Minnesota Weather—It’s Mythic Enough

Do you write off a mythic account as an entertaining  yarn, a bit of folklore or a campfire tale? In other words, does a mythic story lack truth? Minnesotans love to talk about their weather because it is truly mythic in its reality.

Mythic comes from mythos, a Greek word for allegory, narrative, and parable. In ancient times, mythos was used to explain complex, unknowable aspects of life—truths that defied explanation solely by logos—the Greek word for reasoned discourse, an account or an opinion. Minnesota’s well-earned reputation for its weather is truthful when recounted as both logos and mythos.

Halloween Snow totals 1991
Halloween Snow totals 1991

My state lies in the crosshairs of three major climate systems: moisture streaming north from the Gulf of Mexico, cold fronts barreling southeast out of the Canadian Arctic, and a gentle Pacific flow off the Rocky Mountains. At any moment, any two of them may collide over the state. Non-Minnesotans think our weather is hyped, a fairy tale, like unicorns or Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox. It’s true, we brag about our weather to non-Minnesotans, especially around the benighted hot-house souls living in warmer climates. We do it for effect. Our reality inhabits our mythic weather stories.

Today—November 18—is a perfect example. I woke at 7 a.m. to the loud rumble of thunder and strings of cloud to ground lightning, then a heavy downpour that swept floating islands of oak leaves down the street. When the rain stopped, hail plinked against the windowpanes and rattled on the wooden deck like peas in a can. The sun almost shone for a few minutes before heavy mist wrapped us in gray droplets. Sleet hissed as it fell on the leaves. An hour later, the snow began; first as a light flurry, then a heavier fall driven by the wind.

At this time yesterday (2:00 p.m.), the temperature stood at 58° F., the sun shone in a clear sky, and I mowed the lawn for the second time this November. Now, the lawn lies under a pallid sheet of snow, the temperature hovers at 34° F., the northwest wind howls at 35 mph with a wind chill of 21° F.

Today’s storm, like so many November storms , follows the southwest to northeast track of its many predecessors. As the Gulf moisture glides north, it is shunted northeast when frigid Canadian air slams into it over western Minnesota. As I write this, a blizzard with eight inches of snow, and counting, pummels the farms and villages west of Minneapolis. Roads are closed and the plows have pulled back. The plume of heavy snowfall is shifting northeast toward Duluth. For there, it will drift up the North Shore of Lake Superior and bury my cabin under a foot or more. This snow may last the winter. There is a stark magnificence in the North Country’s first snowfall. How I wish I could see it!

Blizzard. No school today.
Blizzard. No school today.

We cherish our blizzards because they test us and we survive them! They’re terrifying if we’re caught on the highway but we feel especially cozy and blessed in our homes. Blizzards leave us with eidetic memories. My favorites are those of my childhood on the farm. Heavy snow meant no school and no chores. I was 10 the year we had six blizzards in succession. They all started the same way. Mild temperatures on Monday and Tuesday, then light snow on Wednesday, heavy snow on Thursday, and white-outs on Friday. Drifts of four-five-and six feet piled up in the windbreak behind the house. They rose across the roads like mountain ranges. No one moved.

The 'Cat' clears the way.
The ‘Cat’ clears the way.

The county plow struggled to clear a lane by Saturday or Sunday. When it cleared the road, Mom raced to town for a week’s worth of groceries. I went to school on Monday, and things went back to normal until Wednesday, when the snow began again. This pattern repeated itself all of February and into March. We had so much snow the county hired bulldozers to buck the drifts rising eight and 10 feet. Dad hired a ‘Cat’ to clear our 400 feet of driveway—only to have it drift in again. I wondered at a world reshaped by the night wind—and I loved it!

Great Armistice Day Blizzard
Great Armistice Day Blizzard

The elderly of the ‘Greatest Generation’ still remember the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940. The day began clear with temperatures in the 60’s. Hundreds of men went out hunting ducks and pheasants in their shirt-sleeves and light jackets. Temperatures plummeted, from the 60’s on the 11th to the single digits by the next morning. Without warning, heavy snow—at least 16 inches in Minneapolis—moved in driven by 60 mph winds. When the storm blew out, 49 people lay dead, many of them hunters. This isn’t a myth.

Halloween blizzard 1991
Halloween blizzard 1991

Fast forward a half-century to the Great Halloween Blizzard of 1991. It followed today’s storm track. That evening, I took my girls trick-or-treating around the neighborhood. We left in a snow flurry and came home an hour later, scuffing through leaves and an inch of snow. How novel! We woke the next morning with 18 inches of snow on the ground, and a total of 28 inches by the time the storm ended two days later. Hardly anything moved for days, and the snow stayed until April. This is a memory, not a tall tale.

