The Pumphead in Winter
9 HOURS, 43 MINUTES OF DAYLIGHT
When setting out on a journey I always take note of the light. In this way, I orient myself and track my course. And so from my hospital bed this morning, awaiting surgery to repair a busted heart valve, I look out at the dawning wintry sky through windows streaked by New York City soot and note that though my view extends across the East River and its phalanx of still-lighted bridges, I see no sign of the sun.
I wonder what this gloom might portend, perhaps because some primal part of me believes light has meaning — that sunlight brings clarity and hope, that an overcast sky invites vagueness and disappointment.Or I might just be feeling the effects of whatever drugs they gave me a couple of hours ago when, while still dark, they wheeled me to an examining room,stood me up under harsh lights, threaded a tube from my groin to my heart, and through it streamed a dye that searched for arterial blockages. I had to be awake, the doctors explained from behind their blue masks, and I understood this to mean there was nothing to be done for the searing pain that accompanied the tubing's every vermiculation. If they found nothing, that was good, and they would then operate.
For most of my life, I've been aware of my murmuring heart. Whenever I am alone, in the car, at my desk, lying in bed, I can feel it. I can count its beats until I fall asleep. I've even timed my hiking to its rhythm. Sometimes my heart gulps as if it is trying to swallow something too large. Sometimes it leaps into double time. I never thought this was unusual. I thought everyone could hear his or her heart.
Back in my room now, I'm waiting.The pain from the inserted tube is already unrecallable. But I'm wondering how much more is to come. I'm wondering if I'll live."I have to tell you,"my surgeon put it, "that there's a one-out-of-a-hundred chance you might die during the surgery." I had not yet signed on the dotted line, had sat in his office only long enough to see the photos of his family, his sailboat, and the framed crayoned thank-you notes from young patients. I nodded, tight-lipped, as I'd seen it done in the movies, and I signed. Not out of fearlessness: the fact was that if I didn't have the operation I could well end up with inoperable congestive heart failure. The odds that I'll die today, you can look it up, lie somewhere between those of coming up with a straight and those of a full house, both of which, in playing very few hands of poker, I've been dealt.
So the dull dawn is beginning to get to me and I find myself thinking what I'll do come spring and realize this is what we all think when stricken by wintry doubts. We think, Come spring... and mean that we're ready for change and that we'll get to it in the season when everything around us begins changing, when vagueness fades and we can proceed with purpose, one with the greening shoots, swelling buds, and lengthening days, attuned to Earth's durable rhythms of light and time. Even those of us whose lives might be barely touched by nature the rest of the year will, come spring, be seduced into a hazy synesthesia wherein smells beget hopes and light induces longings.
How does it happen? In my hospital bed I close my eyes and recall my springs of the past, remember the first day when it was suddenly warm enough to ride my bicycle to school or take out my baseball glove (oiled, folded over a hardball in its pocket, and stored all winter with a rubber band around it) and could quit flipping cards across the bedroom floor while it snowed outside. I remember the first top-down days for my yellow 1966 Corvair and warm nights making out in it while fully and painfully clothed. In college, marijuana wafted through the air on good spring days. I remember meeting my wife-to-be in a spring rainstorm that we walked through in blissful ignorance, our clothing saturated with the perfume of the season's first blossoms. On the first warm days with the kids on the playground, she and I would sit with the rest of the parents on the sun-soaked park benches. My first spring hike always took me up Kittatinny Ridge to the rocky overlook above the Delaware Water Gap where the lowbush blueberries and the mountain laurel had just begun to bud. Along the river below, as the spring waters receded, the banks burst forth with tangled vines of wild roses and strawberries.
The last week in April my wife, Sallie, the kids, and I would head out into the just greening woods of New Jersey to pick morels,mushrooms whose appearance meant spring had arrived. We'd take the short hike to our own spot, a little slope by a waterfall that poured its spring runoff down the faces of gleaming shales. The dog by now knew the way and trotted on ahead while we walked with our straw baskets and our bag lunches along the path whose early spring blooms we knew as well as those in our own garden. Here the violets, here the imperious swamp cabbage, its stalk wrapped like Balzac, here the curled fiddleheads of ostrich ferns, and here the still tightfisted mayapples. All waiting to unfurl.
We'd cross a little stream that percolated out of the ground and that seemed to run each spring with the same unhurried burble. Songbirds had not yet appeared so the forest had a secretive silence but for the stream and the tattling waterfall a hundred yards up ahead that misted the adjacent forested slope enough to spawn the little crop of morels. The waters' sound invigorated the old dog and she hied up into a trot. The kids would run too, for we'd promise a dollar for the first morel.
The morel's a most feted fungus. Its phallic shape, firm feel, and earthy taste imply, and not subtly, fertility. Its appearance in spring is celebrated in mountain forests across the country. While most mushrooms appear in the late summer and fall when there's more for them to grow on, morels take advantage of spring's first sweet stirrings, sucking sugars from the growing trees' first photosynthesis and in turn providing the trees with digestible nutrients. This fungus is more ancient than the plants whose flowers and fruits are easy pickings. And yet in a couple of weeks they're gone, to appear ever farther north until the spring finally ends. If unpicked, they'll dry up or in spring rains deliquesce and the spores that line their fibrous caps will be dispersed on the wind.
By the time we reached the summit of the little slope, the dog was already shaking off the water from her swim.We'd begin to search in the forest duff beneath the elms for a sighting. We knew they were there,but morels are always there and yet not there.They don't show themselves. Camouflaged among the fallen leaves and twigs, there could be fifty and you wouldn't see one. But their smell,musky and languorous,wafts up with the mist from the falls. Finally, to see them,we'd lie down, all of us on our bellies, flat out on the ground, and turn our heads in the hope that by scanning the dark palette of the forest duff from this vantage, we'd see, against our low horizon, morel mushrooms standing. If at this moment a hiker came through the woods, I don't know what he'd think. I don't know what we'd tell him. Anything, I guess, but that morels grow here. I remember realizing that the mushrooms were not quite as important as the ritual. Of the going out in the woods in spring. Of our children pressing their cheeks to moist warming soil and knowing the exhalations of the spring earth.
