Weather in the American Midwest

Seasons in the Midwest are a binary. You go from winter with subzero overnights and sub-freezing days, into summer, with highs over 90 and humidity over 80, sometimes in as little as a week. Even in years when the temperature moderates for a month or two between seasons, strong winds make the cold part feel colder and the humidity makes the warm part feel hotter. If you haven’t grown up with humidity, you can’t understand. If you have, you’re nodding.

This always led to–with me, and I think with many Midwesterners–a sort of double Seasonal Affective Disorder. January and February are so nasty that you regularly take your life and your insurance premiums in your hands when you try to drive somewhere. Sometimes–at least once per winter, unless the year is extraordinary–you’re literally stuck in your house. When, like I was for a few years, you’re a SAHP to a small child, it’s inexcusable to take the risk of going out, sometimes for a week at a time. You watch the icicles, watch the roads, watch the reports, and judge your desperation. You read Little House in the Big Woods and wonder how Ma did it. Playing in the snow only gets you so far. Eventually you decide you’d better get orange juice and TP before the next big storm hits, and you go out, and it scares the dickens out of you, and you go home penitent and ready to hunker till spring.

Then summer comes, usually in May. It’s instantly blazing hot–say over 90F with humidity over 80%–and for about a week you bask. You get a bit of a tan. You break out your flip flops and shorts. Life is good.

And then it goes on, and on, and on until October. Nobody sleeps well. The air conditioning runs literally nonstop, all day and well into the night (just like the furnace ran in the winter–don’t you dare imagine open windows are an option, in the Midwest). Your underwear is perpetually soggy. If you try to work in the garden, you come in feeling ill. Your garden wilts. You can’t afford to keep it properly watered. And the rain doesn’t come, and doesn’t come, and doesn’t come.

Then there are the storms. In the Midwest they come in great rolling billows, with tarnished skies, dramatic flashes of lightning, and rolls of thunder that shake the house. Rain falls horizontally and you keep the weather station tuned, waiting for the moment when you have to grab your kid, your phone, and a quilt, and hunker in an interior bathroom until it’s over. Then you come out for the damage reports: the tornado went south of town, demolished two trailers, there are trees across the road so you can’t take that path out; also there’s flooding along the river so the east and north routes are impassable. Guess you’re stuck in town for a few days. Ain’t everybody grateful for FEMA?

Tornado sightings are badges of honor. Hail is a gossipy delight. Big enough to dent your car, eh? Awesome. Need a new roof? Get your claim in before the insurance company stops paying out–cuz they always do. They can’t replace every roof in town.

The snow is beautiful, of course. After the first big fall you go outside and flounder around, taking pictures of bird and deer prints and of the red hawthorn berries covered in big fluffy puffs of it. Each new fall thereafter makes you feel a little better again, but in between there are the long icy stretches when the snow turns gray and the roads are black ice, when a gust of wind in your face makes it feel like your eyeballs will pop, and when gassing your car is an almighty misery. You stand by the pump, not sure you can bear the pain in your fingers any longer, and when it’s finally over you get in your car and unzip your coat and stick them under your armpits until things are okay again.

And the summer evenings. There are cicadas, in the Midwestern summer, always. They screech aa-WEEEE aa-WEEEEE aa-WEEEEE all night and day. Toads sing. In June and early July there are lightning bugs. Kids chase them and catch them in jars to make “lanterns” and smash their abdomens with a stick, then carry it around like a torch until the light fades. If you’re lucky enough to live near an unmown patch of ground you can sit in a lawn chair and enjoy the show, twinkling bright and thick for an hour after sunset.

Cold-weather garden crops are a problem. It’s hard to get in radishes and peas and lettuce before the weather gets too hot and they turn tough. Forget brassicas. You grow tomatoes, though. Peppers. Eggplant. Zucchini. Cucumber. Melons. Okra. Corn. Pole beans.

Wildflowers are variable. Trilliums come in red and white. Violets in blue, white, and yellow. Spring beauty. Butter & eggs. Crown vetch. Chickory. Dame’s rocket. Ditch lilies. Daisies. White clover and sweet clover. If you walk in a woodland at just the right time, you can turn up the leaves of the mayapples to see their white mayflowers. Sometimes you see a jack-in-the-pulpit or a pink lady’s slipper. There will be one magic day in springtime when the honeysuckle blooms, and the whole woods smells of it, and its petals drift down like snow. And there will be one magic day in autumn when you need a sweater but not a coat, and you go to the farmer’s market for a hayride and you buy some overpriced pumpkins and doughnuts and apple cider, and the neighbor burns leaves, making the whole neighborhood smell nice. In summer there are garden-ripened slicing tomatoes, and pick-your-own strawberries. Milk & Honey corn from a farmstand. One summer evening after the sun has sunk and you’re sitting on the porch, the neighbor’s cat will come to visit and will let you pet her belly. The dusk envelops your garden, and a hummingbird moth works over the coneflowers, and you just about feel that things are all right.

And that’s what weather is like in the Midwest.


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