Is Minnesota weather mythic? Yes! But it’s not a legend or a fiction. It’s our reality. We don’t create myths to describe the weather of our state. That is isn’t necessary. All need to do is look out our windows and report on what we see. That’s mythic enough.

 

 

 

March Madness – Minnesota’s tournament blizzards

It’s now late March, the Girls Basketball tournament just finished in Minneapolis while a major snowstorm has begun crawling across southern Minnesota where I grew up. These blizzards often come in just after a prolonged thaw, when most of the snow is gone. The storms often begin warm and wet, with lightning and thunder before they dump heavy snow with lightning. Snow comes down on a driving wind that piles up drifts four-five-six feet high. March snowstorms aren’t rare—they’re normal—yet there is something especially wonderful about them. They’re massive and unpredictable.

During my childhood, the weather reports were general—at best. An accurate forecast in the 1950s came out in phrases like: “Scattered showers are possible across southern Minnesota,” or “There’s a chance of snow tonight with strong northwest winds.” That was about as close as a forecast came to what actually happened. Weather satellites, Doppler radar, and climate models added more detail but uncertainty remains.

Farmers I knew didn’t rely on the Farmer’s Almanac—only town people mentioned it. When it came to the weather, everyone was his own forecaster, and pretty much took his bearings from things we all understood—the temperature, the smell of the wind (did it smell damp), the kinds of clouds, the wind direction, whether the velocity was rising or dying, and whether the clouds moved with, against, or across the wind.

For a ten-year-old like me, the weather was a great mystery, a powerful force living just over the horizon. In the spring of my tenth year, we had a string of blizzards that began in February and ended near the end of March. Snow blocked our county road and driveway for several days each week before the county plow got through.

By the time the road opened, the forecasters were hinting at more snow in a few days. We hurried to town in the pick-up to buy groceries and anything else we needed—just in case. The next morning, I waited at the top of our driveway for the school bus. The temperature hovered at freezing and the damp air and south wind foretold approaching weather. School let out right after lunch the next day as heavy snow fell. Our bus slipped and skidded slowly along the roads, dropping off students who almost immediately vanished from sight in the swirling flakes.

All night, the wind howled in the treetops, the thermometer held steady at 32° F, and wind-driven snowflakes hissed against the window panes. I woke up in the morning confident ‘they’ wouldn’t cancel school. Mom turned on the radio at breakfast. In those days, we listened to WCCO, the CBS A.M. radio out of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Over Rice Krispies and toast, I listened eagerly to hear the announcer mention ‘Janesville’ on the list of closed schools. Another day to read pulp western novels.

Weekly blizzards continued until late March and each one kept us snowed in for several days at a time.  I missed about half of the school days that month, not that I cared. Drifts piled up, and one across our driveway stood at least six feet high. By mid-March, the snow was too deep for Dad to clear the driveway with the Ford tractor and scoop. He called a man with a bulldozer and the ‘Cat’ worked hard to push back the dense drifts—until the next blizzard closed the road and driveway five days later.

Like Paul Bunyan, these spring blizzards have gained legendary status among Minnesotans. They roar in from the Great Plains about the time high school teams assemble in Minneapolis-St. Paul for the state basketball tournament. Sometimes the teams had to stay a day or two extra before the roads opened. It didn’t take long for Minnesotans to connect basketball tournaments and spring blizzards.

While snow falls in Minnesota, I write this from southern Mexico, and feel the excitement of my ten-year-old self once more. For a day, at least, I wish myself back at the farm, feeling secure inside the old house, and watching the thick veil of blowing snow obscure my view of the woods along the river. In a day or two, the sun will eat up the drifts, and then spring will come, and March madness will end.

 

 

 

 

 

A persistent memory

April 10, 1947. Home.
April 10, 1947. We reach a new home.

My earliest memory is the day Dad parked our car on the soft shoulder of Waseca County Road 26. It’s April 10, 1947. I’m three-and-a-half years old, my sister is 11 months, my dad is only 26 and my mother is 29. These young adults from New Brunswick, New Jersey, are staking everything on farming in Minnesota. They are audacious but they don’t think so.

This venture has deep roots. My mother’s family has lived in nearby Janesville since the 1870s. Her grandfather was the banker, assembled the farm, and gave it to his three daughters. One of them, my grandmother, died a decade before so her share went to my Mom and uncle. Now they intend to make our life on this land. And will.

