Little Women & Climate Change

· 17 min read ·

Reporting to you live as we pass through Topeka, Kansas — the last day of our journey to Colorado!

On the rainy night of December 26th, 2019, we went to see Little Women at the charming Red River Theater in downtown Concord. Little Women is one of those movies that I’m aware of in a way that stretches back to the early days of my childhood; I know I’ve seen the original black and white movie at least once, and the 1990’s remake many times with my sisters. Odd lines like Jo March’s “Christopher Columbus!” have stuck with me throughout the years … so powerful in their hold on my imagination that the lines have endured long past the point where I could have attributed them to any kind of source.

Despite an intense love for literature, I still haven’t read the original Louisa May Alcott book. I intend to change that in the near future as Sheila & I venture westward with a copy stowed in the passenger seat. We hope to read the book to each other in the coming days. 🤓

It’s interesting the way that we can draw strong associations between people we’ve never met, and particularly people who we could never have met. One has only to look to the strong veneration of figures like George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr, Susan B. Anthony, etc … in the United States to understand such a thing. One such figure in my own life is Ralph Waldo Emerson; like Louisa May Alcott, a staple in the Transcendentalist movement that emerged from Concord, MA at a critical time in the history of our nation — the American Civil War. That the works of Alcott, Thoreau, and Emerson have continued to inspire millions speaks to both the literary strengths of these icons, as well as the resonant nature of their vision of an America in which a certain boisterous love for nature reigns supreme.

Cutting your hair is always traumatic.
Cutting your hair is always traumatic.

I was hesitant to see the Little Women reboot — and for a reason that is probably a little outside the realm most would expect. You see, I love the winter. Like, really, really love the winter. The lower the thermometer drops, the happier I get … this despite the fact that I have terrible circulation. And I knew that I would see something that pains me up there on the big screen — the images of snowy New England in the 1860’s, when something like Winter still existed in an appreciable kind of way in Massachusetts. The movie, as expected, delivered these adorable winter scenes in quick succession. I thought the cast was excellent, and the fresh take on a familiar classic was extremely enjoyable. Yet those scenes of winter haunted me. I thought of the movie, and those scenes of winter in Concord, Massachusetts, again and again in the ensuing weeks, and particularly when my brother-in-law exclaimed his surprise when he came to say goodbye to Sheila and I as we left to move to Colorado — “you still have snow here?! There’s nothing but a dusting left in Massachusetts!”

Times sure have changed, it seems, and nowhere has the change been more evident than in the formerly White Mountains of New Hampshire, and the mountainous passes separating New Hampshire from Vermont, and Vermont from New York — the very roads we’ve passed through on our journey, with rain in January.

A Little History From Little Women’s Publication To Now

Little Women was published in two volumes back to back in 1868 and 1869. That was 151 years ago. Less than a decade beforehand, the Confederate Army had suffered immensely at the hands of that almighty arbiter of history — the weather. In 1861, the Confederates were forced out of Arkansas following a disastrous series of battles that completely hinged on snowstorms in February and March in Bentonville. Looking at the Union success in these battles without considering the crucial factor that weather played as the dueling armies tried to flank each other in harsh wintry conditions, one might surmise that such conditions were aberrant; that it was mere lucky chance, but looking at the weather history for Arkansas and Missouri over the same time period, it’s only in recent decades that the annual snowfall there has declined. Underestimating the weather has had a hand in determining many of the victors in history. Looking at the average temperature for Bentonville over the next few weeks, it looks to be in the mid 40’s and raining — a theme, as you will see. 1

Back then, New England was still infamous for its harsh and snowy winters. Louisa May Alcott regularly ice-skated on Walden Pond, where Thoreau would write his now-famous Transcendentalist anthem. Looking at the rather balmy weather forecast for Walden Pond, with late January temps hovering in the mid 40’s, one rather doubts that there are many ice skaters there this year. Indeed, after having been savaged by rain over the past few days, there’s little snow remaining even 60 miles north in Concord, NH. In watching Little Women, I was reminded of the childlike excitement that being in snow elicits in people, as the March’s frolic and play in a winter wonderland. Getting “one last chance” at a truly New England winter was one of the many reasons I was glad for the time that we were able to spend with Sheila’s family (as you might remember from my mid-Fall post, “We Hate The Word Busy”). The weather became the source of my only disappointment in our time there.

During the Fall, Mr. Murray uncovered a photo of Sheila’s grandfather (on her mom’s side), participating in a ski jump competition in Bear Mountain State Park in New York — just a few miles north from where I spent most of my formative childhood years. This photo, dated from either the late 1940’s or early 1950’s, depicts a quintessential winter scene on an early ski mountain. Bear Mountain is blanketed in snow (in early December, mind you), and without the use of any kind of snow gun (which would have just been invented in the early 1950’s). I’ve included the picture of the pamphlet (now nearly 75 years old) at the end of this post.

