 — 44, 57, 0, 3, 9, 8
March 18 — 56, 75, 0, 5, 8, 9
March 19 — 57, 71, 0, 5, 15, 10
March 20 — 57, 78, 0, 2, 8, 10
March 21 — 64, 82, 0, 3, 8, 10
March 22 — 66, 84, 0, 5, 14, 10
March 23 — 56, 64, 0, 10, 17, 10
March 24 — 44, 52, 0, 8, 15, 10
March 25 — 40, 43, .14, 4, 9, 9,  rain
March 26 — 32, 37, .03, 7, 24, 6,  fog,rain
March 27 — 30, 41, 0, 14, 25, 10
March 28 — 31, 36, .15, 4, 10, 7,  rain,snow
March 29 — 32, 36, .03, 7, 13, 6,  snow
March 30 — 34, 39, 0, 8, 21, 10,  none
March 31 — 36, 48, 0, 2, 8, 10,  none

Based on this review, I ended up in agreement with the author’s final statement: The writer is “crazy,” but not for the reasons suggested by the column:

1. Maine had the biggest March Heat Wave ever, from March 10-24.  There was a high of 84 on March 22.  Some temperatures were forty degrees above average highs. Records were smashed everywhere across Maine.  The writer’s statement about an ostensibly tongue-in-cheek message she gave to an out-of-state friend in July (“74 again today, no relief in sight“), could not only have been accurately uttered in mid-March — but also similarly mispresents the reality of the entire 2012 Maine summer, which has shattered records for heat. Our weather in Maine for the last six months has, in fact, very closely resembled typical Philadelphia or Washington weather.

2. Weatherunderground records confirm no “blizzards” from Feb. 24-April 1. None. Only one snowstorm which might’ve been 3-4 inches, and combined with rain.  And the photograph above, taken on February 21 in Manchester, Maine (17 miles from Belgrade Lakes), shows the almost complete absence of much snowcover — the tree trunk is entirely free of snow for a radius of 3 or 4 feet around — and that photo was take on a date which precedes the once-in-century Big March Heat Wave demonstrated by the chart above.

3. Ice-Outs in all Maine Lakes were one month ahead of average; most, including Belgrade Lakes, occurred third week of March. The old-timers have all been aghast.

So the facts asserted in the column don’t square with reality. Stated in other terms: I do not recognize the alleged Maine winter described in the Grey Lady’s Op-Ed pages today.  (And you wonder why the Times didn’t do any fact-checking for this Op-Ed so prominently displayed in the flagship Sunday edition.) The weather in Maine in March (and to a certain extent, ever since) has been not just unusual, but bizarre for all of us here in Maine, so much so that, to fail to at least make some small reference to this fact — or better yet, to make it the benchmark foundation of any effort to describe these seasons to outsiders  — leaves the reader instead with a fatuous portrayal.

The weather facts are so balled up, in fact, that one wonders if these exchanges with out-of-state friends actually took place at all, or at least took place at the time described. But then if one looks closer, there appears some question, in addition, about whether anyone would have been out skiing across Great Pond at any time this past March — particularly in such warm, balmy weather. Everyone knows that lakes in March — even in non-Heat-Wave months of March – can be dicey gambles, risking injury with a fall through the thinning ice.

And one might even, as the author’s credibility melts before us like spring snow, reasonably question the alleged path of the described cross-country ski trip, since it appears that the most logical trip was one which would immediately have given, right out the author’s front door,  straight northward onto the local golf course, and then traversed the course, again on a true north path, for a mile or so, to a point only 300 yards or so from the Sunset Grille there in the village — with little reason to venture out onto the lake at all, unless to take inexplicable left-hand (westward) or right-hand (eastward) perpendicular diversion. But that’s rough speculation.

But here’s the final and most central point, much of it derived from the impression that author’s powers of observation are …..less than powerful:  the column has an entirely “dialed-in” faux-folksy air about it, masquerading as a sort of E.B. White “report from a lonely outpost” sent by snail-U.S.-Mail down to Times Square. The grim, “still-recovering-from-that-winter-out-of- Dr. Zhivago-or-Chaplin’s-Gold-Rush” narrative painted by the author is patently, thoroughly false, and flogging that “Can’t Get out of Mudseason” complaint should be recognized by any mildly literate reader as — not only phony — but also by now hopelessly cliched, having first appeared, I believe, in an early ’90’s Esquire Magazine sketch.  And the line about “July showers bring August flowers” not only has no foundation in reality –anyone who walks and loves the woods anywhere south of Houlton knows that June always, in point of strict fact, is – far and away — the month with the greatest display and diversity of gorgeous wildflowers – but is the sort of throwaway attempt at lame humor one hears from morning radio jocks. The author appears ignorant about any of these basic points, to an extent which would make Annie Dillard or John J Rowland not just blush, but hyperventilate.

Rather than giving a national audience a fresh, detailed and thoughtful reprise of  Maine culture and weather these past six months — the kind of writing we’ve seen over the years from the likes of Henry Beston,  Sarah Orne Jewett, E.B. White, John Cole, or even Elizabeth Peavey, for example — this author provides a canned, lifeless, and almost delusionary description — drawn, it would most likely appear, from some old Maine Tourism Bureau flyers — of what almost any other Mainer would agree has been — without any question —  the most exceptional, paradoxical, and simultaneously exhilarating but vexing stretch of weather here for the last one hundred years. You’d a never guessed it reading the Times today.

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About brewonsouthu

Michigan and Big Ten fan, former lawyer, with interest in college sports and NCAA oversight and decisions, and sports generally.
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