My first summer in the United States was a time of enchantment and discovery. It was 1992, I was nine years old, and I had just immigrated to the United States from China the same year. As I watched the winter blossom into spring and spring deepen into summer, my soul grew with the plants and my heart set down tender roots in a new country I now called home. With school out and long summer days ahead of me, I spent mornings learning to ride my bicycle on the sidewalks of our tree-lined neighborhood and waved to neighbors lounging on their porches or cutting their grass. I reveled in flowers I had never seen before and learning their names. I rolled in the grass and climbed into trees. One that I particularly liked was a large Japanese maple in our front yard with a hollow between its branches that was perfect for a child to sit in. I left peanut butter and made friends with the squirrels who came outside my window. I made paper boats and floated them in the stream behind my house when it rained. My English teacher, Mrs. McFall, often invited me to play with her grandchildren David and Stephanie during that summer. The four of us would bike along the C&O canal and pick up driftwood on the shores of the Potomac River. I loved especially to go for walks in Battery Kemble park, a neighborhood park with a stream and wild trees, some with hollow trunks so large that I could climb into them. Under the canopy, the woods were shadowy and mysterious, full of musty scents I had never smelled before. Even though we were no more than 500 feet from the road, it felt like we were in another world. Many afternoons when I did not feel like going out, I took my book and my chair out on the patio, and imbibing the sweet summer air and among the singing cicadas, I lost myself in books such as The Wizard of Oz and Little House on the Prairie. The adventures I lived in my mind came to life with the sights and sounds of summer all around me. Experiences such as these instilled in me a life-long love of nature and literature that celebrates it.
Unfortunately, summers (and childhoods) like these will be increasingly rare with the effects of global warming. This last summer I spent the majority of my time indoors in air-conditioning. With daytime temperatures in June and July above 95 degrees in the scorching Northeast, outdoor exercise was out of the question. Even in the evenings when the sun had set the air was a muggy 85 degrees. The crowds at the Fourth of July celebrations in Philadelphia, despite a free performance by Queen Latifah, were subdued because of the heat. My neighbor’s daughters spent most of their time watching TV or playing video games. We talked about going to the farm to pick berries, or going to the shore, but as each day opened at 90 degrees, we retreated back to the shelter of the livingroom. While in many cities throughout the Midwest, fireworks were cancelled because of drought and wildfires. Earlier in the year, the cherry blossoms in Washington DC blossomed 16 days earlier than they did in the 1970s. Fall foliage is also coming later than it did in the last century.
Many of the things that we have heard are disappearing because of global warming—arctic sea ice, polar bears, coral reefs—are things that most of us have little experience with and does not have a direct impact on our day-to-day lives. But has it occurred to us that what we are also losing is the air that we grew up with, the quality of our seasons, the very character of our regions and the texture of our lives? Will it be a thing of the past, the kind of temperate summers that made a heaven on earth in the Northern Hemisphere? It is doubtful that William Wordsworth would have written such exuberant poems about nature if his beloved England had the climate of the Mediterranean. Thoreau would have given up living at Walden if the climate of his summers had been like Georgia, with accompanying mosquitoes and poison ivy. No more canoeing on the river on lazy summer afternoons, no more lounging and loafing in the grass or in hammocks, no more fireworks on the fourth of July, no more summer soccer games at the neighborhood park. All of these things will eventually become unfamiliar to us as a confluence of forces, from technology to urban sprawl to global warming, conspire to keep us indoors.
In all likelihood we will adapt. After all, human beings have always lived in tropical climates, and billions of people today live in enormous cities with hardly any contact with nature. In Shanghai, where I spent most of my childhood, winters were cold and damp but never graced by snow. Spring was characterized by monsoon like showers. Summer was an endless haze stretching from May until November with temperatures regularly above 100 degrees in the hottest midsummer months. The sky was always gray and the summer air was often dangerous with ozone and other pollutants. The humidity was oppressive, and most folks spent their days trying to move as little as possible. Sweat drenched clothes became smelly and food went bad quickly. In a time before washing machines and refrigerators, this meant a lot of work for women. There were adaptations of course. Instead of hot cotton sheets, we slept on bamboo mats. We wore light dresses made from silk and men went to work in short sleeves and shorts. We took cold showers. After sundown, the entire community came alive as people performed errands, exercised in the park, and socialized at night. It was a different way of life, and people found ways to make it no less livable than those in temperature climates.
So perhaps we will not miss it too badly. Perhaps bamboo mats will become regular fixtures in American homes. Since human beings evolved from equatorial regions, it may feel natural for us to live in hotter climates. But the unique ecosystems of the temperate north will be lost, and with it the culture and a way of life that have made them what they are. What will Christmas be like when there is no longer snow? What will Fall look like when the maples and oaks that make the season so brilliant have died or remain only in the more inaccessible regions of the North? What will Spring feel like without the winter to gladden its coming? Our collective consciousness is shaped by the natural environment and the experiences that it made possible. If we lose the climate and ecosystems we know, will we not also lose the character of our nation and the richness of our lives? With climate change, another aspect of the diversity that makes up our humanity is lost. Boston will become like Atlanta and Atlanta like Hong Kong. But this time, it won’t just be the exotic species in the rainforest or on the glaciers, it will be everything that makes our home a place we recognize and love.
If this summer foreshadows the end of summer, then what we will the end of winter be like?