Think that climate change wasn’t already affecting the area surrounding Bear Mountain in the 1950’s (a historically rosy time period in the post-WW2 nation)? If only that were the case. A “mere” 75 years after the publication of Little Women, and 30 years prior to the skiing event, downstate New York was already suffering from the results of climate change, though few at the time would have known that was the case. Rockland Lake, 15 miles south of Bear Mountain saw its last batch of ice delivered to New York City in the late 1920’s. Though it seems crazy now, then Rockland Lake was known as “The Icehouse of New York City,” supplying nearly all of the city’s ice; the industry employed thousands of people up and down the Hudson River and allowed for communities to develop and re-nourish in an area of New York that had previously been solely dedicated to mining (itself already a failed industry in New York by 1900).

Would you believe that from the early 1800’s through the 1920’s, ice as an industry was worth millions of dollars (each million then worth more than 30 million in today’s money!), with ice stored year-round at facilities like the one at Rockland Lake? Unfortunately, real ice couldn’t compete with the one-two punch presented by artificial ice and rising temps, which had led to less and less in the way of profits over the years. Indeed, my own great-grandfather (on my dad’s side), himself newly an immigrant to New York City from Italy, had to go out and find a new job when the ice industry failed, as he was originally employed as an iceman (the guy delivering the ice to people’s homes once it had been brought from Rockland Lake to the city). 2

From my great-grandfather to Sheila’s grandfather, you can see how even over a relatively short period of time, the climate in southern New York had demonstrably warmed. Cottages, mansions, and summer homes dotted the lower Hudson Valley’s landscape, and many of the contemporary larger-than-life figures from New York City in that time period owned what would then have been called summer homes in Rockland County, including Charlie Chaplin 3 — specifically because the winter in there would have been considered too harsh. Indeed, looking at “Christmas in Connecticut,” an old black-and-white holiday film set just across the Hudson River in (you guessed it) Connecticut, it would seem it wasn’t unreasonable for snow to be on the ground in this region from late November through April. 4

230 miles north of Bear Mountain sits Keene, New York — the heart of the Adirondacks. Upstate New York has an enormously consequential early history. 5 Keene sits just east of Lake Placid, host to the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. Nearly 40 years ago today, the Olympic torch landed in Langley, Virginia 6 en route to the Olympic torch lighting in the Adirondacks, amidst heavy snowfall in Virginia. On Friday January 31st, the actual 40 year anniversary, it looks like it’s going to be 46 degrees in Langley. Yikes.

But back to Keene. The first edition of the Adirondack Rock climber’s guide to climbing in the Adirondacks was published in 2008; in the introduction, the author talks about how historically the area has snow on the ground well into May. Less than 10 years later in 2013, when I first visited the Adirondacks to climb in early May, it was 70 degrees outside and the snow had long since vanished. My parents visited the area just a few weeks ago in January 2020. Light dusting of snow, that’s all … I’m guessing the snow won’t survive till May again.

My intent in documenting these examples and stories is to set forth various climate precedents and to contrast them with the climate previously enjoyed in the Northeast, from the birth of our nation through industrialization, which Louisa May Alcott would have seen only the very beginnings of. The point is that places like upstate New York, many areas of New England, and the new lands of the country’s northern frontier enjoyed their rugged reputation. They viewed the challenge of living there as part of the joys of being free. It used to snow regularly even in seaside areas like Boston, New York & Chicago — do you think the HBO miniseries on John Adams would have started with snow in Boston, otherwise?

Being a devout winter lover myself, I’ve chased down these facts and stories throughout the years. During my time in New Hampshire, I came to learn more and more about the people on the other side of the climate change. Mostly, I finally realized why more people aren’t concerned with climate change … they like the change. At the Celtic Night that Sheila detailed in “Finding Community in Concord,” it was pouring outside in late November with the temperate hovering around 36 degrees. What would have been an epic snowstorm only a few years before had turned into a sleeting torrent … but we heard a man turn to his friend and say, laughingly, “better Fall than Winter, right?!” Buffered by the adverse affects in the summertime by an absolute refusal to leave any kind of air conditioned environment, a certain kind of masochist can indeed learn to enjoy slightly warmer winter weather if it means not having to snow blow or shovel 7 . This, even as Russia continues to support the USSR-era stance on climate change — which is that their massively underpopulated Siberian territory will soon be capable of supporting settlers, allowing them to challenge the US’s historical dominance in grain production.

This was surprising to me especially because I naively assumed that the people living in places like New Hampshire and Maine lived there for the seasons. Probably I was influenced in this line of thinking by one of my close friends from college, Jon Doty, a man who couldn’t have been more intent with leaving Boston as soon as possible to return to Maine and the winters that he so clearly loved; Jon’s now a forester in Maine and told me last year how the forestry industry there has struggled to work now that the ground isn’t consistently frozen for four months out of the year. The winter was their time to quickly move across otherwise impassable terrain, and now that’s not a surefire thing anymore.