And then they'd appear, seeming to arise magically before our eyes.
"I see one!"
"I see one!"
"Dad, don't move, there's one right by your foot!"
We'd gather what we could, place them into the wicker basket, and then sit scanning the ground for any we might have missed. Only after our attention left the ground did we notice the sun through the canopy of elms and once again the sound of the meltwater pouring through the limestone karsts of the hillside and spilling out from the rocks — the purging of winter.
Bring on that juice and joy! I'm ready now for the spring forest in its mist, spring in its musk, in its spring greens:canopy green, shafts of wild iris green, understory green, diatom green in slow running stream, buoyant sun-dappled lily pad green, and rimevarnished watercress green.
I am all the more ready for spring, I confess, because I'm feelingthat my most verdant years are behind me. Little love, big love, lost love, people lost, time passing. I knew my great-grandparents, immigrants who spoke very little English and so talked to me, their beloved first American great-grandchild,with such a wild vocabulary of gestures, chucks, pinches, and grins that I was more frightened than comprehending. I enjoyed the lavish love of grandparents and the fretful love of my parents. And then I watched my father suffer long years and my mother tender him ceaseless attention. He died only a year ago, six months before my diagnosis, and the last time I saw him — I knew it would be the last time — he lay beneath the hospital sheets, and his large frame seemed to have no mass at all. His hawk brown eyes worked to remain keen. I imagined a grueling palaver going on behind them. Disabled by successive surgeries, he spent most of his last years doing battle with his body. Everyone admired his tenaciousness, mistaking it for a will to live. I was convinced that he lived for the love of his grandchildren, in whom, I realized, he recognized the transformative energy possessed by growing, blossoming, transmuting things. They were of him, the wellspring of his persevering as well as his offspring.
I wonder if my own kids, when they came to see me last night, thought me as helpless as I thought my father. Seeing one's parents weakened or humiliated must be a young child's most difficult moment. It's not so easy for a grown child, either. So I tried to let them know I was up for this. And if not, if I die in surgery, then I've told my children many times how much I love them and how much I trust — no, more — admire their minds and decent sensate .
We can't be children in just-spring again. But being intimate with such energy is every bit as good as being a part of it. And so we're affected when spring comes with its spawning, nesting, breeding, brooding, rising lignin, peeping peepers, its skunk cabbage and mayapple, crocus and magnolia bloom, dandelion and daffodil, when spring comes on the wind and osprey call from familiar hangs, when shorebirds flash across the marsh at dusk, when songbirds sweep into forests to chirrup May and butterflies flutter on solitary flights, when all, all flock determinedly north: fishes up ancestral streams, salmon, shad, quicksilver schools of herring and big-eyed hag-faced lamprey. We sow crops, play ball, leave our jackets on the playground at recess, be free and in shirtsleeves, for then comes Hinamatsuri, Holi, Passover, Easter, Rowanfest. Then comes light, resurrection, renewal, joy of survival from heart surgery, joy of spring when, chorused Thomas Nashe, "blooms each thing...the pretty birds do sing, cuckoo, jug, jug, pu-we, towitta- woo!" and when, effused Gerard Manley Hopkins, "weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush"; and when, D. H. Lawrence wondered, "what fountain of fire am I among / This leaping combustion...?"Then we want to be a part of it all.
Better come quick, for I hear the gurney rattling down the hall.
"Let's go," says the masked man.
Between the quick hands of the attendants I catch glimpses ofmy wife, my mother, and my younger son. The bed rails collapse with the clacking of an ironing board being closed. Someone gives me an injection. I see lights pass as if I'm half asleep in a cab passing through the city after midnight. I'm wheeled into a cold room with a stainless steel ceiling.
In this room the surgeons take my life from me by chilling my body temperature to 77 degrees and injecting a cold potassium solution that stops my heart for a two-hour break after 53 years of beating its offbeat rhythm. While the heart-lung machine pumps cooled blood through my hypothermic body, the surgeons do their work. This is not your old-fashioned hacksaw-the-sternum, pry-open-the-rib-cage surgery but a refined postmillennial procedure accomplished with nanocameras and instruments, which went into the heart through an incision made beneath my right breast, that the surgeon manipulates from outside my body, like an unseen God-like puppeteer deftly working his marionettes.
All presumably goes well because I wake in a dimly lit room where a nurse sits at a desk reading the newspaper. I try to speak to her but can't get out a word and at once feel the pain of a breathing tube that's been shoved down my throat. I begin to gag, my eyes tearing, and gesture toward the nurse. When she looks up I point to the tube and let her know that I want it out.
She pays patient attention to my frantic hand-waving, turns her wrist to look at her watch, and says, "You need to have it in for another hour or so."
It hurts when I shake my head but I do so emphatically and begin a choking fit, at first forced but finally very real. She puts down her paper and walks over to me.
"I'll ask them to come and take it out."
I nod as well as I can and lie back, trying not to swallow. She walks off into the dark where I assume other patients lie, zombies waiting to awaken.
Well, I'm alive, I think, when suddenly, the patient in the next bed bolts upright as if a spring had snapped in his spine.
"Not here!" he shouts. "Not here! They're going to kill me here! Take me to animal medical center!"
The nurse returns, turns on the light over the man, whose wide eyes stare out blankly from a pale and anhydrous face, and presses him slowly back down to his mattress.
"I've been here before," he protests weakly. "They're trying to kill me here."
On second thought,maybe I'm not alive at all, just lying in Hell's waiting room,my first torture being this tube in my craw. In fact, other than this, I feel nothing at all. And then I notice that I don't hear my heart. It's gone. I listen hard. Nothing. Either I've died or I've gone from stem-wind to quartz movement. I'm amazed that time can advance in silence. This will take some getting used to.
I decide I'm alive. Now what?
A week later I leave the hospital and return to my house in Brooklyn with a sack full of medications. Because the doctors didn't saw me in two I'm actually out and about the very next day, perambulating the block on the kind of slow, shuffling stroll old Mafia dons take in their slippers. The first few days when I return from my once-around I barely have the energy to make it up the five steps of the front stoop. When I get inside I can't make it up the stairs to my bed and just fall asleep on the sofa.
