Skip to content Skip to footer

The Discontent of Our Winter: Are Reliable Seasons Gone for Good?

Activist Sandra Steingraber reflects on the world her children inherited and her role in preventing a dying planet.

My children have snow anxiety. For the record, this started in the winter of 2011–12 when no snow fell—at all—and sleds, saucers, skis, and snowball makers sat dejectedly on the porch, unused, next to the irrelevant and despondent snow shovel. Week after week, month after month, Faith and Elijah scanned the skies and studied the forecast. When June-like temperatures hit in March, the sight of the toboggan filled them with so much despair that they wordlessly dragged it back to the barn and put it in storage.

Which did not go unnoticed by their dad and me. When had our kids ever put stuff away without being asked? It was as unprecedented as a snowless winter in upstate New York. Nobody had ever experienced that either.

During the unfrozen winter of 2011–12, the grown-ups all walked around saying, “This is crazy!” True enough. When the temperature in the mudroom hits eighty degrees before the daytime:nighttime ratio hits parity, some synonym for insane is what the thesaurus should take you to. But “This is crazy!” also implies that we possess no rational explanation for June arriving in March. And I noticed that my son and his friends never said things like that to each other. They spoke more grimly, along the lines of, Global warming. It’s here. Now we can’t go sledding. Probably ever. So what do you want to do, dude?

When snow and ice finally fell in April—hard enough and fast enough to cancel school—it fell on tulip and magnolia petals and killed off the entire cherry crop.

The toboggan stayed in the barn.

But wishful thinking springs anew in the hearts of children, even in the face of permanent catastrophe, so, after a cherryless summer and a fall with few apples, Faith and Elijah conferred hopefully about the upcoming winter. Last year was a global warming winter. But maybe global warming winters come only every other year. Maybe this year would be normal.

The snow fell. The sleds came out. The snow melted.

The snow fell again. And turned to rain. The ground thawed and great lakes of water filled the low areas, and the sleds that had been parked at the bottoms of sledding hills across the county bobbed around like flotillas of small boats at harbor.

The sight of floating sleds made the adults say, “It’s crazy!” all over again.

The kids just gave up. Let the record show that in February 2013, the children of Trumansburg, New York, gave up on winter. As a season, it was no longer reliable. You could wake up in the morning to a wonderland—snowflakes dutifully falling, the front yard all white, perfect, hushed, squeaky—and by the time school let out in the afternoon, the miraculous world had already reverted back to brown, gray, mushy, yucky.

“Don’t get excited,” said Faith to Elijah right before Valentine’s Day when he looked out the window at first light and announced a fresh snowfall. “It won’t last.”

My children were born just before and after the turn of the century. They are old enough to reminisce about the days before winter went bad and became the crazy uncle in the seasonal family. Faith’s fashionable friends discuss the clothes they used to wear—month after arctic month—when they were little and the snow was piled high from November to March. Kids today, they note with disinterested interest, just don’t have the same relationship to their snow pants.

I think I’m on to something here, and I’d like to make a prediction. I predict that the cohort of kids who are now ten to fifteen years old are going to have a very different worldview than those born just a few years after them. My kids and their friends and everyone roughly their age will, in fact, be the last human beings to remember a stable, predictable procession of seasons.

Let me put a finer point on this. My kids, who are in middle school, know that winter is supposed to be cold and that January pond ice should be thick enough for skating. They possess snowman-making techniques, snow-fort construction skills, and an elaborate ethos about exactly what kind of snowballs can and can’t be used for ambushing the friends of one’s sibling and what body parts are and are not off-limits (no ice balls, never in the face). They have methods for assessing the slide-ability and pack-ability of any given snowfall. They know which methods of tucking snow pants into snow boots work and which leak. They have strong opinions on gloves versus mittens and the proper way to make a snow angel. And yet, for the last two years, they have had almost no opportunity to exercise this knowledge.

Meanwhile, a friend calls to tell me that her otherwise very bright granddaughter, who is of nursery-school age, is having trouble learning the names of the seasons. They make no sense to her. “But grandma, you said that winter was cold!” Winter, when she said it, wasn’t. And there was the added problem of the forsythias. They bloomed this year during a warm spell that spanned the twelve days of Christmas. April showers bring May flowers. When the nursery rhymes no longer match the empirical evidence, what’s a three-year-old to think?

Here are two more stories for the record. Because of climate change, Elijah gave up on Little House in the Big Woods. He liked the first half. But the episodes involving horse-drawn sleighs and maple-syrup snow cones were too painful. He refused to read on. “It’s not that way anymore, Mom,” he said matter-of-factly, and set the book aside.

I was stunned. But then it happened to me. While rereading the poem “Corsons Inlet” by A. R. Ammons—“I went for a walk over the dunes again this morning / to the sea, / then turned right along / the surf”—which had once been the subject of my own master’s thesis, I found that I couldn’t go on. It’s not that way anymore, Archie. And how come, in 1965, you didn’t see it coming? Corson’s Inlet, a last undeveloped stretch of beach in New Jersey, was destroyed during Hurricane Sandy.

I set the book aside. Matter-of-factly.

Not to say that our hearts have all turned to stone around here. Here’s my other story: After days of wild, record-breaking weather, our village winter festival was canceled because of rain and flood warnings. When I told Elijah the bad news on the walk home from school, he began to cry. I told him I was sorry.

He said, “I’m not upset about the festival. I’m upset because the planet’s dying. I know this is all because of global warming.”

This is what I heard myself say: “Look, Mom is on the job. I’m working on it. I’m working on it really hard, and I promise I won’t quit.”

And then I cried. And not only because my son believes himself to be alive on a dying planet, but because all the generations of parents before mine have been unable to deal with the facts and mount a response of sufficient scale to solve the problem, meaning that all of us now have a monumental task before us. I cried because keeping my promise makes me arise before dawn to get on buses, puts bullhorns in my hand in faraway cities, may yet land me in jail, and, in these and other ways, takes me away from my children so that I can prove them wrong.

This article first appeared in Orion magazine. You can enjoy future Orion essays by signing up for the magazine’s free trial subscription program.

We have 2 days to raise $29,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.