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Op-ed

Learning to find beauty in the changing climate | GUEST COMMENTARY

FILE - Children examine the blossoms on a tree in Baltimore's Druid Hill Park during a stretch of unseasonably warm early spring weather.

When I was growing up on the streets of west Baltimore — where there are no trees to climb — we crawled through dumpsters for fun. In autumn and winter, when the air was crisp and still, we rolled up our sleeves and pushed forward.

My father caught me once. Suspended waist-deep in filth, I hadn’t heard the car engine as I closely examined what looked to be a perfectly-good box of Captain Crunch. The sound of “Kenny!” shouted from the driver’s side window, shot through me like a slap.

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A year later we moved to a tiny house on a tree-lined street in the county. It was a revelation. There was a creek behind our house that froze over in winter, where little boys like me rolled up their sleeves and pushed a small black disk around the ice as their parents watched nervously from the edge — wrapped in flannels, whispering silent prayers into their steaming cups.

In the spring, I discovered that we had a peach tree. A peach tree! As the ice and rock of winter receded, and the creek melted, the tree turned from gray to brown, to green and cotton candy pink, before its brave little flowers surrendered their watch to the fuzzy, agate-colored buds that would soon be peaches.

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Every morning from July to September, I’d kick off the covers and race out into the backyard. Tree-ripened peaches are the best, you know, if you catch them at just the right moment. Too early, and they’ll hurt your tummy; too late, and you risk losing them to the worms, who, it turns out, are waiting too. These weren’t the unyielding, pasty, store-bought peaches I’d known. These peaches were the color of a late summer sun, and you tasted them with your whole body: blossom scented, plump, tart and sticky; their rose-flavored syrup running down your arm.

It’s tough to grow peaches in Maryland now. Since the beginning of the 2000s, it rarely gets cold enough, and Maryland’s punishing heat waves sap the energy of these delicate trees. Without stretches of sustained, brisk weather, peach trees bloom late or not at all: No blooms, no peaches. According to NOAA, Maryland’s average temperature has risen by 2.5 degrees since the beginning of the 20th century, and is projected to increase. Due to global warming, Marylanders will have to learn to live with more heat waves, worsening floods and warmer winters.

Farmers will tell you that one of their biggest fears is a “false spring,” when an unseasonably warm February causes plants to bloom, and then is interrupted by a sudden freeze in March. This very thing decimated the blueberry and peach crops of North Carolina and Georgia in 2017. Climate change is making it tough to grow most things these days.

According to the USDA, “In 2012, Michigan lost 90% of its tart cherry crop due to warm March temperatures and subsequent freezes in April.” Heavy rainfall in Illinois severely reduced its 2015 pumpkin harvest. Perhaps you remember the “Great Pumpkin Shortage” that year? Droughts in Washington State are killing wheat, as deep-freezes in Texas slash citrus yields. Even livestock and fisheries are suffering.

Experts say things will get worse before they get better. Even if we all join hands, look up to the heavens, and swear to completely stop fossil fuel emissions tomorrow, the best we can hope for is better conditions for our grandchildren.

In the face of this climate inevitability, we will all need to make personal adjustments. We’ll have to learn to be more patient, and willing to make sacrifices. No longer an impulsive child, I’ve learned to manage my expectations: No more frozen creeks in Woodlawn, fewer gas-guzzling family drives to Atlanta, store-bought peaches.

Learning to find small satisfactions where we can is the key to life during climate change — as when an expected thing, like a sunset, is unexpectedly beautiful. As an adult, I know I’ll be just fine if I never see another peach tree bloom in Maryland again. I realize now that there are better places for it to grow.

Don’t get me wrong. I haven’t surrendered or become complacent. I believe we should do all we can to combat climate change, but I don’t see the point in raging “against the dying of the light” when that time has passed. I must find beauty in the here and now. I will take my small satisfactions where I find them: Flip-flops at Christmas; snowless Beltway commutes; a picnic on a warm, sunny day in January.

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K. Ward Cummings (kwardcummings@gmail.com) is a former senior congressional staffer and the author of “The Capitol Hill Playbook” (2nd Edition), written under the pen name Nicholas Balthazar.


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