Learning more about people who don’t love winter regardless of where they live helped me to understand that not everybody wants to get up and move just because parts of the year aren’t their favorite. It makes sense that if you’re cold averse, the less time you spend in sub-freezing conditions, the happier you are. This highlights a major disconnect between the environment that people live in versus the weather. Now that people are less reliant on their land and the vagaries of the seasons, not only do they experience a disassociation between the weather and their lives, but it brings out resentment in them; definitely understandable, I would say, if the prevailing expectation is that you have to be at work no matter what sort of conditions exist outside. In a time period where snow meant that activity ceased, appreciating the break that snow brought would have been quite a bit easier.

Indeed, as we drive across the Midwest I can understand how those that work the land, in particular, feel like the beneficiaries of weather where the average temperature even in the heart of winter now rarely stays below freezing during the day. Changing the Great Plains from a wintry tundra to a more manageable grassland probably seems quite palatable. There’s also the matter of education; even in areas where talk of climate change occurs frequently and people are well informed, we as citizens of the United States tend to underestimate just how much the average temperature has already risen. I believe this is the result of the conversational mismatch between the common science discussion — which occurs in degrees Celsius — and the Fahrenheit scale that we’ve been raised with. Understanding that an average temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius already spells the difference between rain or snow, that we’re well past that already, and that most of us live in an area where we’re going to see far more than the average in the way of temperature swings, helps people to understand how they’re negatively affected.

But Wait, There’s Still Hope

Seriously. There’s hope for us all and there are things that everybody can do to contribute. Sheila’s mom loved the saying “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted;” similarly, with climate change, every little thing we do to minimize our own environmental footprint goes a long way.

Sheila and I listened to a great podcast recently on Sophia Bush’s “Work in Progress” with Dr. Zach Bush. It was a truly inspirational update on how we can change both our own and popular social thinking on how to contribute to mitigating the climate crisis. One of the biggest takeaways? Get plants. If you can’t plant something outside, buy a mint plant. Maybe get a couple. Cultivate life! Preventative care is the overarching message he prescribes to the American public — by using food as medicine, which is something that we can all incorporate into our own lives.

Other things you can do?

  • If you live in the city, see if you can plant a rooftop garden. Plants on a roof can drastically reduce the urban heat bubble effect, and have coined the phrase “urban oases” for this very reason. If you can’t work with your building owners to have a rooftop garden, or your roof isn’t flat, there are so many other ways to contribute; indoor plants are just one way. Community gardens are another!
  • Participate in a compost program. Many cities have them now, and industrial composts can often take things like cardboard and paper towels that a private compost of your own wouldn’t be able to process.
  • In general, thinking about where things go when you throw them out / flush a toilet helps you to realize just how much you throw out / flush. It’s gotta go somewhere, and odds are you wouldn’t want to be where it goes. Reduce the amount that you contribute to landfill usage by buying unpackaged goods. This should save you money in the end as well!
  • Make heavy use of farmer’s markets / CSAs. Dr. Zach Bush made a great point that getting to know the producers of the food that you eat helps you to contextualize how important that process is, and gives you a deeper connection to the land and to your community. Make food, and your relationship to it, more communal by supporting local farms whenever possible, and particularly those farms that are sustainably growing their animals / produce. Sheila and I had an amazing winter CSA while living in Boston, and that CSA was organized by the “fast food truck” chain, Clover. There are options everywhere. Remember the old adage “you are what you eat?” The USA has fallen prey to the protein obsession made famous by the very same people selling protein and supplements to the American public — and more and more people suffer from indigestion, bloating, and discomfort following workouts and meals. Turns out that it’s easy to get your daily protein needs by just eating a varied diet, and that fresh food contains tons of vitamins and minerals that quickly leech out the food. Eating fresh food helps!
  • Have people over for dinner, or eat more with your roommates. Make eating a social activity, and slow yourself down in the process. We eat too quickly, which also tends to contribute to indigestion and overeating. Enjoying the company of the people you’re with helps to make every meal special and slow down your overall pace of eating, which helps you to properly digest your food and receive the “I’m full!” signal from your stomach, preventing overeating and providing you with valuable leftovers.
  • Curb retail therapy and consumption. A brisk walk outside — even in the depths of winter — can boost your mood, positively influence your microbiome, and bolster your immune system. In the long run, you’ll save money and lessen the global “need” for container ships, “Made in China”, and all of the oil it took both to make what you’re buying and to transport it to you.
  • Eat less meat — I know, not a very popular statement, but the agricultural industry has responded to the USA’s crazy demand for beef in particular, and curbing the demand for beef would help immeasurably since cattle produce a shocking quantity of methane (itself even more harmful than carbon dioxide), overgraze (for free) on public land, leading to erosion and topsoil destruction, and in general require enormous swathes of land to exist purely for animals that are only going to be inhumanely slaughtered. It’s great to enjoy a steak if you’re supporting a local farm; it’s really harmful to eat the result of industrialized farming that’s been pumped full of hormones. Again, the agricultural industry is only trying to give the American people what they want — if more people wanted less meat and less beef in particular, more of that land could be used towards other less destructive purposes.

