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The Long Fall

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I remember snowfall, frozen ponds and sledding. I recall shoveling walks for neighbors until I was too sore to earn more money. The neighborhood kids and I built snow forts and snowmen. We even, sometimes, made snow ice cream.

Yes, that was in Richmond.

When I teach literature courses, I often have to define the term "elegy" for my students. I tell them to think of a formalized and rather beautiful type of sadness, rendered in words, not gestures. It's often used in poetry that mourns the deceased. As winter passes in Richmond, not merely this winter but the very idea of a season that any Richmonder older than 40 would recognize as winter, I want to pause to mourn what we have lost.

Let's forget for a moment Al Gore's slide show, the film and the now-resolved debate about global climate change.

Even without global warming, the laying of so much asphalt around Richmond has created a metropolitan microclimate not unusual along Interstate 95, from Boston south. That, plus the nudge of a degree or two in the planet's average temperature, means that whatever snow the region gets almost always falls north and west of us. Warming, so far, has been gentle; the spring comes earlier, so we get warm snaps in January on a regular, not quirky, basis.

My sadness over the loss of a season is local, personal. Yet my memories are not enhanced, as is true for so much nostalgia. Just a few decades back, January and February meant sliding down hills at Byrd Park or the Country Club of Virginia every year for local children. Skaters circled on Westhampton Lake. Snow was common enough that schools did not close for a few inches of it.

Then consider that we had none at all this year in most of the metro area. Thus we had no quiet time during a storm for a long, meditative walk down Monument Avenue or on the outskirts, through whatever woods have not yet been sacrificed to the gods of vinyl siding and bay windows.

Not all losses are bad, of course. Once we finally declare winter dead and buried, some of the worst features of this in-between era will vanish. We will lose cocky-but-untrained SUV drivers, thinking themselves invincible, who suddenly discover that four wheels spinning rather than two cannot save them from a ditch. There will be no hordes of desperate suburbanites descending upon Ukrop's like the Vandals on Rome, to sack and pillage bread and milk and toilet paper whenever the news predicts anything except rain to fall from the sky.

Many Richmonders are happy with our new seasons. What matters more to them, as we move to a three-season year, is that winter was an inconvenient time. We are a country in love with comfort, defined nowadays by a constant temperature of 72 degrees, low humidity, convenient parking and an ergonomic chair. This is precisely why winter is my favorite season. In a time before constant connection and entertainment, winter forced us back upon ourselves. We might have even done some introspection as the faint light of January shone weakly over the snow of the night before, revealing our bare gardens. It was a heartbreaking light to remind us of our short span of days on this earth.

At midnight we could go out in the storm just to hear the steady hiss of the flakes and the distant and muffled sounds of the city. In a really bad storm, the hiss became a roar, shouting messages to us of the heat-death of all things, from our universe to our own bodies, in utter cold. That white spray of flakes stinging our faces made the shelter of a warm house new and welcome again.

Of course, behind and within all that lay the promise of spring. Now that promise might be broken by New Year's Day, when the crocuses and forsythia bloom and are nipped by the cold again. An entire USDA plant-hardiness zone has been moved north. Today I grow figs in Richmond, something my Lebanese grandfather tried for years, only to see his young trees continually blasted. My growing season is also longer for tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, but I must depend upon ground that did not freeze the year before, a process that gardeners like me find useful when we amend the soil.

I doubt that our bio-region will go forward with Georgia's old climate without loss of entire species and dangerous changes in rainfall patterns. Those effects are too new, so far, to influence our lives directly. Will the loss of winter and this new season -- let's call it the Long Fall — be gentle to us in the long run? We'll find out, in our lifetimes.

So hail and farewell, winter. I have photographs to show children who, in a few decades, will never have seen even a dusting of snow in this town. S



Joe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.




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