RFD Maine — The January thaw

By Tom Seymour | Jan 11, 2013

Professional meteorologists probably cringe when they hear someone mention “the January thaw.” Nonetheless, sometime in or around January of each year, a warm spell hits, melting the top inch or so of snow, cheering our souls and teasing plant and animal life with the promise of eventual spring.

Purely a folk expression, the January thaw often doesn’t arrive until February, a contradiction in terms. But country people still call it the “January thaw,” no matter when it arrives. Simply put, the January thaw is the first incidence of above-freezing temperatures after a prolonged span of sub-freezing temperatures. Pig simple, as one of my magazine editors likes to say.

Thaw manifestations

Lots of critters hibernate, but only a few sleep soundly through the January thaw. Insects and mammals both stir in midwinter when the thaw hits. Honeybees, for example, take advantage of warm breaks to dispose of bees that have died during the winter and even to fly around, “stretching their wings,” so to speak.

The south-facing side of my house often sees house flies clinging to the boards on a sunny, warm day in midwinter. Spiders and other crawling and flying insects also feel compelled to go about during the thaw.

Skunks and woodchucks both take advantage of winter, or January thaws, to step outside and walk around. Several years ago a skunk took up winter residence under my cottage and during the occasional warm night, would become active. This often included releasing a charge of skunk essence.

Oddly enough, while I find the first hour or so of breathing and smelling skunk spray very disagreeable, the discomfort soon fades. This has something to do with our olfactory sense becoming inured to foul odors after being exposed to them for a certain period of time. But I digress.

Woodchucks, best known for their supposed Groundhog Day perambulations, really do come out from their burrows and walk around. But if this occurs on Feb. 2, it is merely coincidental. Woodchucks, of course, can’t read calendars.

Often, people walking in the winter woods find where an animal came out from a hole in the ground, walked about for a short distance and then returned to the hole. In most instances, that animal was probably a woodchuck.

Plants, too

Some wild plants of the perennial variety do perfectly well under the snow. In fact, snow protects green, leafy plants from drying, desiccating winter winds. And when snow melts around such plants, they appear none the worse for wear for having spent months covered with snow. The dame’s rocket, Hesperis matronalis, in front of my house has become partially freed from the snow’s embrace and the dark-green leaves look good enough to eat. In fact, they are good to eat, but I prefer to wait until spring, when they become more widely available.

Maple trees and other hardwoods that have become injured during winter storms often begin pumping sap during the January thaw. The drip-drip-drip from where the wind tore a limb off is, to me, quite reassuring. It’s as if nature is telling us to hold on a little longer yet. Spring will come and here is a small down-payment on the promise.

While this vestigial sap run never gives up enough sap for people to tap trees for syrup-making, it does show that plant life does not die in winter, it simply takes a much-need break from strenuous activities.

Willow trees, particularly the weeping variety, respond quickly to warming temperatures. While certainly disputable, I believe that the limbs on the willows around my house show a brighter shade of yellow during the January thaw.

Pillaging porkies

Hemlock trees often don’t fare too well in winter, especially when porcupines decide to sit in them for the duration. Porcupines were once bountied because of the damage they inflict upon valuable timber, primarily white pine. A porcupine will describe a spiral pattern as it ascends a young pine, eating the bark. When these spiral tracks intersect, the tree is in effect, girdled and from that point on, its days are numbered.

Porcupines also feed upon hemlock tips. A good way to tell if a porky has visited a hemlock or a stand of hemlocks is simply to walk around and look for tips of branchlets on the ground. Fortunately for hemlock trees, porcupine incursions do little more than prune the tree. We cannot say the same for pines.

And people

We humans are also quick to respond to the January thaw. Young people, especially, delight in walking around outside clad in shorts and tee-shirts as soon as temperatures hit the 40s. Middle-aged folks are not quite so keen to disrobe to that extent, but they will run from their cars and trucks into the store without a jacket or cap. And old-timers, like the frozen logger of song and folklore, will unzip their jackets during the January thaw.

We all need the January thaw, or at least “a” January thaw. It supplies us with a much-needed reprieve from the rigors of a Maine winter. Warm temperatures and, even more important, bright sunshine, have a way of melting even the most obdurate hearts.

I personally enjoy the change of seasons and would not wish to and don’t think I could, ever live where there was no distinction between seasons. Even so, after two months of cold and snow, the January thaw comes as a welcome break. I tell myself, no matter how cold and snowy it was up to that point, that it really wasn’t so bad. Now I can handle whatever the balance of winter may hand out.

That’s what the January thaw does. It gives hope and courage to keep on keeping on.

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