So there’s plenty that we all can do to contribute towards lessening the effects of climate change, and I’ll leave you with what Sheila and I are discussing as we move across now-rainy Kansas. Certainly, we’ve benefited on this drive in particular from the effects of climate change. In Louisa May Alcott’s day, to take the route that we have through the North would have been foolhardy at best and probably life-threatening at worst. One hundred years ago, it would have been ill-advised, and a more southern route practically mandatory.

Now we’re talking about how people can benefit from being more mindful of what each season means for ourselves and our bodies. Instead of just working every day and giving in to the easy structure that kind of routine represents, paying more attention to the change in seasons can make for some extremely satisfying meals and drinks that help your body to cope with extreme temperatures. Soups made of root vegetable broth in the winters can be an excellent source of lasting warmth, as can teas and hot cocoa. Eating cooling vegetables like zucchini and cucumbers in the summer can help your body stay crucially hydrated and cool you. In general, getting reacquainted with the seasons can help you to understand your body in a more intuitive way, instead of trying to expect that each day will be some climate-controlled norm.

There’s so much that this planet has to offer and we’re alive at a truly pivotal point in the shared history of humanity. Remember that you can start making positive changes today, and that the snowball effect of responsible consumption could quickly reverse many of the climate based issues that we face.

Bear Mountain, early December, circa 1950 — must have been a good year for snow!
Bear Mountain, early December, circa 1950 — must have been a good year for snow!

  1. Think extreme weather in the Midwest is weird? Hundreds of miles north of Bentonville lies the sleepy town of Decatur, Illinois, which we drove through. It was near there that Abe Lincoln’s family moved to in 1830, just in time to be part of the “Winter of Deep Snow,” during which it started snowing in Illinois on December 20th and by all accounts the snow did not stop for several weeks. Contemporary accounts estimate that the entire state may have received a minimum of three to four feet of snowfall in that one snowstorm alone. When we arrived to Chicago the other day, we were greeted by a slight dusting on the ground and just a bit of ice on Lake Michigan.

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  2. My mom and dad have told me many times that the traditional iceman’s breakfast was a raw egg and a shot of brandy mixed with milk. 😮

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  3. Perhaps Charlie Chaplin’s love for the area was impressed upon his then-wife Paulette Goddard, who later re-married Burgess Meredith … who founded Pomona, the village in Rockland County where I spent most of my childhood. Seems like too much of a coincidence otherwise!

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  4. For most of my childhood, it consistently snowed in this area at least once in October, and there were several years where it snowed on Thanksgiving. Despite being fairly far south in New York, we enjoyed quite a few White Christmas’s, and several years patches of snow lasted in our yard and in our cul-de-sac into May.

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  5. The capture of Fort Ticonderoga by Benedict Arnold, Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys probably one of the single most pivotal events in the early years of the Revolutionary War. The cannons captured at Ticonderoga were dragged all the way to Boston by Henry Knox on the orders of George Washington, and were used to force the British to abandon Boston Harbor … which they had had on lockdown since the Boston Massacre. Talk about a chain of events!

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  6. Think that snow in Virginia is weird? The Chesapeake Bay area averages 5 inches of snow a year — well below the national average of 28 inches per year. But we’ve been tracking the weather for only a little over 100 years, and that average is largely biased towards more recent years with more consistent data from the National Weather Service. Just 23 miles from Langley sits George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate — which is where the original founding father was on December 12th 1799, working outside all day in a snowstorm. He fell ill after not changing for dinner because he had a guests waiting on him and was late already due to the snow. He died two days later. 😢

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  7. My first job was as a snow shoveler. There was a “Snow Shoveler’s Union” in our local paper in Rockland County, and I made a few hundred bucks shoveling snow as a 10 or 11-year-old. That was an astronomical sum for somebody of that age, and the pride that I experienced in making it for myself was matched by the sheer fact that every snow storm meant I had an excuse to get out there and enjoy my trade! Special thanks to my dad, who acted not only as chauffeur but also as chief negotiator for the princely sums I was apparently charging.

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Adventure travel blog by James Simone & Sheila Murray. Travel along with them on their backpacking trip(s) as they actively explore the American West, Europe and beyond:

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