Matt Dickerson: Coping strategies in the changing natural world

My wife and I often laugh when folks who have moved to Vermont or come here to college from places like Florida, Texas and southern California start complaining about how cold it is, and it’s still early October. The temperature will have dropped down into the 40s, or maybe we’ll even have seen our first frost, and they will be all bundled up in heavy winter coats shivering and wondering how we can stand the bitter cold weather. “You haven’t seen anything yet,” we want to warn them, though we try to do so gently.
Recently we got a taste of our own medicine, however. Twice in the same week we complained about the terrible oppressive heat and humidity we’d been experiencing with five days in a row in the 90s. Once we made the mistake of making that complaint to a friend from Southeast Asia. The other time it was to somebody from Houston. Neither of them showed us any sympathy at all. They just laughed and said this so-called heat was nothing, implying that we were soft — or to use a term from my childhood, “wimpy.” I confess it is true. I’m a heat wimp.
My good friend who grew up in the mountains of New York, went to college at Middlebury, and then lived in Vermont for many years, but is now a professor at a college in South Dakota just texted me a photo of his car dashboard. He was on his way from Montana down to Nevada. When he woke in the morning, the temperature was in the low 40s. When he texted me from somewhere in Utah where he stopped at a rest area for the night, his dashboard read 116 degrees Fahrenheit. He feared his camping gear was going to melt. It reminded us of how the airport in Phoenix for the first time ever had to shut down for a day because the temperature had reached something like 125 degrees. Not only was that too high for luggage workers to be on the tarmac, but apparently at that temperature the air isn’t even dense enough for jets to take off in the normal runway distance.
Speaking of heat, one of my brothers lived in Alaska for eight years, working for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC). A considerable amount of health concerns that organization now deals with, or is preparing to deal with, relate to climate change and its impacts. These include dramatically changing food supplies for those living a subsistence lifestyle, and also impacts on work, incomes and livelihoods of entire communities impacted by collapsing fishing industries. Sometimes the health issues are very dramatic: entire villages sinking into the ocean as sea-levels rise and permafrost melts.
For a couple years now my brother has been forwarding me the weekly electronic newsletter “The Northern Climate Observer” that ANTHC co-publishes. It is a “compilation of articles and observations about changing environment and climate, and the impacts on Northern communities.” It is fascinating and an important way for me to stay informed, and is often relevant to my current writing projects about rivers, trout and ecology. It is also discouraging reading about the devastating impacts of climate change.
I don’t know what long-term coping strategies are going to be required in Vermont and the world. My short-term coping strategy is to get out of bed at 5:30 a.m. when I first start waking up, instead of staying huddled under my covers for another hour pretending to sleep like I do in January. My wife opens up all the windows in the house and turns on the fans to suck in some relatively cooler air while we have a chance. Then we hop on our bikes and do a morning loop. We do not even vaguely resemble the sort of avid bikers for whom a “morning loop” is a trip up to the top of the Snow Bowl and back, or a little jaunt to circumnavigate the entire county. Our morning loop is a leisurely 45-minute pedal of only six to eight miles. Ideally — at least on Wednesdays and Saturdays — toward the end of our loop we pedal down Exchange Street, and to the Middlebury Farmers Market. In addition to filling our paneers with fresh produce, we also grab bread and a pastry (or two) from one (or more) of our favorite bakers. On mornings when I might not feel motivated to bike, my wife always mentions a Good Companion Bakery almond croissant as the bribe that gets me going. Sometimes we sit at the market and eat the pastry there. Sometimes we bring it home to enjoy at the breakfast table after we shut all the windows and close up the house for the day.
I don’t think our coping mechanism is a very good long-term strategy for dealing with climate change. Given that the calories in an almond croissant might exceed the calories burned in an hour of biking, it’s probably not even a good coping mechanism for short-term health issues related to my creeping-up age. As a coping mechanism for a hot summer day, however, it seems to be working.

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