One bitter winter 30 years ago, back when I was middle-aged, a neighborhood teen piloting a topless jeep skidded on the snowy street, crashed through a timber railing and soared out over the pond in front of our house. I heard the noise and glanced outside.
The jeep whammed down on ice — and did not go through! Idiots are often lucky, but luck wasn’t needed. That ice was about 10 inches thick. Blissfully unaware, the young driver happily whirled the wheel, drove right back up onto the street and away.
Unless you’re eager to get dunked, don’t try that trick this week. Our winters are different now. Forget the debate about global climate change. There’s no question that the climate here has changed.
For 50 years we have lived in a tiny lake community that straddles the Johnson-Wyandotte county line. Maybe that idiot kid’s lucky day came just after the January night when the disconsolate mercury sagged to 23 below zero. That’s the lowest temp I recall, but in those years we endured many of them.
The most extreme temperature each year is the one most deadly to plants (not to mention us humans). It determines our USDA hardiness zone, now 6a, meaning we can expect lows every year of 5 to 10 degrees below zero. That’s warmer than Zone 5, our hardiness rating 30 years ago. During recent years, in fact, my gladdened thermometer seldom records any temp below zero — not even one this winter.
The chill of olden days was not all bad. In the 1970s and ’80s kids and adults swarmed out to skate. I recall one frigid, sunny day when our big lake had frozen 6 inches thick, 13 acres of perfect snow-free ice. We skated a quarter mile westward from the base of the pond dam to the crest of the big one, then back at full speed, over and over again.
Four young neighborhood brothers cleared snow to make a court on the pond, set up lights and played hockey many nights of many winters. One of those brothers still lives here, but the ice now seldom reaches the 5-inch thickness required for mass skating.
Garden lover though I am, in those cold old days I could never succeed with three lovely shrubs: the pink or blue bigleaf hydrangea from Asia, Nandina (heavenly bamboo) and crepe myrtle. Cold killed nandina and crepe myrtle right into the roots. Hydrangea roots survived, but since the plant blooms only on wood from the previous year, I never saw the lovely flowers. Most years nowadays all three bloom freely.
Not that milder winters have stopped the snow. Kansas City’s biggest total was 67 inches in 1911-12. But we got 44 in 2009-10. I remember one snowy New Year’s Eve in the early 1980s. We woke up next morning to a white wonderland gorgeously decorated with six deer, including two bucks with antlers. They were the first we had seen in our neighborhood. After a century of absence, the deer were back with us, and today with much of our area. We were charmed, never guessing what a pain these big hungry animals would become for gardeners. Did they return anticipating better weather? I doubt it.
But don’t forget the other critters. Many Canada geese and mallard ducks do not migrate anymore, hanging on through winters in some hole in the ice. Geese never leave, and armadillos are on their way. They started eons ago in South America and slogged slowly up through Mexico. Colleen McDonough, a biology professor at a Georgia university, says they arrived in Texas in the 1880s and Florida in the 1920s. One of our neighbors sees them dragging their scaly tails along old wagon roads where she camps at Lake Pomme de Terre in Missouri. Migrating steadily northward, they get squashed on the Kansas Turnpike.
What did I say earlier about that debate, considered again at the December United Nations conference in Paris? Let me repeat: Forget it. The climate is changing in our area, and Kansas, and the whole wide world. The armadillo knows. When one of these armored, antique creatures at last comes plodding through the woods down to our pond for a drink, I will tell him or her:
“Welcome, armadillo! Welcome to Zone 6a.”
Charles Hammer of Shawnee writes monthly. Reach him at email@example.com.