Political commentators are using a word I had to look up – exogenous; as in “the election could be decided by an exogenous event.” The best I can tell, an exogenous event is an act of God, or at least something not caused directly by the candidate.
The concept is a little wooly, though. It rarely exists in pure form, but rather in degrees. Besides that, one person’s exogeny is another’s endogeny. For example, some people see 9/11 as purely exogenous, i.e., without provocation. Others see it as endogenous, i.e., the predictable outcome of years of mistaken Middle East policy. In fact it was both.
There has never been a time when you could know when the next exogenous event would happen and what its nature would be, but these days seem especially unpredictable. Take the weather, for example.
The lake down below the porch where I’m sitting thawed weeks earlier than usual. I don’t remember exactly, but I think it was in March.
In early April, I got an email from the marina where I keep the pontoon boat. They had taken it out of winter storage and removed the shrink wrap. It had been serviced and was ready to launch. I was to phone them when I wanted it put it in the water. Then I’d go down and put the canvas cover on it. I didn’t rush. The ice had thawed, but it was still too chilly to enjoy going out, even if just for a little cruise.
And swimming would be out of the question for a long while yet. Around that time, a fisherman had fallen out of his canoe about fifty yards from shore. He was wearing a life jacket, but he was found washed up on the shore, dead, reportedly of hypothermia.
On April 23, I happened to pass by the marina and discovered the boat bobbing in its slip, even though I hadn’t yet asked them to put it in the water. I rushed back home and got its canvas cover. Ann had worked on it over the winter – like an 18th century mariner mending sails during a lull at sea – applying patches, hand-sewing tears in seams, and finally laying on duck-tape reinforcement.
The repairs had made the cover a little smaller, so I couldn’t snap it all the way around. I’m hoping it will stretch a little with use, the way a waistband will do sometimes. Even if it had been as big as when it was new, I would’ve had a hard time with the snaps. It was cold, and you can’t work those things with gloves on. I did the best I could, wondering all the while about why I was fooling around with my boat when the weather was that cold.
As I was leaving the dock, a family that included two little girls and a Labrador retriever pulled up in an SUV and began unloading gear. I thought the dog would enjoy being on the water – in it, even – but it didn’t seem welcoming to people. We chatted for a bit, and I learned that it was their belief that any day without ice on the lake was a good day to get in their boat and go to their camp. It made me feel like I’m from away. (I am from away, but sometimes I forget that..)
The next day it snowed. A pleasure boat with an inch or two of snow on it seems like some kind of mistake. But snow and cold were not the whole story. Far from it. On May 12, the temperature reached 81. I don’t know if that’s a record, but it occasioned a lot of head-shaking comment. “How about this weather, huh?” On that day and a few others, people wanted to believe that spring had come early. It hadn’t. We were just being teased. The lilacs began budding even as every few days the overnight low temperature was below freezing. On May 15, it snowed again. On June 8, snow fell at elevations above 3000 feet.
But it had been a relatively warm winter. During what the fuel-oil companies call the “heating season” (September through April), the average temperature was 17% warmer than in 2014-15. There were only eleven days when it was below zero. And so little snow fell, Ann and I did not use our season passes to the Olympic cross-country ski venue a single time. (I haven’t yet gotten around to inquiring about a rain check.)
This pattern that wasn’t a pattern stirred feelings of unease; something was wrong.
On the days when it wasn’t snowing or freezing, we started on yard work.
We (mostly Ann and our friend and man of all work, John) emptied the six compost bins, five of which had been cooking undisturbed for years. I don’t know why turning garbage and grass and such into dirt should be satisfying, but it is. Quite so.
John spread the compost in one lane of the little-traveled lane between the back of the house and the cemetery, mulched it with the lawnmower, then piled it in the garage to keep it dry until we applied it to flower beds.
On the first notably warm day, Ann and I made a run to the nursery/gardening supply outfit. It has three long greenhouses full of plants, most resplendent in blooms. It was like the opening day of trout season; people were excited. They moved quickly, flitting from one display table to the next like hummingbirds, and always on the lookout for a cart that wasn’t in use, and scrambling as if time was about to be called. A happy, short-lived event, that would have made a fine opening scene of an opera. More immediately, it would have been meet and right to have a string quartet performing sprightly airs among the snapdragons and begonias.
Back home, we unloaded the early-spring swag from the Suburban, now rusted out and suffering from age-related power-steering problems and consequently just right for horticulture service, and set to work. We hung the porch-rail flower boxes, filled them with our homemade dirt, and planted thirty-one blooming geraniums. I say they are scarlet; Ann says, cerise; in either case, they are as bright and cheerful as a Burpee catalog cover. Visiting-cousin Jay and I marched the porch swing ceremonially from the basement to the front of the house and hung it as the assembled family applauded. All fine, uplifting spring work. But we did it with an eye on the weather, lest we get interrupted by a sudden return to something more seasonal and less pleasant.
One Sunday afternoon during this period Ann woke me from a nap to report having seen a pair of scarlet tanagers in the rhododendron. They were the first she’s ever seen. I still haven’t seen one, but last year I saw an indigo bunting, and she didn’t. (Not that we’re competitive about such things.) We’re guessing that working with the compost exposed some insects, and the tanagers stopped in to enjoy a bite to eat. They don’t eat seeds, which is why we’d never seen one at the feeders.
Anyway, we aren’t seeing many of the birds that do eat seeds – just a couple of blue jays and an occasional chickadee or sparrow. And not a single one of those goofy nuthatches. I’ve dumped the contents and reloaded different offerings several times. Nothing doing. A shunned bird feeder is a pitiful sight, suggesting Keats’ “The sedge is withered from the lake, and no birds sing,” with the hammer-on-anvil beats of the last three syllables sounding – faintly – Faulkner’s “last ding-dong of doom.”
I’ve been hearing woodpeckers, but I haven’t seen any yet. I hope they do show up one of these days. The downy and the hairy woodpeckers are fetching in a way that is unusual among birds; they sort of ask to be petted the way kittens do.
Once or twice, I’ve heard the mournful cry of loons passing overhead, intensifying the grayness of already gray days. I think loons may be subject to some innate command to restrict their crying to bleak weather.
Happy, sunshine singing is the province of cardinals and mockingbirds. Geese setting off in the fall for some warm winter camp make sounds that speak of adventure travel like the lonesome train whistle of story and song.
I hold with those who understand the unusual ups and downs of our weather and associated environmental changes to be mostly human-caused climate change (endogeny); and only slightly a normal fluctuation (exogeny). That’s alarming.
At this time of year excerpts of commencement addresses appear in newspapers. I’ve been reading some to see what kind of advice graduating students are getting. These are peculiar times; we face threats that are partially or entirely unprecedented. Besides climate change, we’re having a Presidential election in which both candidates are disfavored by a majority of Americans. We live with new diseases that are impervious to antibiotics. It is becoming ever more difficult for people of limited means to work their way to a more comfortable state. No place in the world is safe from terrorist violence. There is no end in sight for what is already the longest period in American history when American troops are in combat (and mostly against nonstate entities). World population is moving inexorably toward more than the planet can support.
It would seem that this year’s commencement addresses would include reflections on these peculiar conditions of our time as well as on the hateful divisions that threaten to destroy us, but the bits and pieces of speeches that I’ve read mostly offer tired clichés and bad advice. So, for my column in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, I wrote my own commencement address. I don’t go at current issues directly, but the above list of horribles does play in the background.