The series of loud, explosive booms came rolling through the night. A visceral, concussive sound, as much roar as clap. It was early-evening, just after supper, and the noise startled my wife who’d been working on one of the bead necklaces she regularly fashions.
“What was that!” she demanded, springing from her chair. Chunks of turquoise and fire coral, along with pieces of sterling silver and pale carved bone were scattered onto the floor.
“Sounded like thunder to me,” I said.
By then she had pulled the drapes aside and was peering into the darkness. “Thunder? How can that be? It’s January!”
Before I could reply a blue-white flash of lightning lit up the night — and an instant later, an even louder thunder boom seemed to shake the house.
“Huh,” my wife said. “Guess you were right.”
I tried not to let my surprise at her admission show.
The truth is, a thunderstorm during this first month of the new year isn’t all that uncommon—even though we Buckeyes like to think of January as Ohio’s version of the Great White North. And yes, we do have our occasional pseudo-arctic days. Whole weeks of ‘em, in fact. Plus about one year in every four, such bitter cold and snowy weather prevails throughout the entire month.
But they’re not the norm. And just about as often, instead of an abnormally cold January, we have one that’s abnormally mild. Few if any snows. No icicles along the eaves. Not many nights below freezing, let alone extended periods of bone-numbing sub-zero temperatures.
Instead, we’re quite likely to have thunderstorms and rain. Which can begat other forms of seasonal weirdness. For example, I have a forsythia beside the driveway which, during the decade I’ve lived here, has felt inspired break out in cheery yellow blooms during at least three different Januarys. And the last time around, it was joined by several dozen crocus I’d planted on a nearby bankside slope.
On these mild-weather interregnums, phalanxes of red-breasted robins desert their deep-woods thickets to flood the yard—bobbing and dashing, scratching about the duff, listening intently with heads cocked to the side…and sometimes, I swear, finding a wigging worm or grub or lesser insectile tidbit which they hastily and heartily devour.
Sparrows sing, Carolina wrens bubble over with joy, and even the gaudy cardinals manage to whistle with extra vigor.
I’ve actually caught more than one smallmouth bass from the river when the mildness of a January day became so irresistible that I blew the dust off my spinning rig leaning by the door, made my way down the rocky bank, and began casting—just to work the fishing urge out of my system, with no real expectations. Those mid-winter bass didn’t jump, and their fight lacked the usual pizzaz. But I can’t begin to tell you how great they felt tugging on the end of my 4-pound test monofilament.
So rain and thunderstorms in January aren’t really an anomaly but rather the other side of the normalcy coin. And before you go blaming it on global warming, know that this has been the case for decades, even centuries.
My Grandfather Williams, who was born in 1879, had an old country saying about this very phenomenon. “A summerish January means a winterish spring,” he’d tell me, usually before adding another bit of folkloric wisdom: “And a January spring is worth nothing!”
I can assure you Grandpa came by that quote from his father, who doubtless learned it from my Great-Great-Grandfather, who was taught it by…well, who knows how many generations back the linage goes. The point is that mild Januarys were nothing new, and not news to folks who lived close to the earth. Not for a long, long time.
The real question is, will it last? Is this recent spell of mild weather temporary or permanent? Which is what my wife wanted to know as she scrabbled about picking up her fallen beads.
‘Well,” I said, “I don’t think we can characterize this as a January thaw. The oldtimers all say a genuine January thaw can’t come before the twentieth of the month. Plus it has to follow weeks of harsh weather. A relief from the suffering. And that’s just not been the case.”
“So what’s happening then?” she asked.
“I dunno,” I answered honestly. “According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, our winter will be mild and wet — or mild and dry. We’re right on their map’s dividing line.”
She glanced upward toward the sound of rain pounding on the roof. “Sounds like mild and wet to me. You believe ‘em?”
I shrugged. “Lacking a handy ol’ graybeard who lives in a cave and knows how to read moon stones and goose bones, they’re about the closest thing to a weather oracle. But the only way we’ll know for sure is to wait and see.”
“Hmmm,” my wife said, not sounding happy with my answer. She gave me a speculative look. “Speaking of moon stones and goose bones, I need you to move the couch…I think some of my turquoise rolled underneath.”
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org