We’ve only just begun to receive our latest snowstorm up here in Maine, but the first few inches delight me, with the promise of feet to come. I’ll have some work to do to make my immediate environment livable, but after a winter that wasn’t last year I’m refreshed. It’s good to have summer heat followed by cool. It’s good to have blanketing snow to contrast the summer sun. If you are in the path of this winter gift, tell me about it.
Where I live, a quick burst of snow has retreated as temperatures normally not seen until the end of April have pushed their way into the North. The bare ground is exposed, the snow having turned out to be rushing waters in the creeks and rivers. In the lawns of my neighbors dandelions blossoms are pushing through the earth.
On the bushes and trees, leaf buds have swollen, and here and there, fruit of the shortened winter are appearing, gloves and mittens forgotten after being worn only once or twice, hanging in the low branches.
A wintertime mark of shame in the village where I live is the place where the sidewalk runs right next to the street. The surface of the street is clean and black, but the sidewalk is buried under a foot of dirty ice and snow that has been heaved up into an unwieldy jumble by the snowshoes that clear the streets and spray salt so that the cars of my neighbors may easily glide by at top speed, their burning of gasoline unrestrained by the changing of the seasons. Pedestrians, people who choose to move about the village without motorized assistance, are forced either to walk on top of the uneven mass of ejected ice or to walk in the street, jumping back into the frozen mess whenever an impatient automobile driver, sitting a flacid body on a heated seat, comes barreling down the pavement.
This year, my daughter’s third-grade class was asked to bring in parents to share family holiday traditions. One of the things my extended family has enjoyed doing over the past four years is singing this “Here Comes Krampus” song when we get together between the solstice and the new year. And so with posterboard in hand I told the third grade class about Krampus, the Alpine trickster spirit who accompanies punishes naughty children by swatting them with birch switches, putting them in his sack and tossing them in a cold stream.
We started out with the familiar. I asked the children if they thought Santa Claus was a good guy or a bad guy — the unanimous, enthusiastic answer was “good guy.” Then we sang “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and looked at the lyrics; there’s a kind of creepy side to this Santa involving surveillance and punishment. And that was the point at which I brought in Krampus, who in Europe accompanies St. Nicholas and doles out punishment. To convince the children that I wasn’t making it up, and to talk about Krampus in terms of tradition, I showed them this video of Krampus and accompanying Buttnmandl dressed in straw from Berchtesgaden, Germany:
Krampus and the Buttnmandl are part of a larger mumming tradition that is older than the St. Nick story and that stretches more broadly from the British Isles to Bulgaria. Dimo Dimov connects Krampus to mummery. At the summer solstice and the winter solstice, mummers mark the change from darkness to light, from chill to warm. Dimov writes, “The special marks of the mummers are huge bells, wooden and leather animal, demon and spirit masks, natural materials and clothes like wool, wood, cones, moss and roots. Spreading fright and blessings is the main theme of those creatures, who are an important part of the rural landscape.”
“I know another name for him,” said one of the children, raising her hand. “He’s the devil, isn’t he?” I replied, “Well, he has horns like the devil, doesn’t he? But not everything that has horns is a devil.” The more subtle answer I didn’t give is that Europe has been a religious battleground between Christianity and older pagan traditions. What better way to push away mythic competition than to take pre-existing figures and brand then as “devils?” Indeed, as this web page from Salzburg notes, the Krampus tradition was banned outright by the Catholic Church during the Inquisition. But the tradition has survived in Europe and is spreading again beyond its original borders.
Full credit to my daughter’s teacher, who not only tolerated but welcomed sharing a tradition about this “devil” in her classroom. We ended by singing the chorus of the Krampus song: “Here comes Krampus, here comes Krampus, ja, ja, ja, ja, ja!”
I took this photograph this morning, at a latitude of north 42 degrees 32 minutes 58 seconds, not far from the border with Canada.
As you can see, the grass is green, and has recently been cut. There isn’t a flake of snow on the ground.
We’re now entering the middle of December, and I have yet to shovel the front sidewalk. Last year was like this, too, and people around here are wondering if we’re going to have another year without a winter.
So, what’s the big deal? Don’t people enjoy a bit of respite from winter?
