Magazine article The Christian Century

The Sting of Spring: Notes from the Farm

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Sting of Spring: Notes from the Farm

Article excerpt

WALKING OUR farmland on an unseasonably balmy mid-March day, I was surprised to see the cherry trees on the hill already in full and festive blossom, abuzz with butterflies and bees. In central Illinois, March is generally a cold, wet, and blustery month, the last hurrah of winter, more lion than lamb. But after an entire winter of warmer-than-usual temperatures, the woods were greening, wildflowers were blooming, and colorful butterflies had appeared, along with migrating birds adding their new melodic lines to each morning's wake-up chorus.

Yet these bright signs of spring were accompanied by dark clouds. Insect pests had survived the mild winter and were ready to voraciously attack the new vegetable transplants. Butterflies had emerged prematurely and would likely not survive the harsh change from unseasonably warm to freezing cold that was sure to come, meaning they would die before having a chance to mate and lay their eggs. When April did indeed bring a number of nights in the mid-20s, the precocious tiny fruits of the early blossoming cherry, peach, and pear trees froze and fell to the ground. And so before the growing season has even begun, we know that this year will be almost entirely fruitless, with the possible exception of the later blooming apple varieties.

Each day this spring seemed to bring new evidence that "the time is out of joint," the natural world out of sync with millennia of predictable weather patterns. Those patterns effortlessly matched the cherry tree's blossoming and the butterfly's emergence with irrefutable springtime, allowing cherries to come to fruition, butterflies to flit and flirt, and the cycle of life to continue. These seemingly eternal and inevitable truths, however, are now questionable.

My brother Henry and many other farmers no longer speak of climate change in the future tense, as something that may or will happen, but rather as something that already has occurred, as in "our changed climate." While climate change may still exist abstractly for most people--something that afflicts different neighborhoods, distant cities, future times--Henry has seen our formerly predictable weather patterns upended during the past quarter century of his farming career.

For example, in his first decade of farming, he never had to irrigate because he could rely upon the predictable pattern of thunderstorms coming through central Illinois every few weeks, each one providing an inch or two of life-giving rain. But in our new man-made climate, precipitation events are becoming more severe and more violent. It's not that we are getting more rain than we used to overall but that the distribution of precipitation has changed. We suffer more and longer droughts when it doesn't rain for long periods of time, but then when it does rain, watch out! The sky opens and dumps inches of rain in a matter of minutes rather than hours. Because the soil cannot absorb it fast enough, the water swiftly runs off the fields and into streams and creeks, taking tons of fertile soil with it.

Although there are large swings in precipitation and temperature, overall it's getting warmer. The USDA hardiness Zone 5 we grew up in is now Zone 6 and will likely become Zone 7 within our lifetime. In other words, central Illinois today has the climate that used to be that of the St. Louis area. And in another few decades, we will have the climate of Dallas. (The Arbor Day Foundation has a simple visual representation of climate zone changes on its website.)

Knowing the climate zone changes, my brother's grounded observations, and my own witnessing of the cherry trees blooming early followed by the cherries' early demise, I should not have been surprised to see the nettles poking up as I crossed the stream that separates Henry's two ten-acre bottomland vegetable fields. But there they were, almost a month earlier than usual and already nearly a foot tall. Their dark green serrated leaves, growing in perfect pairs on either side of a ribbed hollow stem, were thrusting their way through last year's dead grass and weeds. …

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