Ralph Gardner Jr: Student Of The Seasons

May 26, 2018

Callery Pear petals littering a driveway
Credit Ralph Gardner, Jr

As someone who’s been visiting the Hudson Valley since the 1960’s, and religiously since the late Seventies when my grandparents passed away and I assumed management of the house where we live today, here’s a small insight from an old-timer: when it comes to nature no two years are alike. 

This might not sound like especially profound news. But I’m not a farmer. I come at this as a city person. 

And as a city person I used to break down the seasons this way: Summer – hot. Fall – leaves fall off trees and it gets cold. Winter – colder still plus the white stuff. Spring – warmth, buds, flowers, leaves, beauty. 

If I sound prejudiced towards spring that’s because I am. I actually have a theory: your favorite season is the one when your birthday occurs. Mine’s June 16thso I just make the cut. 

But after spending several decades in the country, on and off, I’ve started to appreciate more subtle distinctions. While the seasons still hue to our general conception of them, despite climate change, one year varies from the next, sometimes slightly, other times dramatically.

Let’s start with this spring. And I’m basing these observations on subjective opinion, not empirical evidence. I haven’t compared the average temperature or rainfall going back decades.

So far the spring has been pretty cool and rainy. But the trees seem to be blossoming in profusion. That abundance was similar to a recent year. Was it two, three, perhaps four years ago?

My memory isn’t great as you may have gathered. But we have Callery pear trees lining our driveway. And a few years back they were so laden with blossoms that they attracted Baltimore Orioles galore. I counted ten of them in the high branches of our trees at the same time.

I decided to repeat the experiment this year, another good year for blossoms, and found four of them foraging among the blossoms simultaneously. By comparison, last year there were far fewer blossoms and Orioles.

If you’re not a particular student of science and nature, or just academically lazy, as I am – you tend to recall things anecdotally. 

For me a pretty good gauge of the warmth of spring and the abundance of sunshine versus rain is how early I get to swim in our pond. I haven’t done so yet this spring. But back in 2002 I took my first swim around April 15th. 

I recall the occasion because I was upstate researching a story for New York magazine about a massive cement plant proposed for Hudson, New York. It was defeated after prolonged and strenuous community opposition.

There was an April heat wave that year, a succession of days in the mid-nineties. So after interviewing opponents and proponents of the plant I’d come home and take a swim. 

Our pond is surrounded by towering oaks and by late spring it typically loses direct sunlight by four p.m. So it was a novel experience swimming in full sunshine surrounded by trees that had yet to bud.

Another example. This one from the late Seventies or early Eighties. There was a gypsy moth invasion around the time of my birthday, so severe it made me sad. You could literally hear them munching on the leaves as they denuded the trees. The other sound you heard were their droppings falling to the ground.

I feared they’d destroy the trees forever, their leaves never to return. 

That Sunday I was relieved to read a story in the New York Times reporting that the leaves would come back. In fact, they’d experience a second growth by mid-summer and they did.

One final example. The October storm of 1987. Wow, I really do sound like an old-timer. 

The earliest snowstorm on record, it dumped twenty inches of snow on October 4th. The damage was extraordinary because the trees were still in full leaf. So the heavy wet snow weighed down on them and caused huge branches and in some cases entire trees to topple. The woods sounded and looked like a war zone. 

Power was out for days if not weeks. Our driveway was impassable. And to this day particular trees continue to display, if subtly, the ravages of that event. They’re shaped slightly differently than they would have been if the storm hadn’t occurred – perhaps shorter, their crowns flatter, the spaces between branches more pronounced. 

Of course, it’s been over thirty years. A casual observer would never notice the difference. 

Insects are another species – or is it phylum – that seems to wax and wane. Mosquitos and ticks, though they always seem entirely more prolific and successful than necessary – but also bees, wasps, stinkbugs, lady bugs, Japanese beetles. 

This spring I’ve found a bunch of large brown beetles in our pool filters. Yes, yuck, even while I love all creatures great and small. A few years ago it was a centipede invasion.

We also have aggressive wooly bumble bee-like creatures on our sundeck, though they only seem aggressive towards each other. 

The first time I noticed them they intimidated me. But now I sit there, happily sipping my vodka on the rocks while munching on nuts as they strafe each other.

And the best part is that I know, at least I think, they’ll be gone within a couple of weeks. Because they always have in the past.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.