A Lakewood Lens: There Were No Tulips

I hadn’t minded winter this year.

Having moved here from a place where winter isn’t mandatory, I watched it snow from my windows in Lakewood with a sense of awe, as though I were recalling the seasons of my youth. I had forgotten what winter could do here: coating, covering, blowing, bloating and turning things to ice. Chunks of things would slide down my roof with a thunderous sound, and I imagined I was living on the edge of an iceberg.

But it’s March now, and I’m over the winter wonderland. I am waiting for robins and rain, an almost blue sky and an almost warm sun. When it snows at the end of March, it feels like we are being robbed of a season from our life.

But it will come. We know there will always be a spring.

I will tell you, though, that once long ago there wasn’t one.

There was a year that spring never came, and it took the summer with it, too. I learned of this as a little girl, and I could not have thought of anything worse than to be robbed of the season that gave us our childhood.

It was 1816, and as it is with all disasters, there wasn’t one event that brought it here; there were several things that shielded the sun and caused the cold to stay.

The biggest of the thieves was a volcano that erupted some 10,000 miles away from Chautauqua County, but no one would blame the atmospheric ash in the sky until many years later. When April and May brought record snow and cold here, no one said, “Ah, the Tambora Volcano in the Dutch East Indies has stolen our spring.” There was no explanation headlining the newspapers because nobody knew; there was only a dry fog in the early spring that seemed to turn the air red and caused sun spots to be visible to the naked eye.

The eruption of Tombora made it the biggest volcanic eruption in human history and the most overlooked.

Average global temperatures decreased in the aftermath, but those who suffered most lived in the Northern Hemisphere-primarily the northeastern United States, Atlantic Canada and parts of Western Europe.

What followed has been called “the last great subsistence crisis in the Western world.”

Crops were planted in the spring of that year, but by May, roots and young fruit were frozen, and corn had to be planted and replanted as it froze and then refroze. Any crops that did succeed, mostly met their fate by August when a heavy freeze was recorded on Aug. 29. On July 5 in New York state, ice as thick as window panes was observed. It snowed in June, July and August depending on where you lived.

What followed were food riots, famine, disease and increased mortality.

The fragile string that holds together the fabric of our seasons had broken, and nothing escaped its wrath. Sheep, who had already been shorn, could not survive the cold. Hay and grain could not be dried in the damp cold, and so malnourished cows had little milk. Hens did not lay eggs. Vegetable gardens did not grow, and fruit trees withered. The animals that survived were slaughtered because there was little else to eat. We could not be saved: The lack of viable roads made it difficult to bring in sustenance to those who needed it.

More than a 100,000 people died across the affected areas, mostly from diseases that come with famine and compromised immune systems, like typhoid and pneumonia. The mold that developed from cold, damp conditions likely caused respiratory illnesses that were hard to shake.

It’s easy to imagine why our long ago ancestors blamed angry gods when disaster struck. Since there was no media to report on the Tambora eruption, no one understood why summer had failed. What the people of 1816 also didn’t know was that there was a historic low in solar activity that year, which most likely compounded the effects. The folks of the northeastern United States were simply left to struggle in an already difficult existence. Some blamed the weather on sinners, while others blamed it on Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod experiments.

It’s possible that no one would have believed a scientist who claimed that a volcanic event across the world was somehow responsible for their plight. We didn’t understand the “butterfly effect” back then, which is a theory that puts forth that even the smallest event in one place can create profound effects in another seemingly unrelated place. It might have seemed improbable to them that wind could transport ashes and gas from one part of the globe to another, creating aerosols that refracted the sun’s rays away from Earth.

Perhaps last year’s “a year without a winter” debut was some sort of karmic justice for that cold summer almost 200 years ago. I was kayaking on the lake last March in 80-degree weather, and I could have cared less about knowing what brought spring so early. Leave it to the scientists to figure out, I thought. And leave me here in the sunshine bobbing in my kayak on a March day.

Once in a while, the science of weather seems to work in our favor.

I’ll try to remember that.