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January Thaw

The column (in the Floyd Press) this week begins with a journal entry from January, 2003. I thought it was worth a look both back and ahead from this warm week in the middle of winter to see what we might expect of an unpredictable calendar of weather in Floyd County.

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Today we enjoy the mixed blessing of the January Thaw. It is a bit early, but why not? Every other aspect of the weather has thumbed its nose at the predictions over the past months. A weatherman's air mass, we have seen, can be surly and mutinous as a spoiled teenager, and without warning aim a high-powered wind that brings down the roof on unsuspecting Walmart shoppers in Texas. And in a different mood, that same bubble of air a few days farther east may decide to just sit down over Virginia like it has this week, tepid and tame as a housecat, and hold its breath until the jet stream tickles its sensitive underbelly, and it moves lethargically on toward the Bahamas.

The January Thaw is a teaser, a complimentary packet of mixed nuts on the agonizingly long flight to spring. After more than a month of deep freeze and ice in December, the subsoil is still hard as iron, down to the frost line. But this week's thaw has temporarily softened the top few inches that slip and slide around under foot and tire like chocolate pudding on a rock. Pastures and fields are rutted with brown swerving parallel scars from trucks feeding livestock; cattle stand around in muddy boots, up to their elbows in pasture muck. Should the seasons relent their rebellious tirades and decide to play by the rules, the Mud Season will start for real, more or less predictably, sometime in late March.

In downtown Floyd, the street is outlined in cinders and salt, marking where the gray mounds of snow have finally vanished. The January Thaw this week has sent flake and crystal down the city drains, heading now for Little River, and from thence north through the New, and the Kanawha and Ohio, then looping back south to the Gulf of Mexico where they will retire on a beach, with a sweet orange drink in a tall frosted glass with a saffron paper parasol. Meanwhile, a few short-sleeved human types busy themselves in the tiny heart of town on this warm January day, finding excuses to step outdoors onto the solid and temporarily dry surfaces of sidewalks in the comfortable afternoon. They greet their neighbors before the real winter comes on the heels of these brief days of duplicitous temperance.

Cars and trucks along the street during the Thaw are gray-brown, the color of lost dogs, embarrassed to be seen looking so forlorn. But what's the point in taking a bath, they ask? In this in-between chapter between pre-winter and real winter, the mud falls on the godly and the ungodly alike, so the Subaru and the farm-use truck next to it don't look all that different, mud being a great equalizer in Nature's homogenizing democracy.

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It surprised me to learn recently that the weather persons are not unanimously in agreement as to whether there really is such a thing as the January Thaw. Some say yes, and it is usually centered a few days before and after January 25 in New England and the East. During that short period, with odds a little bit more than by chance alone, that the weather will be up to ten degrees warmer than one would expect for this time of year. Those who think such regular cycles are real call them 'calendaricities.' Others look at the math and see no pattern at all, statistically speaking. I would offer those doubters the chance to stand in our field on January 25 and tell me there's no such thing as the January Thaw. They should bring their own hip boots.

But I'd hate to be a weatherman these days, wouldn't you? I mean, really, having to rely on past patterns to predict future weather events of any kind. Even the seasons seem to be stepping on each others' toes, as if they can't quite regain the beat and meter in their ancient dance.

Who knows? Should temperatures continue in their general rising pattern of the past three decades, there may come a time when there will be no frozen soil to thaw in future Virginia Januarys--an easy possibility to believe, too warm as I sit here on the front porch in the sun on January 10, the thaw here early and perhaps staying with us for a while.


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I'm always telling my neighbors from Rhode Island how winters used to be here in North Central Florida - how we used to have to leave the water trickling to keep it from freezing, how one year the freeze killed all but one of my citrus trees, how another year we had a late freeze that killed all the Love Bugs, and how yet another year we had nighttime temps in the 30's or below for a solid month. Trouble is, I don't have to go back more than eight or ten years. This winter doesn't even qualify as winter so far. My Lantana hasn't even died back!

I won't be surprised if our first hurricane is in May this year.

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