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With spring officially here, Vermonters reflect on mild and erratic winter

A man leans over a pail attached to a maple tree
David Goldman
Brent Hosking checks a pail collecting tree sap on his property in Elmore.

The first official day of spring is often a time for celebration — we've made it together through the long winter, and sunnier, warmer days are ahead.

But this year is different. Many parts of Vermont experienced their warmest winter on record. Burlington's average temperature between December and February was a record-high 30.7 degrees, according to data from the National Weather Service.

The higher-than-normal temperatures — caused by both climate change and El Niño— have left many people in the region with a unique type of climate-induced distress or anxiety known as solastalgia. Vermont Edition gathered a panel and listeners together to discuss those feelings.

Being close to the land "is part of who we are" as Vermonters, said Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Geroux, Vermont's state climatologist and a University of Vermont professor. "The feelings of loss and sadness are real."

To work through those feelings, Dupigny-Geroux said she spends time visiting classrooms and educating young people about climate change. She also tries to focus on how much scientists have learned about climate change in the past few decades. "For me, knowledge is power," she said, "and knowledge is trying to keep on top of what the data is showing you."

A map from the Northeast Regional Climate Center showing warmer-than-normal-February.
Northeast Regional Climate Center
According to the Northeast Regional Climate Center, the entire Northeast experienced a warmer-than-normal February.

Some Vermonters are reckoning with the new understanding that Vermont isn't the climate haven that it was long thought to be — it is not immune to extreme weather, as the past summer's flooding proved.

Megan Mayhew Bergman, an environmental writer and Middlebury College professor, said she's begun to shift how she defines "refuge," in order to better appreciate the many safe spaces Vermont still holds. "The part of Vermont that feels like a refuge is more related, for me, to Vermont's progressive nature," she said. "People in Vermont tend, in my experience, to live a little closer to the land and [are] willing to act on data."

A number of listeners wrote in with their own feelings of climate anxiety.

Heidi, from Salisbury, found herself less excited than usual to see the red-winged blackbirds return to her property this spring. "We didn't really have a winter this year, so there was no big building up anticipation for the arrival of spring and red-winged blackbirds," she wrote. "I think we are in for a long time of grief, anxiety and sadness as we are witness to this slow-motion train wreck which is the climate crisis."

Greenough, in Putney, wrote: "Everyday, I take action to lessen my consumption of energy and teach others to do the same. So my immense sadness is usually kept at bay. I grieve for our kin outside facing strange and unsurvivable conditions — for the species who cannot escape or adapt fast enough to changing conditions." Yet, she wrote, the planet is "still a beautiful one."

On Instagram, multiple users responded to a post from Vermont Publicabout climate anxiety. "I bought my kids a snowman kit for Christmas," one wrote. "It's still new in the box."

Others wrote: "Afraid that I took it for granted and it's all going to be gone even faster than I believed." "Scared that in 20 years there will be no ski or snowmobile season at all." "We moved here from Connecticut in November. Very grey, very hard." "We really need to have all hands on deck to solve this climate and biodiversity crisis."

Marya, a farmer in Strafford, wrote in an email, "It’s already a stressful job, as so many people know. Climate change has only exacerbated the constant stress."

At the end of the conversation, Mayhew Bergman shared a list of books for people experiencing solastalgia.

  • Vesper Flights, by Helen MacDonald — a gorgeous book about migration, change, nostalgia for old countrysides, and McDonald's own life. 
  • A Small Place, by Jamaica Kincaid — a fierce book about the way Kincaid was affected by the landscape and tourist economy of Antigua and the inherent problem of tourism.
  • Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov — a book on displacement and estrangement from his Russian boyhood. The most exquisitely written book I know. 
  • Hold Still, by Sally Mann — the famed photographer examines the beauty and cost of her deep Southern roots. 
  • Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward — a memoir where you can feel the heat and pressure of rural Louisiana pressing down on Ward and the boys she writes about.
  • The Lost Words, by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris — a look at words related to landscape that are disappearing from the imaginative play and lives of children.
  • Upstream, by Mary Oliver — a stunning collection of lyric essays, many about her connection to Provincetown and watching the world change. 
  • The Home Place by J. Drew Lanham — a memoir of place by famed ornithologist J. Drew Lanham. 
  • Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray — a memoir of Georgia's longleaf pine, family, and growing up in a junkyard.

The topic of this episode of Vermont Edition was inspired by an email from a listener named Laura, who requested a show on the psychological impacts of the warm winter and climate change.

Broadcast live on Tuesday, March 19, 2024, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or check us out on Instagram.

Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.