I'd figured this would go on for a while but nearly a month later when my walks are longer and my step surer, I still feel hazy — disconnected and lost. The surgeon's warning that "You may be a little depressed for a time" doesn't do justice to the no-man's-land in which I find, or can't find,myself. Reading up on the possible causes of post-op existential shock, I discover in The New England Journal of Medicine a report that found my symptoms among patients connected to a heart-lung machine during surgery.
The researcher called it "cognitive decline." Heart surgeons, he said, had another name for it — "pumphead" — a name so apt it's never uttered in the presence of patients. The syndrome is caused by microdebris or microbubbles released during heart surgery, small enough to pass through even the finest of synthetic cloth filters but large enough to cause tiny embolisms in the brain's capillaries. So, along with having lost my heartbeat, I'm also suffering synaptic disjunctions from rerouted blood. I wander, a pumphead in winter, left to notice on each of my brief sojourns that each day there are fewer minutes of daylight, that each morning the sun passes a bit lower to the horizon, and that the shadows that shadow me have shadows of their own. I begin to realize why our ancestors feared winter's failing light.
With so much time on my hands and feeling a need to put winter into historical perspective, I take up Sir James Frazer's monumental The Golden Bough, in which the 19th-century Scottish classicist and anthropologist prospects cultures'myths, rituals, and fables in search of shared connections. No paradigm seemed to Frazer more overarching than that of spring's rebirth.
Could the "primitive savage...be certain that the luminary would ever retrace his heavenly road?" he asks. "It was natural, therefore, that with such thoughts and fears he should have done all that in him lay to bring back the faded blossom to the bough, to swing the low sun of winter up to his old place in the summer sky..."
Throughout December I walk on a primitive's watch. As darknesscomes earlier more holiday lights of Christmas and Chanukah appear. The world is still inspired by ancient rituals devised in the hope that the right magic, the right fire at the right time, will affect the course of natural events and spur on the solstice. That day, December 21 — the shortest day of the year — the transition from winter into spring begins.
Soon, whole blocks stand festooned. In the week before Christmas, carolers stroll from house to house with lit tapers. In my own home we begin the eight-day celebration of Chanukah that commemorates the rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. In this spirit each night we add another candle to the eight-armed menorah so that, like the sun after the winter solstice, each day it will burn a little brighter.
Christmas finds its sun in the actual birth of a god whose light the Wise Men followed to his birthplace. In the nativities of Correggio, Murillo,and Caravaggio, light infusing the dawn at the birth of Christ dawns all the brighter on the face of the newborn.(Lighted crèches on front lawns re-create the same scene. One I see features life-size plastic figures illuminated from within. They're all there: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Rudolph, Mickey, and Goofy.)
In the Julian calendar, the solar calendar devised in the first century at the request of Julius Caesar, the winter solstice fell on December 25. This happened to coincide with the day the Syrians and Egyptians celebrated the nativity of the Sun, when at midnight celebrants cried out, "The Virgin has brought forth! The light is waxing!"
That the Church placed the birth of Jesus on the day that pagans celebrated the return of the sun is no coincidence. They did it, writes Frazer,"in order to transfer the devotion of the heathen from the Sun to him who was called the Sun of Righteousness."
Christ, like all the other gods that secured the light in midwinter — Tammuz, Attis, Adonis — will die young. These gods must die so that they don't live through the year's corruption and decay — the wintry exigencies of life — that we mortals must experience. And so they might be resurrected again come spring.
In my shuffling, shadowed state, I wonder whether resurrection might be more than metaphor. My grandfather was the only person I knew who claimed to have been resurrected, and not just once. When I was about nine years old we lived next door to my father's parents, and one morning my grandmother called to say she thought my grandfather was having a heart attack. My mother rushed over but, in her panic, didn't realize that I followed right behind her. At my grandparents' bedroom door I saw my grandfather lying lifeless on his bed, his head up against the wood headboard with its carved swirls, the great tasseled shades of the bedside lamps casting a parchment glow no brighter than candles. My grandmother was wailing,"Lou! Lou!" My mother stood holding her. Dr. Katz, a solid ball of a man with a dapper mustache, had arrived on the scene, thrown off his sport coat, climbed up on the bed, put his knees on my grandfather's chest, and, like a cowboy on a bull, pumped up and down until the ambulance arrived.
When my mother realized that I'd witnessed it all she took me to the hospital to visit my grandfather to show me that he had lived. At that time children weren't welcomed into hospitals and I remember my father explaining to the nurse why I was there. I wasn't certain myself whether I wanted to see him or not but I went in. He lay beneath a plastic oxygen tent, his hands by his sides. He waved me closer.
"Nurse," he said hoarsely,"this is my grandson. If you're looking for a young man to take to dinner one night..."
"No talking," she said.
"How are you feeling?" I asked him.
"How? I'm feeling very rejected."
"No talking," the nurse said again.
"What do you mean, 'rejected'?" I whispered.
"They told me my heart stopped three times," he whispered back." I was dead. I think somebody up there doesn't want me." And he smiled and brought his hand out from beneath the plastic tent, his hand with its heavy veins and coarse hairs. And he patted my hand and closed his eyes.
Knowing now what it's like to hover, pumpheaded, between past and future, I wonder whether, when my grandfather touched my hand, he did it for my sake or his own. He lived a long time, suffered a few more deaths and rejections, and every Easter reminded everyone that Jesus wasn't the only Jew ever resurrected.
So why not me?
9 HOURS, 15 MINUTES OF DAYLIGHT
I decide to mark the solstice by taking my first journey beyond the immediate perimeter of my home and head uptown to meet my friend Neil Tyson at the American Museum of Natural History, where he is director of the Hayden Planetarium. Neil is a Princeton physicist,writer,magazine columnist, and oenophile. He is also an ebullient and irrepressible explainer, the kind of person one calls upon when metaphors just aren't doing it. His sources are cosmological and so about as primary as one can find. As with many scientists I've worked with over the years, he has a particular world in mind to which he can refer both to what he knows and what he doesn't know, the grand as well as the microscopic.