Sure, it’s lovely not to have to break out a snow shovel, but in the larger scheme of things, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Last year’s lack of a winter set the stage for agricultural disasters all across the northern part of the United States, as fruit crops set flower far too early. The lack of spring snowpack meltoff set the stage for an historic drought that is still going on, and extreme weather events cost the American economy hundreds of billions of dollars.
Now, the agricultural economy of the Midwest is preparing for another climate-related blow. Due to the combination of the drought and what has been the hottest year on record, the Mississippi River is nearing record-low levels that will, some time in the next few weeks, completely stop barge traffic on the river, in what locals are calling a “slow motion natural disaster”. Billions of dollars of commodities will sit undelivered.
There are entire industries that depend upon normal winter weather to succeed economically. For example, there’s the winter sports industry. Protect Our Winter has tallied up 211,900 jobs in the United States that depend on winter sports activities. Climate change is placing those jobs in peril.
I think of these things when I see Democratic voters making excuses for Barack Obama’s neglect of climate issues. They say that dealing with climate change must wait until the economy improves, but the fact is that the climate crisis is one of the factors that’s holding the economy back.
For 25 years, corporate polluters have come up with excuse after excuse to delay action to confront climate change. With every round of new excuses, the expense of dealing with the crisis has become larger. In the last few years, Americans have begun to pay the price of delay. We’re paying higher prices for food. We’re paying for increased disaster relief. We’re suffering from lost jobs and lower wages.
Right now, we’re paying the price of climate change, but we’re still not doing anything to solve the problem. It’s as if we’re living in a house with a rotting roof, and we’re paying every month to replace books, and furniture, and appliances that are being ruined when the rain comes in from the outside, but still, we’re refusing to pay the price to fix the roof. We’re using the money instead to keep on putting gas in the big SUV that’s sitting in the driveway.
In the one month since he has been re-elected, Barack Obama has signed a law to ban participation of US airlines in a European carbon trading system, opened up huge new areas of the Gulf of Mexico to offshore oil drilling, and blocked international negotiations for a climate change treaty from moving forward. President Obama is moving America even further away from responsible climate action.
It’s not going help matters for rank-and-file Democrats to continue to make excuses for Obama, simply because he’s “their” President. President Obama needs to hear from Americans that his neglect of climate policy is not acceptable.
Some are saying that Barack Obama can’t act on climate change because the politics of the time isn’t right. “Politics is the art of the possible,” they say. These people need to consider, however, is the reason that climate action has become politically impossible. The reason is that the majority of Americans who understand that climate change is a real and serious problem have been mostly silent. Very few have spoken out against Barack Obama’s bad record on the environment.
“Electing a Republican would make things worse!” they’ve said. Well, congratulations to them on preventing the election of a Republican President. Instead, they’re re-elected an anti-environmental Democrat. Millions of people who like to think of themselves as environmentally-enlightened voted for a President who has made it clear he doesn’t intend to take the climate crisis seriously.
So, if politics is the art of the possible, these voters need to ask themselves now what they can possibly do to make the political situation better.
Climate action is possible. It’s more than possible. It’s necessary.
If you voted for Obama, it’s your responsibility to act on this issue – now.
Science and direct observation have led the reasonable majority of Americans to acknowledge that global climate change, including global warming, is taking place is being caused by human activity. Yet, our nation’s democratically-elected government has failed to take any serious action to address the escalating crisis.
The only recent action Barack Obama has taken related to the climate crisis has been to make it worse, making it illegal for American airline companies to cooperate with a system to reduce carbon emissions and radically expanding offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
How is this stark discrepancy, between the knowledge our society has gained and the action our society has neglected to take, possible? This morning, looking in vain for any discussion on the White House web site of the climate negotiations in Qatar, I found an image that’s brought me to one possible explanation: Our nation has constructed a temporal anomaly.
Below, you can see the image I found: A picture from the front of President Obama’s winter holiday greeting cards. It shows a classic wintertime scene at the White House in Washington D.C.: Obama’s dog, Bo, wearing in a scarf to keep warm, romps in the middle of a blizzard of fluffy white snowflakes that have already accumulated to several inches on the ground.
This image isn’t strictly a photograph, though. It’s a picture that’s been created using the imagination of artist Larassa Kabel, who specializes in creating photorealistic images… “photorealistic” referring to an image that looks like a genuine photograph, but isn’t. Bo did play in a snowstorm on the White House lawn once, but that was back in February of 2010, almost three years ago. Since then, there’s been no good snow photo op for the dog and the White House press corps to work with.
