© R. L. Whitney. Originally Published in the King's County Record, February 21, 2012.
It all started when we came down here to stay. There was a country-store type thermometer hanging on the little kitchen porch and I had my father's old barometer to hang up inside. What could be more inevitable than to begin to keep track, in a gardener's calendar, of the progress of the temperature and barometric pressure with a view to being able to tell when it was time to do whatever we needed to do, like plant beans or pick the tomatoes?
The first summer we were here a long series of days with temperatures in the 30's gave me joy, having always preferred heat to cold. Many years in Toronto where it was perfectly possible to have really hot weather at Easter and chilly weather the rest of the summer made us long for country where summer meant something more (or rather, less) than long sleeves and sweaters.
Temperatures like those of our first summer have never returned in quite the same startling way. I rather suspect that the old thermometer had something to do with it. Hanging where it did, facing into the south-west and sun, it was perfectly sited to report enthusiastically on the effect of direct sunlight on white clapboards.
The next year we put the thermometer in the woodshed. There the sun was not a problem but the enclosed space was. Unlike the year before when the heat had been so prominent in our record-keeping, now a distinct chill crept into our readings, even on what otherwise seemed to be hot days in mid summer.
By the time the next summer rolled around we had done a bit of construction and now had a new porch on the back of the house, facing north-west rather than south-west. To accompany our new porch we had a new thermometer, one that would tell the current temperature but would also remember the day's high and low. I mounted the new thermometer on one of the porch pillars, facing in rather than out so it couldn’t catch the late afternoon sun.
I think it was the following winter that I first got carried away by statistics. Looking back over the records from the previous year I saw that by February the average temperature, while cold, was beginning to move gradually upwards. The previous February, however, with a house full of active youngsters, we had learned a new term: cabin fever. With February coming round again I thought I could calm fever pitch amongst the young, and so, as benign scientific guru, I began a chart on which we could all see the advance of the average temperature from week to week, even if we couldn't feel it.
The last day in January a thaw that had begun a week before still held sway, the ground showed grass greening up and the daytime high temperature well above freezing. I got out a piece of graph paper, numbered the days in February across the bottom and degrees up the side, allowing for the possibility that the daily average temperature might occasionally fall back below zero. When I wrote up the day’s events that night I casually noted that the evening temperature, for the first time in a week, had crept below zero.
I think that was the coldest February in these parts for the last century. A fierce north-west wind blew for two weeks. The weather was so cold that the dirt floor in the root cellar froze all the way to the middle. It was so cold our water pipes to the kitchen sink (all we had) froze. It was so cold I had to add another piece of graph paper below the original one to track the dismal record, sufficient to depress a polar bear, of steadily dropping temperatures. Needless to say the chart eventually started an upturn, but nobody was watching.
As the years went along and the records kept accumulating I thought I could say, within two standard deviations, when the last frost in the spring was likely to menace our garden and when the approach of the first frost in the fall made tomato picking advisable. Statistics were once again exercising their hypnotic fascination.
I announced with the measured tones of one secure in impeccable statistics that once we got past the first week in March the daytime high would not again fall below freezing. Blessed thought, and well before the first day of spring. All went just as predicted until the middle of March, at which point the mercury in the thermometer congealed and all pretence of warm days vanished. The warm days came back, eventually, but my standing as an oracle has never recovered.
Words & Images
We moved to our farm in Sussex, New Brunswick from Toronto in 1977, only moving away in 2014.