For instance,driving in the car with Neil and talking about the observation of space he stops midsentence to assert, "Anyone who doesn't wear a seat belt has no understanding of physics." As we get stuck behind a bus he lets me know that if I had a better grasp of the acceleration of moving bodies I would have been able to pass. When I can't hear out of my cell phone he explains that due to the way the circuits work I'd hear better by putting my finger over the voice slot than by putting my hand over my ear.
This is the kind of knowledge I want. Neil and I go across the street from the museum for lunch and I tell him that I'm interested in the nature of spring. I say nothing more in expectation of an expository torrent.
He thinks, and then says,"The change of seasons is due to the singular fact that Earth, in its orbit around the Sun, is tilted 23 degrees or so relative to the Sun."
He stops there because the waiter's arrived to take our orders. But afterward he says nothing, his very large round brown eyes staring, with some boyish satisfaction, into mine.
"That's it," he says.
"I don't understand," I say.
Now he's ready. I can tell.
"As Earth circles the Sun, its orientation — the direction of its tilt — never changes: The North Pole always points toward the Pole Star, Polaris, and the South Pole always toward the constellation Octans. The hemisphere tilted toward the Sun experiences summer while the hemisphere tilted away experiences winter."
I've written this down but I experience the same nausea that gripped me back in my ninth-grade earth-science classroom when I asked how it was possible to see the Sun and the Moon in the sky at the same time. I'm hoping for a grown-up epiphany but recall only the many science fair re-creations of flashlight Sun, soccer ball Earth, and Ping-Pong ball Moon suspended in wire hanger orbits.
"In the summer hemisphere the Sun strikes more directly..."
Neil raises himself from his chair. He's a big man with long arms and large hands, so when he stands in for the Sun he also becomes the cynosure of the lunch crowd.
"From the solstice the hours of daylight increase until, a quarter orbit away, there are 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness. This is the spring equinox, March 21, midway between the winter and summer solstices. Another quarter orbit away..."
His arms outstretched, he turns on his substantial axis, a quarter orbit at a time. The waiter, bringing our platters, has to sidestep Neil's celestial equator.
I am writing like mad but I'm just not seeing it. Maybe it is still my pump-addled brain. But Neil is making his point clear: Spring is the result of a singular astronomical alignment that rules the chemistry of the planet, the behavior of its plants and animals, and cultures and customs of its people.
While we eat he fills in the details: "Because of that 23-degree tilt the times of sunrise and sunset depend on your latitude. The closer you are to the poles the more extreme the difference between summer and winter light. Deep into the Arctic winter you'll never see the light of day. For weeks during the Arctic summer, darkness may never come at all."
This, I realize, is what I want to experience, a beginning, middle, and end — 9,10, 12, 24 hours of sun, from south to north, from equinox to solstice — a narrative of light and warmth. I imagine surfing a wave of green as it sweeps north, catching the first bloom; first birds, first thaw, first rains, first flood, first leaves, first fruits, plowed fields, desert flora to tundra bloom, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it,"Growth in everything — /Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,/Grass and green world all together."
"You'll have to begin before the equinox," Tyson says." It's the date we set for the beginning of spring but daylight begins increasing now and by February it will already be having its effects."
I will have to begin right away. Spring is coming.
9 HOURS, 19 MINUTES OF DAYLIGHT
January arrives, a new year. I arrange a shelf full of guidebooks to states, parks, birds, trees, wildflowers, geology, and astronomy, and I spread out road maps, topographic maps, state maps, migration routes, and National Park and Forest maps and begin to plan an itinerary. In February and March, depending on how I'm feeling, I'll have to make a few individual forays. If they go well, come the equinox, I'll head south through the Appalachians, then west across the southern plains to the Arizona desert, and then north through the grasslands, into the Rockies, to Montana, and then to Alaska. My goal is the Arctic the day of the solstice — June 21 — when, on the last day of spring, daylight lasts a full 24 hours.
Spring, I know, is not a single sweep of warming, greening, migrating from south to north. Each place, each species, experiences its own spring — the valleys before the mountains, south-facing slopes before those slopes that face north. Birds may depend on the changing hours of light to begin their migrations, but each bird has its own timing mechanism as well as its own navigation system. Insects hatch when the temperature allows. A cold hard rain can keep migrating fish from moving upstream.
Spring is the sum of all these individual responses to the changing light, warming air, earth, and water. Small changes can bring few or countless transformations. And each year is different. Even if we thought we might catalog every stimulus, account for every force, the fact is that nature has no obligation to respond to them in the same way. The unexpected is to be expected but can't be counted on. And who could count them? By the time of the Vernal Equinox, spring in the northern hemisphere is advancing north at a maddening pace.
But something else is happening, too. Over the winter as I collect items — from newspapers, scientific journals, information from researchers I know — I find gathering evidence that spring has been changing, that across the northern hemisphere spring is arriving earlier, as much as a week earlier, in some places more, than it did as little as 30 years ago. The reports come from every quarter and lend a growing sense of immediacy to my journey.
Spring thaw comes sooner. In the mountains snow melts earlier. Arctic sea ice is vanishing. Biologists as well as amateur watchers spot frogs, birds, bees, and butterflies arriving before their usual times. Insects that appear before the plants flower are left with no pollen on which to feed. If insects disappear before the birds arrive, the birds, in need of energy for breeding and nesting after long flights, go hungry. Should frogs spawn too early in spring their eggs stand the chance of freezing in a late frost. The season bears down on most of these animals with evolutionary urgency. Spring is the one time of year they have available to breed.
The concatenations of the changes are only beginning to be seen. In Europe, the winter moth that times its hatching to the sprouting of young oak leaves has begun to hatch weeks beforethe oaks leaf. Their decline will leave arriving birds in the lurch. The retreat of Arctic sea ice has left seals and walrus with fewer platforms from which to hunt fish and mussels. The Yupik Indians report the walruses they hunt have become thinner and their blubber less nutritious. Killer whales that hunt walrus have begun to hunt sea otters. Fewer sea otters will mean more sea urchins. More sea urchins will devastate the ocean kelp. Less kelp will mean less habitat for fish that are the main source of food for whales and the Yupik.
