Not just winter, or early spring, but ‘mud season’

The Russian "rasputitsa" is famously daunting, having helped protect the nation from invaders for centuries.


In the suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I grew up, there were four seasons: winter, spring, summer, and fall. Where I live now, there are six – even though the climate in Somerville, Massachusetts, is much the same as Milwaukee. New England is in the middle of mud season, an evocative name for the time of year when the sun melts the ice in the top layers of soil, leaving deeper layers still frozen. The surface water can’t drain away, so you get mud – deep, car-trapping mud. On the asphalt streets of the Boston metro area, you wouldn’t necessarily notice, but in Vermont, where about 55% of the state’s roads are unpaved, mud season must be reckoned with.  

Parts of Russia and Ukraine have mud seasons too. The Russian rasputitsa is famously daunting, having helped protect the nation from invaders for centuries. Now, however, “General Mud” is working for Ukraine, hindering Russia’s attacks by bogging down its movement of people and equipment. 

Mud seasons occur anywhere that soil and climactic conditions are right. Northern Wisconsin, it turns out, does have a recognized mud season – “Mud Season, The Unloveliest Of Wisconsin Months,” one article laments – and its fields and dirt roads become just as waterlogged and impassable as those of Vermont or Ukraine. In the southern suburbs, we were blithely unaware that March and April could be anything but “spring.” 

The cycle of the four seasons is far from universal. Around the world, some climates experience almost no variation in temperature and precipitation during the year. Some cultures divide their yearly weather cycles into two, six, or in one case, 72, different seasons.  

In Vermont, the sixth season is stick season, an excellent name for the interlude after the trees have lost their leaves but before they are covered with snow – November, generally. Vermont bed-and-breakfasts and tourist boards sing this season’s praises: “Stick season is a quiet, subtle sort of beauty,” or “there is something wonderful about this barren time,” as if one has to make a special trip to Stowe, for example, to look at brown grass and leafless trees.

There is some evidence that the term is spreading outside Vermont and its neighboring states. Google Trends (which tracks searches) shows a slow increase in people looking it up across the United States. While city dwellers might miss out on mud, the bare branches of late autumn are inescapable, and “stick season” is a lovely way to turn a bug into a feature. It’s not a dull, gray, damp, and cold November day – it’s stick season! Let’s go for a hike! 

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