At last! Back at the end of October of last year, I think I said something cheery about being more diligent about populating this blog. Here it is, nearly the middle of June of the next year and the blog has not changed. I am grateful to all of you who reminded me of my lack of diligence! I hope there are some of you who are still looking for more.
One rather momentous event here issued in another website. When we came down here from the city 35 years ago I started keeping weather records in a “farmer’s calendar” I had bought. In the beginning these consisted of little more than a comment on rain or sun, hot or cold, but they gradually grew as the years passed to include all sorts of life-related information: the amount of milk the cow had given morning and evening, day by day, air and sky observations, the arrival or departure of the summer’s pigs, all the way down to visits by hummingbirds and fireflies, and the state of our (originally dirt) road.
As I gradually became aware that watching the weather could help us plan for my wife’s vegetable garden: what to plant and when, when to cover the tomatoes in the fall so as to protect them from a possible frost, and so on, I thought about getting some scientific tools that would make the process more accurate. Fortunately money was an issue and I made do with my father’s old barometer, various thermometers (gradually moving to ones that could tell me the high and low temperatures day by day), and a weather vane up on the roof. The natural world moves with an august majesty and its truths are spiritual rather than mechanical. I didn’t really need an electronic rain gauge that could tell me the rainfall to a thousandth of an inch!
Morning and evening I wrote down the day’s weather and anything else of interest. If we were to be away from the farm for more than a few hours we needed someone to come in, to “farm-sit,” for the animals, and I encouraged the sitter to keep the records while we were away. One of our sitters, Megan de Graaf, the daughter of friends down the road, has grown up to be an environmentalist and Chairman of the UNESCO Fundy Biosphere Reserve centred on Fundy Park on the Bay of Fundy. She remembered the weather records and asked us if we would be interested in a “citizen science” survey of the records and the making of a short video about climate change as it might show up in our records. We were pleased to be involved and so the complete collection of 35 volumes was packed into a crate and taken off to be read through to see what could be seen. The result, a 20 minute video, has recently been released and is accessible at http://fundy-biosphere.ca/en/projects-initiatives/climate-change. You might like to have a look.
Last October I knew what was crying out to be included in this blog - the weather. In a maritime climate that great world above us and around us can produce five different effects in a matter of hours. The only stable thing about our weather is its changeableness. Mark Twain, in a talk he gave in Boston, said, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes.” He might have been talking about Maritime Canada.
And so, instead of trying to organise the weather into some degree of order (what I was planning back in October and never successfully orchestrated), I’m going to “tell it like it is.”
They Know What Time It is
I happened to look down at the right sleeve of my sweater after returning from the morning milking, one day in late March, and saw there lots of short brown hairs sticking to it like so many infant porcupine quills. The cows had started to shed their winter coats.
It didn't look like spring. The ground was still frozen hard and not even the most impetuous trees had budded. The sky was grey and the few stars that had been showing the night before still kept the diamond-hard brightness stars have in winter. But the cows knew something I only believed, that spring was coming.
In the country, life, like the stream that embraces this farm, runs one moment smooth and level, the next moment in the seeming chaos of tumbling over around and past the rocks that oppose its passage. Yet the life is one, even as the countless drops of water make one stream.
In towns the inter-relatedness of created things, like our stream in places in the dry days of summer, disappears from sight. So many people live and work in such a small space there that it is quite possible to think that only man’s concerns matter. The vast tracery of life can disappear, can come to seem only a pattern of metaphors men can manipulate as they please. Yet like our stream that sinks from sight only to emerge just as mysteriously some distance on, the disappearance is only apparent, not real.
In the country, men are not so thick on the ground and the complex tracery we identify by its most outward evidence and call Nature, is a force to be watched carefully and cooperated with if at all possible. Nature and man may not live entirely in harmony - there are rains when hay is ready to come in and frosts before all the tomatoes are in from the garden - but man must reach for harmony with the heavens and the earth, and the harmony must generally be on Nature's terms.
My first experience of this inter-relatedness was the hectic pace of summer here. Everything outdoors had to be crammed into the brief time between the sun's swift rise toward the height of heaven in late spring and its equally rapid declension toward the south a few months later. How was it possible to do everything that had to be done in the brief time available? It all seemed like pushing fast-forward on the VCR.
The reality of the winter-time condition called "cabin fever" spoke of an inter-relatedness of a different sort. A Dictionary of Canadian English which I once consulted had "cabin fever" listed as a true Canadianism, which it is, though the condition may be known elsewhere, where the climate is similar. The dictionary quoted an account of a logging camp in which the cook, "suffering from cabin fever," arose one night, fried every egg in the camp to a state of leather and then nailed each and every one of them to the cookhouse wall. Having experienced New Brunswick winters with a house full of adults, kids, dogs and cats, my heart goes out to that cook. Sometime around late February, when it seems that winter will never end, everybody gets a bit twitchy.
Even in Toronto, before we moved down here, we knew something about cabin fever. “Mud season,” though, even though Toronto was sometimes called "Muddy York," was not even a concept. It was only after we came down here that we learned the term and the meaning of the multiple appearances of the aptly-named "mud season."
As the frost begins to lose its grip on everything, it retreats further and further underground. Water that is released by the thawing has no place to go beyond the top few inches of the soil. It causes no problem there - as long as nothing in the form of foot or tire disturbs it. Unfortunately, in order to get from house to barn and back again, not to mention from farm to town and back, it is necessary to follow paths or roads, and do this a time or two and the meaning of mud season becomes clear. For the first ten years of our life here our road was unpaved and the effect of mud season really needed to be seen to be believed.
A summer swifter than the weaver’s shuttle, a glorious fall, a long confining winter, and a muddy spring: only gradually do patterns take shape behind all these.
Quickly cloud shapes and wind directions gain significance and names. West and east are no longer street directions; they are the difference between good weather and bad. A south-west wind, though, brings damp air from the Bay of Fundy and poor drying conditions for hay. “Weather off the Fundy,” we say, and plan to get some things done inside. The appearance of high thin clouds moving in may be enough to make us go tap the barometer to see whether it has begun to fall as wet weather moves in. Still autumn evenings when the sky is clear and the barometer bounding upward make the gardener reach for the old sheets to cover the squash and the other tender plants. The moon's phases, especially the date of the full moons in June and September, when frost is quite possible, are no abstractions in an Almanac.
Watching the moon as it wanders, now high in the sky, now low, now early, now later in appearance, one also begins to discover that the stars themselves move with dignity across the sky, the eternal dwellers in the realm our elders called the "fixed stars."
There I saw for myself the constellations which blazed above me, watched them and used their progress from week to week to measure both the duration of a season and the coming of the next. What a sense of the transience of all earthly things accompanies the first sighting of the constellation Orion, winter's king, above the eastern horizon as fall enters its middle age and with what expectation, in the depth of winter, does one look to that same eastern horizon and to see bright Leo rising, Leo the earnest of spring to come, rising where Orion had risen the November before.
Some of these patterns can be glimpsed from within cities, but only glimpsed. At any rate they remain, for the most part, bookish fancies that can be picked up for a moment and then dropped again when the moment passes. Their reality - the reality, as Orion dominates the night sky, of the force of a winter storm borne on the back of a furious east wind, or the reality of the effect of a full moon in September on the ripening tomatoes in the garden - remains a literary reality at best.
Our cows, shedding their winter coats, are not interested in metaphors. They know what time it is.
29 March 1994