These ecological rondeaux are no longer playing offstage. We can recognize them in our gardens and backyards, and scientists who once regarded as subjective and inconsequential yours and my vague notions of change — "I can recall when..." and each of us can fill in the rest — now acknowledge that our primitive sense that there's something up may be based on more than anecdote or nostalgia for lost farmland, forest, and fresh water.
In fact, the seasonal paradigm is changing. Anyone who gardens knows it. Since 1960, the U.S. National Arboretum along with the American Horticultural Society has published a map of climate zones to give gardeners a key to which plants are best suited to local weather conditions. Since their main concern was with landscape plants that must survive the winter outdoors, they divided the country into 10 zones based on 10-degree differences in the average lowest winter temperatures. Up in Fairbanks, Alaska, for instance, Zone 1, where winter temperatures can drop to 50 below, the landscape choices run from dwarf birch to quaking aspen and Lapland rhododendron. Florida gardeners, in Zone 10, can be certain to have success with bougainvillea and palms. Gardeners in the temperate zones between or on the borders of one zone and another can choose to plant sure bets or push their luck. The irregular corrugations of the zones were based on average temperatures from the 1940s to the 1960s.
The map was changed in 1990 because from the 1960s on, the climate belts began to broaden and the borders between them blur. In 2003, a new map made it clear that a northward zonal drift was in progress. Chicago and Denver, which had been in Zone 5, in which average minimum winter temperatures ranged from 10 to 20 below, now found themselves in Zone 6, in which the lows were 10 degrees warmer. Zone 7, on the 1960 map a pink belt that runs only as far north as the Maryland border, in the new map extends into southeastern Pennsylvania and across New Jersey. Gardeners there now have their chance to try landscaping with English yew and holly, less hardy hybrid azaleas, and they might put their young flowers and tomato plants out earlier than they did a few years ago.The downside is that those plants and bulbs that need cold winters in which to lie dormant may no longer grow where they once did.
A 30-year study of 100 species of plants in the Washington, D.C., area by the Smithsonian Institution found that 89 of them now flower an average of four and a half days earlier. The capital's cherry trees blossom a full week earlier so tourists have to plan accordingly and soon, I imagine, local celebrations of spring across the country to mark the harvests of wild ramps and mushrooms, and the blossoming of everything from cherry trees to azaleas, dogwoods, magnolias, lilac, and dandelion, will have to be rescheduled to account for climate change.
Since 1950, the year I was born, the world's annual carbon emissions have gone from 1.5 billion to 6.8 billion tons. The carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere has increased from 310 to just under 380 parts per million — and done so at a rate faster than any time in the last 20,000 years and is accelerating, last year by nearly twice the annual average of the previous 50 years. Earth's average temperature has risen from 56.8 to 58.2 degrees Fahrenheit. The world's population has gone from 2.5 to 6.5 billion.Over my lifetime I've seen corridors of suburban growth crowd out the open fields and forests along the east coast from Florida to Boston. Metropolises have grown up in the western deserts. Heart surgery may have, for the moment, predisposed me to nostalgia, but even among my son's friends, who are in their 20s, I hear,"I remember when..." for the sprawl has not diminished.
It all boomed for the benefit of me and my generation and, since most of us never experienced cataclysms such as the Depression or world war, we could choose to imagine that catastrophes didn't happen any longer, or if they did they would come with a mushroom cloud, with such suddenness and force that we wouldn't be able to do anything about it anyway. Now we have a new century, a wireless century, in which things can communicate without being connected.We can log on when and where we want.We can do surgery without touching the patient. However we define this era, it ought to be making us realize the urgency of preserving the nature of the planet if only for its being a bastion of correlations and sensuality. I'm reading naturalist and writer Edwin Way Teale's journey "North with the Spring," written the year I was born and in which he tracks bird migrations from Florida to Maine. Following along on a map and in my mind, I hardly recognize the landscapes or the culture through which he travels.
I'll be seeing a very altered spring.
10 HOURS, 9 MINUTES OF DAYLIGHT
The pumpheadedness dissipates in this way: I think it's gone and I realize just how confused I was. In a couple of weeks I realize that I'm clearer still and have to face the fact that I haven't been as clear as I had thought. It's much like when the optometrist flips his series of lenses in front of your eyes. But I'm feeling better, stronger, and decide to make a first spring reconnaissance, like the groundhog, to see what it's like out in the world.
Every year when I was growing up in Pennsylvania, a few days before February 2, the little hamlet of Punxsutawney at the western end of the state seemed to suddenly appear, like a Brigadoon or Camelot, and for a few days the state's newspapers, radio, and television focused on whether Phil, the oracular groundhog, would predict an early spring or consign the northern hemisphere to another six weeks of winter. It wasn't until I left the state that I realized how much the greater world focuses on Phil, who, if he didn't live year-round in a comfortable cage in the Punxsutawney Public Library eating dog food and the occasional ice cream cone, might be a fitter oracle. His record is dismal. Over the last 100 years, a throw of the dice each February 2 would have given better results.
Cynics, however, are not welcome in the dead of winter in Pennsylvania. Those who are going to mutter under their breath when housebound know enough to exile themselves to the nearest frozen lake where they can sit on an upturned grout bucket, fishing rod in hand, and stew in the cold while staring into a hole in the ice. For the rest, the annual groundhog pageant comes as a welcome winter break (this was pre-Super Bowl spectacular) and with willing suspension of disbelief we granted Phil the title "Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinaire." Why forgo a ritual that, as Frazer puts it, preserves "something of the flavour and freshness of the olden time, some breath of the springtime of the world"? So I pack my necessary meds, set the sun at my back, and drive west from Brooklyn to experience the festivities and take in what feels to me, despite the meteorological evidence to the contrary, like the first breath of spring.
Any hopes I had for an early thaw are quickly dashed by my drive through the rolling foothills of the Alleghenies. I'm met by surly skies, crystalline snowfields, and bare forest choirs. Despite the cold, I keep my window rolled down, for my senses are famished. The road follows a river's icy winding course. On a frozen lake, a lone figure sits fishing.Christmas lights still dangle from the rain gutters of vinyl-sided homes; the smell of wood smoke wafts on the wind. I encounter a cold mist, a steel bridge, a stone alehouse, and then, Punxsutawney.