Next to the image of Bo in the snow, you see a picture of what Washington D.C. really looks like right now. It’s a photograph, from a live web cam, taken this morning. As with almost all of the northeastern United States, there isn’t a flake of snow. It’s been too warm.
Barack Obama could have chosen to send out a greeting card showing his dog Bo playing on the green grass under leafless trees on the White House lawn, but that’s not what a winter holiday greeting card is supposed to look like. Sending out a greeting card showing what looks like a dull autumn day would offend the sensibility that pervades Americans’ attachment to winter holidays. A winter greeting card isn’t supposed to be an accurate representation of what winter holidays really look like, anyway. They’re supposed to represent a holiday ideal, a kind of mythic time that persists in our minds regardless of what we actually see with our eyes when the winter holidays come around. When we think of winter holidays, we think of snow, even though snow has actually become rare on those holidays, even in our country’s northern states.
I’m beginning to suspect that this isn’t just a phenomenon that applies to the winter holidays. I think that it applies to our perception of the climate during the entire year. Rather than paying attention to what’s happening in real time, we’re living in a kind of mythical time that we’ve collectively constructed, an abstract model of our climate that persists in spite of the fact that it no longer fits the climate that’s actually now around us. We’ve placed visions of what each special day of the year, each month, and each season are supposed to look like, and we hold those visions in our heads as a stubborn schema. When we experience an abnormally early spring, late fall, or hot summer, we think of these experiences as aberrations from how things “really are”. We reflexively defend the integrity of our mythic model of the climate because it represents a sort of rhythm to life that is never supposed to change. Without the confidence that snow falls in December, rather than the rains that have come to predominate, we would feel unhinged.
The unfortunate reality is that we are unhinged. The foundational experience of our seasons has slipped out of alignment.
If we’re going to deal with that dangerous reality, we need to break the frame of the old climate that has now shifted into myth. Human beings aren’t purely rational creatures. In order to take concerted action, we need to feel the need, not just come to abstract logical conclusions. For that reason, to enable strong climate action, we need leaders, political and cultural, who are willing to show us artistic images of our new reality. We need holiday greeting cards without snowflakes. We need holiday family portaits taken outside in which no one wears any coats. We need sequels to A Year Without A Santa Claus and Frosty The Snowman, in which we really do have a year without a winter, and in which Frosty remains a puddle.
We need art that shows the threatening truth that we’re now living with, without pulling any punches. Maybe, after when this art begins to create a sense of mythic urgency to accompany the rational data of climate change that science has already provided us, we’ll begin to see Congress and the White House take action.
Photographer James Balog has created one such piece of artwork. Its a documentary film called Chasing Ice, showing the reality of glacial melting in places around the world, but in the temporally bent form of time lapse photography. It’s showing in movie theaters around the country this month.
I went to college out in Iowa. That was a while ago, now, but I still have many memories of my time there. Almost all of those memories are dominated by one the central elemental aspect of life in Iowa: The cold.
I grew up in the Northeast, near the Great Lakes, so I know what it is to get a lot of snow. I thought I knew what it was to be cold, too, but I had never, until I moved to Iowa, experienced a truly extreme chill. I still remember the afternoon in late December when the temperature got up to minus 17, and I went outside in short sleeves because it felt so warm by comparison to the minus 30 it had been for the previous week.
That’s not the kind of winter Iowa is seeing this year. This afternoon in Council Bluffs, Iowa, the temperature almost reached 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Tomorrow, the weather will be the same.
As a result, the Winterfest Ice Fishing Derby that has been held every year in Council Bluffs has been canceled. For an ice fishing derby, after all, you need ice. As a consolation, they’re still going to hold a raffle, in which you can win a warm knit cap… but then, who needs a warm knit cap when it’s 60 degrees outside?
I’d say that this weather is unusual, except that this kind of winter warmth is becoming more common. It might be more accurate to call the weather unnatural.
For Iowans who remember what winter used to be like, and for Iowans who are concerned about the extreme imbalance that has been created in the climate, there’s this bumper sticker: Iowa Wants Action to Stop Global Warming… because the heartland is becoming the heatland.