I sit in the car’s front seat, a 1940, cream gray Plymouth sedan with a crushed front fender and broken headlight. Two days earlier, on the Indiana Turnpike, an on-coming car lost a rear wheel that bounced across the median and hit us. The windshield is grimy but I can see all right, and look down the lane toward our new home.

County Road 26 is made of clay covered with gravel and passes our farm on high ground. Melted snow and spring rains have made the road is a soupy mess of ruts. The uniform overcast makes the sky look like a gray flannel sheet. Pewter-colored ditch water and puddles reflect the sky. Fallow fields with slick furrows resemble charcoal. Last year’s grass, patches of weeds, and cornstalks seem ashen. I remember gray.

Warm air, sun, thawing ground, April 1947.
Warm air, sun, thawing ground.

Dad opens the car door, pulls on four-buckle overshoes, and shrugs into a jacket. Slowly, he slips and slides his way down the muddy lane, past the half-dead willows, past the barn with its dim coat of indistinct paint, and enters the weathered farmhouse beneath the leafless oaks.

Mother waits in the car with my sister and me. Mom is quiet and wears a long face of concentration. I will come to know that expression well. It isn’t fear but the calculation of all the unknowns and contingencies she might face.

A tractor’s purr catches my attention. Dad and another man, my uncle, drive toward us towing a trailer filled with straw. Chains on the tractor tires clink like merry sleigh bells in the dreariness. With everyone settled in the trailer, we roll down the muddy slope to our house.

The main room seems huge to me. Pieces of furniture rest in great piles – sofa, bedsteads, bureaus, and chairs – amid crates of china, boxes of clothing, and my red tricycle. Faded wallpaper and sagging plaster don’t catch my attention as much as the hulking, pot-bellied stove crouching in a corner, like a sooty bear, waiting to pounce. I’m afraid of it.

After a quick inspection of the cold house, we drive to Janesville and stay with some cousins. When we return, the potbellied stove waits outside for the junkman, the toilet and shower function inside, and the kitchen is ready for my mother.

Barn of indistinct color
A barn of indistinct color

They name it The River Farm.

Over the years, as we work the land the land works us. We drain the marshes, tile the low ground, dam the gullies, straighten the creek and plant trees. And then, when we are done with active farming, we breach the dikes, rip up the tiles, and planteoaks and prairie grasses where soybeans once grew. Dad was never happier than when on his farm.

He died at home and we buried his ashes in our woods at an unmarked place, in a clearing, on a ridge above the river. He rests next to Mom, my great aunt, my grandmother, and my uncle.

I remember this day and its details because this is the place that formed me as much as any place has shaped me. This where I learned responsibilities, developed a knack for making things work, understood rhythms of the natural world, and grew up in a life stripped to its essentials. Everything I ever learned later has a touchstone on this farm, in this community. Now, decades later, I look for and sometimes find in far-away places, people and situations that take me back to the farm and the neighborhood.

The farm as I leave it to others.
The farm that rims my childhood.

But I can’t go back. My brother, sister and I are settled elsewhere and none of us wants to live on the farm. Fortunately, we find a buyer who shares Dad’s land ethic and, with the sale, we all rest in peace. The farm’s title passes to the new owners in October and, on my way home, I drive up the lane and stop on County Road 26 in the spot where Dad parked the Plymouth in 1947. I take a last look down at the house. It’s larger and better now than it was then; and the barn is bright in its crimson coat. In autumn sunshine, the wild grasses shine in bronze and copper, sunlight glints off the pond, and the oaks on the ridge along the river mark my horizon – the rim of my childhood.

 

 

Today turned out to be all the weather geek said it would be – and more. The rime of frost on the edge of the garage roof – white on brown – lends a nice touch to daybreak. Then – gone – a filmy coil of rising vapor – like a morning prayer.

Spring warmth spreads sweetly – like puppy love – on a sweeping south wind. I sit in the sun, enjoying a bottle of porter and the last of the cashews. In my wooded Minnesota subdivision, where the smallest lots measure a quarter acre, our houses sit far apart among the oaks, elms, and honeysuckles. No sidewalks connect us – each house is an island – and we are an archipelago of suburbanites on a cul de sac. Friendly – we know each other – but private.

Some neighbors migrate south for the winter and the rest of us simply ‘hibernate,’ denning up in our houses, going and coming through the garage. Now and then, we meet each other after a humongous snowfall when we join to push a stuck car off the street or happen to shovel our driveways at the same time. We are winter introverts and this is enough neighborliness in the cold.