The little town brims with traffic. Festivities have commenced. The Pantall Hotel, built in 1888 on the town square, remains the only hotel and, with its three stories, the tallest building in town. All of its 75 rooms have been booked solid for months, leaving me and thousands more to try and find rooms at roadside motels. I spot a vacancy 15 miles from town,check in, and return to Punxsutawney.
A chilling mist has set in but, in the park across from the Pantall, dollar beers and charcoal-smoked kielbasa warm up the crowd. Bundled in parkas, the pilgrims ruminate among rows of makeshift kiosks that display local arts and crafts from marmalades to crocheted berets. But the groundhog rules. The groundhog is the feted oracle.No pagan spirit could have asked for more veneration; no ancient animist could have rendered more devotion. I see grown men got up in groundhog anoraks with furry ears,women and children wearing groundhog mittens with tiny felt claws. Objects of particular devotion are groundhog amulets and groundhog keychains. There are small whittled groundhog icons that can sit in the palm of the hand and there are 4-foot-tall groundhog tikis hewn roughly from hardwood tree trunks, carved stumps that could enchant an Easter Islander. In front of the 1936 vintage band shell stands a 12-foot groundhog ice carving. But even this pales before the "World's Largest Groundhog," a 30-foot-tall rodent totem in a top hat that rises in the parking lot of Joe's Drive-In Restaurant.
Groundhogs, like beavers, guinea pigs, and mice, are rodents. And while for many people in this country, rodent equals rat, some rodents make fine pets and in some parts of the world they make snack or dinner — the capybara of the Amazon, for instance (imagine a groundhog the size of a pig), or the muskrat of the American marshlands. During the course of my travels I've tasted both, and both, after being boiled, basted, and fried in fat, taste about the same — oily and leathery. I have no particular appetite for groundhogs, but neither do I, as do many suburban lawn mowers, devise methods electronic, ultrasonic, or semiautomatic to keep these animals from burrowing through my yard.
Besides eating, burrowing is what groundhogs do. They were doing it before humans walked the earth and will probably continue to do it when we're long gone. The Indians along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania thought the earth gave birth to the groundhog and called them wojak, which the colonists expanded into "woodchuck," now their proper name. These fat, reddishbrown, thick-furred, overgrown ground squirrels are a species of marmot, to be precise, and have survived in one form or another for some 11 million years. They live pretty solitary lives, are good swimmers and adequate climbers, and, when not browsing on grasses, plants, and tree bark, spend the time working on their underground network of burrows. These activities take up half their lives.They spend the other half asleep.
For an animal that lives on plants, winter in the northern hemisphere can mean sparse pickings. Sleeping for a few months is better than retiring hungry every night and a lot less work than migrating, especially if you're a lumpy creature with stubby legs. So come fall, with the days getting shorter (temperature doesn't seem to be much of a factor), the groundhog's hormones begin to make demands. The commanding hormone is melatonin.
Once the jet set's favorite (taking it induces sleep, so frequent fliers often took it to treat jet lag), melatonin was for a time touted as a treatment for everything from insomnia to depression, cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer's. What is known about melatonin — and it was discovered only in 1958 — is that it's an ancient hormone. Algae produce melatonin. So do moths, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. In these animals melatonin is secreted by a nearly as ancient gland called the pineal, which is located in the back of the head just beneath the light-penetrable skin. (This is how the pineal became known as the "third eye.") In groundhogs, as in all mammals including humans, the pineal sits in the center of the brain.
Until the 1970s no one knew what to make of melatonin. Then researchers found that children have higher levels of melatonin than adults and that these levels begin to decline with the onset of sexual maturity. As the pineal produces less melatonin, sex hormones increase. Studies then showed that at all ages melatonin controls daily cycles of sleep and wakefulness. Produced in the evening, melatonin induces sleep. (The fact that children have more melatonin than adults may explain their ability to sleep longer.) With daylight, the pineal gland shuts down. Experiments show that the pineal is so sensitive that it will cut off the flow of melatonin after only a few seconds of exposure to light. Our daily rhythms can be readily disrupted." If light were a drug,"wrote one researcher, "I'm not sure the Food and Drug Administration would approve it."
As summer and light wane, the groundhog's pineal is on and producing melatonin longer than it's off. At a certain point, with food resources dwindling and already having fattened themselves to bursting among your plants and vegetables, the groundhog feels it's just not worth staying awake for those few hours of light each day. Besides which, the increased melatonin has depressed their sex drive (in the same way it staves off human puberty). So sometime in the late fall they wallow down their burrow and hibernate. It is no ordinary hibernation. Compared with groundhogs, bears are light sleepers. A hibernating bear's body temperature may go down a few degrees. A groundhog's body temperature drops to near freezing and its heart rate falls from 75 to 4 beats per minute. (As attuned as I am, or was, at pacing heart rhythms, one every 15 seconds is pretty death defying. I wonder if, when they awake, they suffer hibernation-head.)
A few times during the winter, groundhogs revive, have a look around, and return to their burrows until they awaken for good come spring. The question, of course, is if the groundhog lies asleep in its burrow and not in a cage in the Punxsutawney Public Library, and light can't penetrate through to the burrow, how does the lengthening day affect their pineal and its production of melatonin? The answer seems to be that the genetic switches that turn the pineal on and off have somehow "memorized" the year's cycle of light and dark. Sometime in early spring the melatonin stops flowing. When it does the groundhog's level of gonadal hormones — testosterone — increases. He or she awakens, aroused by a kind of spring adolescence that also sets birds singing, frogs calling, and perhaps our own thoughts turning lightly to love. To appreciate the goings-on in Punxsutawney, you have to think of the groundhog as a sex god promising fertility.
"The general explanation which we have been led to adopt of these and many similar ceremonies," writes Frazer, "is that they are, or were in their origin, magical rites intended to ensure the revival of nature in spring." The roots of a celebration around the reappearance of a hibernating animal go back to northern Europe. The Germans, who immigrated here and settled in Pennsylvania, brought the ritual with them.The faithful have been making the pilgrimage to Punxsutawney since 1887.
