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On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve I was out in the yard taking down my Christmas lights. New Year’s Eve, mind you, and I noticed crocuses starting to poke their heads up in some of my flower beds. The TV weather personalities had been wearing out the term ‘unseasonably warm’ for several days, and I was out working in my shirtsleeves. Still I was surprised to see this harbinger of spring announcing itself in mid-winter. ‘Well, you’re not announcing anything,’ I thought, ‘except your own inability to tell time. I certainly hope you’ve got enough energy left come spring to do your job properly.’

I’ve actually experienced a few warm New Year’s Eves in the past several years, as well as some unbearably icy ones. Weather is so variable in the American Midwest, washed over as we are by everything from Alberta Clippers to Gulf low-pressure to the tail ends of El Niño winds. The weather and the seasons are not synonymous. As Anthony Smith put it in his book Seasons, it’s a complicated relationship because the seasons are both the astronomical phenomena that define them and the terrestrial consequences of them: the same word has to serve for both.

I recently read a commentary by a British journalist who said that the seasons vary so greatly that we only perceive them as having been seasonal in a kind of vague retrospect: that our standard year is actually the spring of 1984, the summer of 1980, autumn of 2000 and winter of 1997. The seasons give us whatever weather the prevailing climatic conditions indicate, and we recall them according to set perceptions. Thus you’re likely to hear someone complain about what a hard winter it’s been on the same day you hear that this has been the third warmest winter on record. And it doesn’t matter if it’s been warm enough for crocuses to bloom in January: for that person it was a hard winter. That person’s winter may have been hard for reasons other than the weather–family problems, excessive illness, money troubles–so winter in that context is a marker of time, not meteorological phenomena. Someone who falls in love in December is likely to recall a very nice winter, regardless of the weather.

‘I know we’re going to pay for it.’ That’s what everybody says when we get unusually warm weeks in winter, or cool weeks in summer. It’s a gift horse into whose mouth we can’t help but peer. Of course we’re going to have cold days soon (giving the TV weather personalities a chance to say ‘bitter cold’ repeatedly) and February ice storms. Of course those little crocuses are going to wilt and turn brown. I wonder if I’ll remember, this time next year, what nice days we had in late December and early January, or if those crocuses spent all that energy for nothing.