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Maine Lakefront Property
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Ruminating on Robert Frost, Climate Change, and the Maine Winter Woods

December 26, 2007 - When the poet Robert Frost wrote his oft-studied poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," I don't think he was commenting on global climate change. Some argue he was writing, at one level anyhow, about foregoing obligations, embracing death, and committing suicide.

Since I cannot attest to Frost's true meaning, I'll return to the climate change issue and make a personal statement bridging the famous winter poem and the environmental juggernaut of the times.

Winter as we have known it in Maine has a beauty and spiritual quality that is difficult to rival or even describe. All I can say is that when I read the poem, I know I have been there. I have not visited the actual woods of which he wrote, but I have been there. When Frost writes of "easy wind and downy flake," and woods that are "lovely, dark and deep," I, like many of you reading this, know the place, the moment, and the magic.

On a still night, with ghostly white snow undulating into darkness and tall, inky, stems retreating toward that same all-consuming background shadow, it is not hard to feel as though the continual confusion of an uncertain life and the very spin of the Earth are arrested. A cold yet still winter forest draped in night and snow is a powerful place where it is possible to momentarily evaporate your self-consciousness into the night, not unlike your icy breath diffusing amidst the tree trunks.

In essence, then the winter forests we've experienced for generations are cultural and psychological assets. Deep snow, dense forests, and their associated ambiance and habitat are part of our regional, cultural DNA. I fear what a dramatically altered climate would do to our winter forest sanctuaries.

In the last few years, ice and snow conditions have been, well, less than reliable. From a statistical perspective, there is a natural fluctuation. However, just as the vast majority of scientists now agree that human enhanced climate change is real, it is not hard to feel that our winters are trending away from the character of our forefathers' winters.

Some evidence of this is reflected in ice-in and ice-out data analyzed by the United States Geological Survey (Fact Sheet FS 2005-3002). The researchers found that "ice-out dates changed between 1850 and 2000 by nine days in northern and mountainous areas of New England (primarily northern and western Maine) and by 16 days in more southerly locations." They changes were, as might be imagined, toward earlier ice-out. Not only does this finding have ecological implications directly in lakes, but it also serves as an indicator for the shortening and warming of winter overall.

Though I question the accuracy of those who pooh-pooh the validity of global warming, I will admit that there is a developing tendency to use oversimplified tactics to startle the public with visions of flooded cities, etc.

What the lake data above hints at is an erosion in the winter climate. This erosion impacts how often we can ice-fish, ski, snowshoe, snowmobile, and skate.

While I do not doubt that climate change has the potential to cause major problems for societies, my concern often turns to the activities that help define our local culture.

Perhaps, I'll always be able to participate in the activities listed above, even if I need to wait a little more. But, will my grandchildren have that same opportunity, or will they only snowshoe through deep, powdery snow if they travel far into Canada? This is the question I consider.

So far, December has felt like a classic start to a Maine winter. Lakes and ponds are freezing over quite well, snows lie throughout the woods, and the air has the sharpness to sustain both snow and ice. It doesn't exactly cry out, "global warming." Still, science tells us that the pattern, not the moment, matters. Science also tells us that although much damage has been done, we can start to minimize our speeding up of climate change. How much we do for the environment is a choice.

Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" entails a choice as well. Ultimately, Frost concludes that, "But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep."

To all who value our winters and the sense of tradition they foster, we have miles to go before we sleep. Confronting climate change appears to be a long journey for us humans.


SOURCE: Kennebec Journal

DATE: 12-22-2007


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