After a night of balls, banquets, kielbasa, and beer, the dedicated and the inebriated (some are both) follow giant, man-made groundhog tracks for a mile and a half up to a wooded hill known as Gobbler's Knob where, in a frigid little dell, they'll make an allnight vigil. Thinking better of spending the entire night outdoors I opt for the "Knob Bus" that begins to make its round of the nearby motels at 3 a.m., making sure its passengers arrive at the dell before dawn. By 5 a.m. we are 10,000 strong, crowded in behind the rows of chairs set up for the dignitaries. More chairs stand on the makeshift stage. A contingent of men arrives, each in top hat and black tie. Among them is the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club's Inner Circle, 15 men whose sworn duty is "to protect and promote the legend of Punxsutawney Phil." Each receives an ornate introduction mostly lost in the frigid air and to the restless crowd that rallies applause for these personages, among them this year a dentist, three funeral home directors, a drilling and pump service operator, and an insurance agent. Four of them are named Bill. The president carries an acacia cane (although there's probably not a native acacia tree within 3,000 miles of Punxsutawney) and is, by the Punxsutawney powers-that-be, vested with "the knowledge of Groundhogese." It's he who is chosen, like the Pythia at the Delphic Temple of Apollo, to interpret the oracle.
The local congressman is announced, then a state senator, then the honorable governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell. Although the crowd is so dense it's difficult to see anything, word filters back that Phil's keeper has brought the groundhog in his box center stage. The Inner Circle — from where I stand a collection of top hats — pulls in close. The governor, stubby as Fiorello La Guardia, tries to stay in view of the cameras. Flashes pop.There is a commotion onstage. A cheer rolls through the crowd although no one around me seems to know what Phil has predicted. No matter, the idea is that by dint of the ceremony alone nature might be inspired to hasten brighter days and warming weather. And in the midst of a cold winter a revived sense of community might make the six weeks till spring more bearable.
I have breakfast at Joe's Drive-In, where, through the window, I can see the giant groundhog's knees, and I head back to New York City, hopeful of being on time for another pre-equinox celebration. Had I spent all night on the Knob I wouldn't have the energy for the trip. I may feel stronger, but I've found that fatigue still sneaks up on me. I've got time for a lunch break and even for my now crucial afternoon hour's nap, which I've decided to call an "Eastwood," after a character played by aging action star Clint Eastwood who finds an afternoon nap obligatory.With my daily Eastwood, and my now nightly nightcap of Jack Daniel's, I'm trying on some new rituals of my own.
This evening's celebration is one of them: I'm heading to church, for in the Christian calendar February 2 is Candlemas, one of the Church's oldest celebrations, marking the arrival of Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, where Mary came to purify herself 40 days after giving birth.
As much as these two celebrations may seem a world away, they're not. In Earth's journey from winter solstice to spring equinox, February 2 comes, give or take a day or two, at the midpoint, also known as the cross-quarter. The three other cross-quarter dates come in the first week of May, August, and November. The reckoning of cross-quarters may have come west with the Celts,whose tribal origins lay in the steppelands of southern Russia and central Asia, but who began invading India and Europe in the second millennium b.c. By 100 a.d. they had spread north into Britain, Scotland, and Ireland. In the Celtic calendar, perhaps in keeping with their origins as herders, summer began in the first week of May (which is how June 21 became Midsummer's Eve); autumn and winter began the first weeks of August and November, respectively. The first week in February marked Imbolc, the beginning of spring when, on the eve of February 2,worshippers of Brigid, the robust goddess of fire and fertility, paraded with torches.
When Catholicism reached Brigid's pagans it found their rites unsupportable but too well ingrained to end them outright. Instead, the Church canonized Brigid, dubbed her Saint Brigit, and allowed February 1 to be her feast day. The convent in her name "was noted for its heathenish miracles and evidences of fertility magic. Cows never went dry; flowers and shamrocks sprang up in Brigit's footprints; eternal spring reigned in her bower."
As for the chance to ignite spring's fires? Well, the ex-pagans could douse their fires and have them, too, for Candlemas, the celebration of first light, followed the next day.
"Fiat Lux. Let there be light" is the first recitation this evening at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection on East 74th Street in Manhattan. The sparse gathering of a few aging parishioners, some male couples, some mixed couples — I see no children — distribute themselves among the wood pews in the high-arched but compact cathedral. This is a ceremony for the cognoscenti. All seem familiar with the place, one another, and the service. Without direction from the royally robed priest or his white vested ministers,each knows that when the choir begins Fiat Lux it's time to move to the altar rail and receive a candle.
I look in the New Testament and find in Luke 2:22 that in the Temple it was the aged Simeon the Just who, like the president of the Groundhog Club's Inner Circle, has the gift to interpret the signs. The Holy Ghost speaks to him. Simeon recognizes Mary's child as "a light to enlighten." With Him, the old will pass and the new will arrive. Change is in the offing.
Candles lit, the choir and congregation sing a long Latin Ave Maria. The priest, who has changed from purple garments to gold, walks in procession with his young initiates. Each swing of his censer releases a voluminizing mist through which, in the candlelight, the statuary gleams. The church becomes a mystic dell.
As always, I'm amazed at all of the ritual's details. And having been educated in similar rituals — those of the synagogue, when I was young — I sense there's more nuance to them than I can know. I'm certain the priest's every movement, from the timing of his steps to the placement of his hands on the chain of the censer, came to him only after centuries of considered evolution, of priests who came before,wondering,what more can I do to influence nature, the gods, or god? Following a particularly fertile year, some priest wondered what he or his congregation did differently to bring about such favored treatment. Was it the particular mixture of spices in the censer? Was it the blue garment? Or was it the death of the old woman who we believed had the evil eye? Ritual, and much evil, evolved out of such faulty associations. For me, the fact that we now know much of the physics and nature of the world turns ritual into enthralling theatre. I enjoy its required suspension of disbelief because with the world of facts set aside and the world of the senses engaged, I allow myself to imagine an ideal of existence in which light,words, and song might alter the course of events. Out of such moments, hope springs.
The organist percusses through a Mozart piece. I hear remote Alleluias.
"The old man carried the Child: but the Child governed the old man."
