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Seasons in the City

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Events of the Boston University Spring 2013 term

I'm not sure what possessed me to stare at the sidewalk at that moment, but I did so just in time. A few more steps, and I might have stepped upon the butterfly that was crouched against the pavement, his wings spotted with various hues of brown that stood out against the pale gray-white cement. I stopped to give the insect time to fly or crawl away--he seemed to be in favor of crawling, but was having a bit of difficulty. The moderate breeze blowing down the street was at a right angle to the butterfly's intended destination--the relative safety of the nearest lawn, and his large wings were catching the wind like sails.

I knelt down and cupped my hand to see if I could keep the wind off the small creature, but my shadow frightened him even more, so I resigned myself to watching. After a little more stumbling and a climb over the curb, the butterfly found himself among the bright green grass. The small journey accomplished, I continued with my own--an excursion to the convenience store.

The store was about two blocks from my dorm, depending on how one counted, a walk that, even in the 90-degree heat of the day after the Summer Solstice, was no great task. Or at least, it wasn't that day. A few months before, at the beginning of the spring term, my walk to class one morning had been into the face of a wind that had blown falling snowflakes onto my breath-fogged glasses, half-blinding me. I sympathized with the butterfly about having a simple trip made difficult by the wind's direction.

Of course, the butterfly probably hadn't been in Boston during the winter snows, or at least I hopped he hadn't. I'd seen some of his monarch cousins winging their way across the Charles River during the fall, headed for Mexico and winter warmth. Of course, even in the depths of winter there were butterflies in Boston, but they were safely situated in the Museum of Science's Butterfly Garden. During December break, I'd visited the American Museum of Natural History's similar butterfly garden with my friend Erin, and realized that its popularity was surely as much for psychological reasons as educational ones--the tropical, humid space, full of lush plants and the flapping of colorful wings, was certainly a change from the New York winter outside!

The one downside of the butterfly garden, Erin and I decided, was that while the enclosed vivarium structure was set up we couldn't see the other exhibits in the Hall of Oceanic Birds that it occupies. In their own way, those exhibits also provided a mental escape to the South Seas. We spent a few moments staring at the large map of the Pacific Ocean that fills a wall near the gallery's entrance, showing the region's prevailing winds, just their names suggesting exciting places far away--"the Doldrums", "the Southeast Trades", "the Roaring Forties". The Pacific is the largest uninterrupted expanse of water on the surface of the Earth--as the map showed, it was possible to go from the Aleutians to the Antarctic and only hit a few small islands in-between.

The tropics are tropical and the poles polar because of the tilt of the Earth's axis of rotation. Half of the year, the northern hemisphere is pointed more directly at the sun than the southern, and during the other half of the year, the reverse is true. During a hemisphere's winter, these regions experience shorter days during which the sun is low in the sky, while the opposite hemisphere experiences long days when the sun climbs higher in the sky, closer to being directly overhead. This is most extreme at the north and south poles, which experience six months of total darkness and six months of continuous sunlight per year. Even during the polar summer, the sun remains relatively low in the sky and is never directly overhead. The regions near the equator, by contrast, receive about twelve hours of more-or-less direct sunlight year-round, keeping them warm year-round.

Places in the middle latitudes, like Boston and New York (or Queenstown and Melbourne) experience distinct seasons of more or less sunlight and correspondingly somewhat warmer or cooler temperatures. Simply by remaining at home, we make our own simulated trek through the latitudes as the year progresses, from below-zero to over 100 (or over 40 in Celsius) and back again. Of course, these changes in temperature don't bring with them parrots or penguins or palm trees or polar lichens, or any of the other sights people travel to the tropics or poles to witness, but the changes in nature brought about in the Northeast by the change of seasons are unique and beautiful in their own way, and I find that I notice them more acutely now than when I was younger.

Part of this, to be sure, is simply the increasing independence that comes with growing up--choosing appropriate clothing and footwear for the weather is one of the responsibilities of a college student, which makes paying at least some attention to the weather necessary for everyone. And certainly, for all the enviable energy young children have, being able to stop and notice small things is a benefit of growing up.

But I think the largest reason for my paying attention to the change of seasons is my knowledge of astronomy and the classes I have taken in it. Being in the habit of watching the sky exclusively for a few hours every Wednesday at the Boston University Colt Observatory and taking a peek on most other clear nights provides a constant awareness of the motion of the Earth along its orbit and the slow parade of seasonal constellations from night to night. Is that Orion already? Well then, it's clearly fall, if I'm seeing winter stars so early in the night! Is that Vega on the horizon? Then summer is on its way!

This past year at Boston University, I also happened to have a room that faced south, towards a highway. At Boston's latitude, the sun is never directly overhead in the south but always somewhere in the southern part of the sky. On winter days, this was quite useful--if I left my blinds open when I went to classes, I would return to a room comfortably toasty from several hours of sunlight streaming in from the sun, low in the southern sky. This astronomical quirk makes southern exposure a valuable bonus for real estate in the Northeastern states--but luckily, so far, BU has neglected to charge extra for rooms that possess it. (I hope the housing office isn't reading this...)

Looking up from reading on my bed (as I frequently did) throughout the spring term, I would notice the sun creeping higher and higher in the sky as the Spring Equinox and then the Summer Solstice approached. I'm sure that if I'd had the time and means to measure the position of shadows cast by fixed objects in my room, this, too, would have changed correspondingly over time.

