We are closer in time to the winter of 2056 than to the winter of 1956, but there are still those who remember that earlier year as the worst winter of all, even though it was in some ways one of the mildest on record.
It was a year of extremes, maybe much like this one, and a lesson in humility.
MP, in her 70s, is the oldest of my students. Making small talk before class a week ago, I said that it has been incredibly warm this year, but instead of smiling at our good fortune, she gave me a solemn nod, and then, kind of spookily, she turned her eyes upward and away, as if seeing something more than I was.
“It happens,” she said, as if telling a ghost story to the group. “It can happen like this, a terrible thing, so warm that it feels like spring for the entire winter. It was like that in 1956. Everything was in bloom by the end of January, just like this year. We were running around in shirt sleeves since Christmas.
“But then the first days of February, it plummeted with no warning to -18c for four nights in a row, the coldest temperatures ever recorded in this region. It killed everything – the flowers, the crops, and most importantly the budding grapes. No wine that year; nothing could recover. It was a ruination after that.”
I looked it up when I got home, and she was right. That is exactly what happened. They were just recovering from World War 2, barely pulling out of the paucity and malaise that marked the decade after the fighting ceased, and this terrible calamity struck on the Candlemass.
During the last week, I have asked other older people if they remembered the events of that year, and they not only recalled it instantly, but they shivered and challenged the temperatures, claiming it was even worse, variously -19 and -20.
That’s possible. We live north of the main city where the temps were verified, and they should know, these people who lived through it.
To a one, they also added prophetically with those same spooky, distant eyes, “Before that, it was like it’s been this year: far too warm.”
That historic cold front arrived here ironically on today’s date, the Candlemass, the Imbolc, St. Brigid’s Day, the festival of new fertility, the midway point between Winter Solstice and Vernal Equinox. After a season just like the one we’ve had, the bottom fell out and the effect was magnified by so many vulnerable things already in bloom. I have not even drained the garden spigots or had to break ice for the chickens’ water this year, it’s been so mild.
Are we in for a record cold snap, now that crocuses and quince and plums are out before February even arrived, and almost everything has set a bud? Our chickens are laying eggs in profusion, like it’s 2 months from now.
I even saw irises in flower last week. Just a few, and in a sheltered yard in town, but still, irises in January cannot be right.
Our generation is attuned to climate change, but we rarely think of its evidence going back so far as the scientists tell us, far beyond our grandparents, back to the Industrial Revolution.
Was 1956 a harbinger of an increasing percentage of winters to come?
They are predicting possibly -4c a few nights next week, which, with a little cushion in the forecast and a little caution covering the most tender things, will not be that bad. But if it goes much lower, the spring and summer to follow will change course, irreparably for the worse.
Just like in America on Groundhog Day, it is said that the Candlemass is either the end of winter or when it takes hold to stay. And just like in the tradition of Groundhog Day, it’s the pretty weather on February 2nd that curses the spring most.
I hope we make it through this month without having to drag all the sheets out into the yard each evening, but I worked outside again today in clogs and thin clothes, wafted by floral smells.
Superstition, and the spooky eyes of my oldest neighbors, suggest that this does not bode well.
I have color in my cheeks from the sun. The clothes are dried on the line, and it’s been another balmy spring day. The violets are up in such profusion that I can smell them from a distance, the scented signature heralds of spring in Toulouse. I filled three egg cartons from the nests in the poulailler this afternoon. And the sun is setting in temps nowhere near the freezing point.
I will indeed light candles tonight remembering that other long-ago 2nd of February. Let us trim, and plant, and hope, but always with an eye on the forecast, remembering this anniversary, when the Imbolc celebration of conception and promised fertility was laid waste by a sudden slap of a cold, impartial nature.