Candles lit once again, the congregation sings:
The happy birds Te Deum sing,
'Tis Mary's month of May;
Her smile turns winter into spring,
And darkness into day.
If the groundhog sees his shadow when he arises from his burrow on February 2 (meaning there's morning sunlight), the prediction is another six weeks of winter. Just so, the folk saying goes: "If Candlemas day be fair and bright, winter will have another flight. If Candlemas day be shower and rain, winter is gone and will not come again."
10 HOURS, 37 MINUTES OF DAYLIGHT
The increasing light energizes the season and me. On my walks in Brooklyn I take the time to steep in the February sunshine that, as William Cullen Bryant wrote, "tints the buds and swells the leaves within." This is physics as well as poetics. The roiling surface of the Sun radiates waves of energy, 1.35 kilowatts of energy for every square meter of Earth. The visible energy wavelengths color the world: violet, blue, cyan, green, yellow, orange, and red.The rest,waves with frequencies a hundred million times smaller or larger, pass us unseen. All charge the atmosphere and the land.
We now build solar panels and batteries that utilize an infinitesimal fraction of this energy. But the very first solar receptors evolved some three and a half billion years ago, a time when life on Earth consisted of primordial microbes, single cells surviving on a diet of carbohydrates fueled and produced with sulfur, iron, and methane. Then came a fiat lux moment (a moment in geologic time) in which some of these microbes began to use sunlight to power their fuel production, at first by energizing molecules of hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide and then — and this is the moment when life as we know it began — using water and carbon dioxide to produce carbohydrates and release oxygen. These single cells would eventually engender virtually all the life that now exists on Earth.
When these cells, with their unlimited supply of energy, combined with other cells the results were auspicious, and in a matter of a couple of billion years plants began putting them to use. An average leaf contains 5 billion energy-transforming cells called chloroplasts. Each chloroplast holds some 600 million molecules of chlorophyll pigment. Each of these molecules, in order to capture the speeding packets of light energy called photons, has an array of upraised molecular antennae that, like narrowband radios, tune into the red and blue energy bands. (Leaves are green because it's the frequency the pigments reject and thus reflect.) They then pass the collected photons — now called excitons — from one molecule to the next and finally trap each, holding it in a molecular reaction chamber within the leaf. There,by means of a process that researchers have yet to be able to reproduce, the plant cells harness the once careening and oscillating light energy and stabilize it by forcing it to react with water. Protons are shifted, charges separated, electrons released and recombined. The result is food in the form of carbohydrates that gets stored in the plant's stems, roots, and seeds, and also oxygen that we and nearly every other living thing breathe, which gets released into the atmosphere. The whole transformation takes place in a matter of picoseconds, trillionths of a second. In fact, the reaction process is so fast and efficient that plants have had to devise ways to keep it from burning them up. Primary among these is the vascular system, an unsurpassed hydraulic assembly that not only pumps away created proteins for storage and sucks up needed fluids and nutrients but also serves as the plant's musculature by maintaining a constant pressure within its flexible passages.
When leaves fall, when plants die, worms, fungi, insects, and bacteria feast on what remains of the stored energy and with their deaths pass it on to the soil. Come spring the budding plant takes up the soil's stored moisture, minerals, and nutrients, using them to kick-start its revival. Red light receptors in the plant's cells control budding and flowering times by keeping tabs on the relative proportion of daylight and darkness. Blue light receptors time the sun's passage and control the fluid flow.
Seeking to know more of this seasonal power surge, I pay a visit on David Mauzerall, a wiry scientist with white hair and a tight-lipped smile who has spent his life discovering the physics, chemistry, and biology of photosynthesis. From his office in the labyrinth of basement laboratories at New York's Rockefeller University, he assures me that photosynthesis is what sustains life but the reason it does, he says, is that plants, with their efficient means of production,manufacture up to 10 times more food than they themselves need to survive, even more food than they need to reproduce themselves.
"Even in the oceans," he says, "algae produce up to ten times more than is needed to support their life cycle. My question is, why do they do it?"
I must appear pretty clueless because he doesn't wait long to continue.
"The answer is,we don't know."
We know what they do and how they do it (although we can't duplicate it with anywhere near their speed and efficiency), but the why of it remains uncertain. The fact that we and other living things make use of the food that plants produce, that we even make use of the fossil fuel provided by plants that lie compacted for millions of years (as Mauzerall puts it,"To warm oneself by coal is to bask in the light of the carbonaceous"), that we depend on the kindness of vegetation, none of these is an answer. We don't know and I find myself just as enthralled by this as by what we do know. I'm open to everything.
Perhaps recognizing this, Mauzerall hands me a reprint of one of his published papers. I can make nothing of its long title. He smiles and deigns to put it simply:
"I devised a way to hear photosynthesis." Perhaps he's spent a little too long down here in the belly of the university.
"A spinach leaf sounds different than a lettuce leaf. One species of algae will sound different from another. A healthy plant will sound different than a stressed one."
Way too long.
"I send a pulse of light through a leaf in water and the energy that's not absorbed expands in the water and creates sound waves. It's not new. Bell modulated light to create sound waves."
In 1880, four years after he perfected his telephone, Alexander Graham Bell decided that transmitting voice by light would be far more effective than electrical transmission over wires. He designed a system in which sound waves hitting a sunlit mirror were reflected as light waves. The recaptured light could then be reconstituted as sound. It worked — when the sun was out and when there was no interference. A hundred years later lasers beamed through fiber-optic cable allowed the fine control necessary to transmit sound at the speed of light.
Mauzerall's device was far simpler but its larger applications might enable scientists to tune in on the photosynthesis of a forest to find out the state of its health.
"The plant will tell you how much energy it's using, " says Mauzerall.
"What do you hear?" I ask.
"I hear the whoosh of just-created oxygen." That whoosh by whoosh changed forever the nature of the atmosphere and the life of the planet.
When photosynthesis fires up anew, the great transfer of energy that is spring begins, a conflagration of green, billions of tiny fires igniting on the surface of every leaf.
Whoosh. Do I find excitement in all of this? I do. I'm ready to travel, to chase spring.
Copyright ©2006 by Bruce Stutz