The view out my south-facing window changed in more-apparent ways, too. In many ways, it was perfectly-designed for weather observation, apart from my not being able to remove the screens and so install a rain gauge. From the 15th floor, I looked out over many lower buildings on Cummington Mall, some of which had depressions in their roofs in which rain or snow visibly collected. The tops of tall trees at street level were visible between the buildings, as was a grassy slope surmounted by trees on the far side of the highway. When the winds blew strongly, I could even often hear the sound of the trees being whipped around ten stories below.

Boston really isn't that much farther north than my home on Long Island, but it snows noticeably more frequently--at home it snows about five times over the course of the winter, while in Boston, it snows every other week. I think this might have something to do with how Boston, while on the sea, isn't an island, and thus has water on one side instead of on three sides. Because most of the dorms and classrooms are fairly close together and most people can walk to class, we don't really have snow days at BU--but we do have inclement weather days for when things get really bad. We had one back in October when Hurricane Sandy hit, and in early February, we had another as a large nor'easter dropped 63 centimeters (almost 25 inches) of snow on the city.

Warren Towers is probably the best dorm to be in on an inclement weather day, because it has a dining hall, laundry room, and game room all inside. I spent most of the day drawing in my room. The light through my window was muted, and I couldn't see very far south as the snow swirled in the air. Something about the light made me feel like I was in a cave, even though I was 15 stories up--maybe it was like being in a snow cave on a mountain?

The snow from that nor'easter hung around on the rooftops visible from my window for quite a while, and when it was gone, other snow took its place. But eventually, the snow did melt and the air did warm. When I came back from Spring Break in March, the air was warm and the sun was shining brightly as I came back to campus. It wasn't the unusual 60-degree-warm spell that had greeted returning students the year before, but sweater weather with buds on the trees, a sign of a more normal, gradual, coming of spring. Slowly, the days grew longer and the sun out my window climbed higher. The Spring Equinox was on a Wednesday, and as the other club members finished preparing the telescopes, I talked to some guests who had come early to keep them entertained--"Do you know what today is? It's the Spring Equinox, the first day of spring. Today, everywhere on Earth experienced 12 hours of day and 12 hours of night. That's what 'equinox' means--equal night, because the hours of night and day are equal for the first time since December. And from now until the Summer Solstice in June, the days here in Boston will be longer than the nights and keep getting longer. And then, from June to September, they'll start to get shorter again until the Autumnal Equinox."

Just as the Solstice approached, the end of the Spring term did as well. The fountain in front of the College of Communications building was turned on and warm days brought students out to study on the lawn around it, and to walk on the Esplanade beside the Charles River. From the Gabel Museum in the College of Arts and Sciences building, the windows look directly across the street to a small park with two magnolia trees. Every Friday as I came in to work with the artifacts, the number of white buds on those trees multiplied, and the question of if they would be open by the next week became a weekly conversation topic among the volunteers. My friend Elizabeth, who was familiar with the sight of magnolias from her childhood in North Carolina, told us that magnolias were the first trees to bloom in spring.

Finally, those magnolias did open, and soon after, other trees all over campus did as well. It was beautiful, although my allergic nose enjoyed it far less than my eyes. Yuri's Night was rainy but pleasant, and my playlist was a big hit at BU's party. That was Friday, and the following weekend was just as nice--on Sunday, the sun set almost directly down Commonwealth Avenue, and turned the contrails of planes flying into and out of Logan Airport into brushstrokes of gold and pink. Above the sunset glow, a lovely crescent moon was rising, and I winked at it, thinking of Neil Armstrong.

The following day, April 15th, was Patriots' Day, Marathon Monday.

I looked at the moon a lot that week after the marathon bombings. As it grew closer to half-full, the stability and inevitability of the natural rhythm was comforting. There was definitely additional pressure as we opened the observatory for Public Night that Wednesday, a sense of duty to give something back to our fellow residents of Boston, even if it was just a few hours of free stargazing. Through our telescopes, the plains and craters of the moon were large and clear, and I pointed them out to the visitors, explaining that the moon was a world like the Earth, with mountains and valleys.

The moon became full and then shrunk again, and the magnolias continued to bloom, joined now by the green leaves of other trees. A shaded bench beneath a tree outside the Admissions Building was my chosen place to study during the weekend before the week of final exams. I finished finals and came home for a week before returning to campus to do research during Summer Session 1. As May turned to June, it was clear that summer was upon us--the magnolias were all gone, replaced by lush, green leaves that provided much-needed shade as the temperature climbed.

The brownstone dorm where I lived for Summer Session, like most BU dorms, had no air conditioning, but the basement was finished and somewhat cooler than the rest of the building. On the very hottest days, all of the girls living there would bring our portable fans down to the waiting area outside the laundry room and study or work on our laptops there. Sometimes our conversations were interrupted by the sound of a summer thunderstorm overhead. When it wasn't quite so hot, I walked to the Storrow Lagoon with a picnic lunch and a book and spent an enjoyable afternoon reading and alternatively watching the clouds, the sailboats on the Charles River, and the children climbing trees nearby.

And that was how I'd come to reach the summer solstice, to a day that felt as tropical as the inside of the butterfly garden had six months before, in the chill of winter.