The neighbor across the road is loading firewood into the bed of his pick-up. I walk down the drive, get the mail from the box, and stop to talk. He tells me about his shoulder replacements. We are both over 65 and commiserate on our respective aches and pains. Neither of us is ‘what we were cracked up to be’ even a few years ago.

Then I return to the lawn chair and sit in the soft lap of late afternoon with a book in my lap. I’m not reading but sitting as content as a sunning turtle, looking at a piece of the world that’s temporarily mine.

The season’s first flies buzz about in the sun, the wind soughs through the top of a neighbor’s cottonwoods, and the rattle last year’s leaves on my oaks. Green shoots poke through the thatch of lawn, now four shades greener than yesterday, thanks to a half-inch of rain. Pubescent leaf buds pop along the twigs on the chokeberry bush, ready to unfold like young adults in a day or two with a show of green. But that flash belongs to the morrow and is not yet a reality.

A mole, just out of hibernation, tunnels along the edge of the concrete walk, and leaves a long, low mound like a glacial esker. I don’t resent his presence today but I will in a couple weeks when I mow the lawn. I see no point in starting resentments early.

A gray tree frog utters a sharp, almost percussive, creak from a hidden place in the lawn. I can’t see him but I know his general location. Down the street, in the marsh by the blind curve, northern leopard frogs croak with Falstaffian glee – like men packed into a sports bars on game day. They croak the same phrases over and over – hoping to ‘score’ a mate.

Sitting quietly in the lawn is a respite from a writers’ conference. I’m humbled and a little intimidated after three days in the company of novelists and memoirists, poets and essayists far more eloquent than I am. Writing is a generous act, one of them said in a presentation. I believe it’s true. Does it take talent to be generous?

Six weeks from now – in a future not yet mine – I will reunite with the Macalester College class of 1965. No! This can’t be the 50th reunion already! It is true but I want to stay in denial. I feel an urge to slim down and tone up. Why bother? We all know we are half-a-century older. Slimming and toning can’t change anything, much less reverse the years. Besides, I’m wiser now than before. I guess that is something of being more than ‘I was cracked up to be’ back then.

This class is an unusually earnest cohort. We entered college as John Kennedy began his presidency. JFK’s idealism formed us while his assassination matured us. Most of us are still pushing new frontiers. When reunion day comes, we will sit at tables to discuss weighty questions about whether ‘we had it all,’ whatever it was. Said another way, we will consider whether life is ‘all it was cracked up to be.’ We will talk urgently about the things we still need to accomplish until prostrated by seriousness.

I remember graduation day, the high-minded the commencement speaker, his exhortation to pursue our dreams, and a rush to change the world. Along my way, did I pause often enough to appreciate the grass in its growing or listen to the tree frogs in courtship? Did I stop to let the moment take me by the hand and reveal itself to me?

The future offers no guarantees but no one told me. Experience taught me the future doesn’t belong to me in advance of its arrival. The future is a dream, a possibility and – sometimes – a nightmare because the future has no reality. For a long time, I lived for the future and completely missed the present. I know better now. Only the present moment is real. It is all I have. The past is lost to memory and can’t be changed. The future is a possibility beyond my control. Moment by moment, I live into the future – moving as blindly as the mole tunneling my lawn – feeling my way forward, seeking the right path. The present moment is ‘all it’s cracked up to be.’

Warmth, not heat, but warmth seems to define the human condition.  I welcome warmth with anticipation for what the season brings and watch it depart with gratitude for its many gifts.

It’s the first spring-like day in early April, I quiver with the anticipation of lasting warmth. It feels like new love.  Standing outside, under a clear sky, I turn my face to the bright sun.  The air is calm and my jacket lies unneeded on the grass.  I fill my lungs with the scent of the waking earth; I watch robins hop across the lawn, piping their cheery song.  In my heart,  I know there’s more warmth where this came from.  And even if a few flurries and drizzles follow next week, I know I hold a ticket to winter’s last act.  Real warmth is on its way.

All too soon it’s the end of October, and possibly it’s the last summer-like day of the year. Now the midday sun rolls closer to the horizon, shadows lie longer across the yard, and there’s frost in the morning. I shiver a little and take comfort in the jacket zipped to my neck. Here in the North, on the cusp of gray, stormy November, I dwell on the bumper crop of heirloom tomatoes, the happy sound of children running through the sprinkler, and the suntan I got without a bad burn. It might snow tomorrow, but I have a larder full of memories to carry me through the winter.

Warmth. Yes! But it’s the memories of warmth that sustain me in the coldest of seasons.