It was a dark and stormy night – oh, no – wrong genre – start again.
And amass it did.
In this neck of the woods, a white Christmas has become something of a rarity over the last score years: an event you remembered from childhood, when lampposts were short and dogs were tall; when traffic was a report you heard on the radio; when the wind blew from the North and old men predicted the white stuff. In these last few years, it feels as if the Earth is turning on the screws and testing us countryfolk to see if we’re made of the right stuff.
There’s a link there somewhere.
All summer long – I blogged about the weather, because there was nothing I could do to change it – winds brought cloud and rain from the west: dragged it kicking and screaming across the Grampian Mountains – that famous Roman chain that spawned Mons Graupius, which usually blocks precipitation – and dumped it on Aberdeenshire.For those of you unaccustomed to our spectacular micro-climatic conditions in the Northeast triangle of Scotland, the Grampian county of Aberdeen has paleo-historically been blessed with low-level Pleistocene marine sands and gravels on its eastern coast, Devonian red sandstone on the North coast and intrusive muti-colour granites – also Devonian – in the middle. They’re the ones that usually soak up leftover raindrops.
The Cairngorms form a natural divide between East and West. These stately peaks – though only in the minds of Scots, as they rise to a maximum of 4,000 feet – are geographically closer to the Atlantic Ocean than they are to the North Sea; yet their granite bloc is a block for precipitation, most years dumped unceremoniously on the long-suffering, midge-ridden West.
For every mile east you go you can expect one inch less rainfall. It’s an old Scots maxim that made some sense in Grandfather’s time.
The charmed population of Aberdeenshire has historically experienced early springs, punctual return of swallows, balmy if slightly dry summers and mild falls. Winter, since the storms of 1981-2, was a gleam in the weatherman’s eye.
Summer was a non-starter. A brilliant flash in late June – like a forgotten dream: one week after solstice, a few days into early July seemed like a world of childhood fantasy; running barefoot through meadow flowers, gathering domestic strawberries, wild raspberries; thinking of lush promised fruits to come: plums and pears and apples.
Then the drought (so-called ‘heat-wave’) vanished and the rains came. And with them the winds.In the Bahamas and the Florida Keys they used to say a hurricane rhyme:
‘June: too soon,
July: stand by,
August: come it must,
October: all over.’
It applied last year to eastern Scotland, to a scary degree.
June and July were the calm before the storm. August – a month when surprise ‘spates’ arrive and inundate fields of ripening grain, sweeping all before them into overflowing ditches, burns and rivers – brought two downpours. Central riverine communities sandbagged doors, secured and taped windows. And still it came. September there were three more floods; this time the river Don burst its banks in several places: in Kintore a farmer died in his tractor, caught out and drowned, unable to extract himself from floodwaters.
A mile of Don’s worth two of Dee
Except for fish and stone and tree
Equinox came and went and still it rained. Still the winds blew. It was as if the hurricane season of Florida had not only exported its rhyme, but all of its storms:
After Ana, Bill and Claudette, the twisting tail headed north, skirted Bermuda and aimed straight for the north Atlantic, round the Pentland Firth and down through the Moray Firth to blast Aberdeenshire.
That’s right. Not only were these storms of gale-force strength (in high summer a wind over 60mph is unusual, to say the least), but they came from the North. Poor battered plants in struggling northern gardens usually basking in an exquisite micro-climate of Icelandic and Scandinavian temperatures, were being blown to bits.
I digress only momentarily to explain that our countryman, Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort is responsible for giving us the scale of wind speeds that we currently use. It really hasn’t changed much since he standardized it in 1806. There’s been no need. Wind, from a gentle summer breeze that cools the romantic brow (3 to 6 knots, Beaufort 2) right through to a full hurricane-force gale greater than 73mph (64 knots, Beaufort 12) has a way of letting you know it’s there.Danny, Erika, Fred and Grace brought similar reminders: storm-force conditions injurious to plant, beast and Man. I even found a toad sheltering from the blast in a quiet niche. There seemed no let-up; no sign of a reprieve. Those of us who believed that the Earth was just playing a game, having us on, it would be Okay in another week… were in for a big surprise.
I planted a giant sunflower out of its (greenhouse seeded) pot in May, thinking how lovely the vision that, in a summer like 2005, 2004, 2001 or 1998 (‘Global warming’ years) it might set seed to feed finches by autumn.
By equinox it still hadn’t flowered.
It was so statuesque, so tall, so strong – its stem larger than the area I could encompass with my two hands. It was full of moisture and had responded with phenomenal growth. But no yellow petals.
October arrived. Swallows had long departed – they’d decided for the first time in twenty years that enough was enough. They’d lingered in Ultima Thule only long enough to hatch a single clutch. They left on a singular warm wind three weeks early. I should have known then we were in for more.
I thought things would change after the ‘equinoctial gales’. It is traditionally a time when, if summer has been a little less than kind, the burgeoning vines, the bending limbs, the fully laden branches of fruit and Nature’s bounty make up for all the hard work, lost sleep, missed opportunities: the promise is fulfilled, Mother Earth comes through in spades, the sun shines and all is forgiven. The warm earth brings forth ripened plums, pears and apples in abundance, even a choice late cherry or two.
Not last year.True, there were Granny Smiths and Cox’s Orange Pippins lying waiting on apple boughs pruned close to a sheltering wall larger than any I have ever seen. Artichokes as big as squash; squash as big as pumpkin. But I had to bring them inside to ripen or they would have moulded in the wet. Green tomatoes so abundant they were going out of style. Zucchini had been under plastic all summer, keeping out the rain. A summer too wet even for zucchini to grow! that gives you an idea of how sodden the ground was. Victoria plums which love a moist year were hanging in abundance, but they were still green, and a few delicate pears – it is a little too northerly for pears here at the best of times – looked like shrunken castanets. There was a lot of green: lettuce, cabbage, parsley and spinach to die for, but not a lot of ripening. I am not usually an ungrateful person. But my expectation was bordering on exasperation.
Then suddenly, as if the weather elves had been napping and awoke in a frantic state of guilt at not having done their usual earth tending, October turned mild.
Roses bloomed, butterflies emerged from wall crevices, a dry shed, and sought out the late blossom of buddleia to stock up for overwintering. California poppies that thought they’d come to an alien planet, flowered and raised their faces to the sun.
And, lo and behold, my sunflower popped her first petal.
But the stratosphere wasn’t done yet. Not by a long shot. She’d started, so she was going to finish.
I mentioned earlier that the Grampian mountain chain forms a barrier that usually holds back rain from the West. And last year, its barricading powers failed miserably. Not only did rain follow wind and wind follow rain, but the midges, the West’s most unmentionable tourist nightmare, followed piggy-back along the trail.
The swallows, great feeders of the heavens, had already gone; so nobody was scooping great mouthfuls of the little monsters in massive numbers. Wrens, robins and a few finches that weren’t busy feeding on grain, demolished a few, but the air was alive with them. Wind seems not to perturb these tiny insects: they hide under trees and reappear the minute it drops.So, calm evenings in the late Northeast autumn were midge-rampant; not pleasant. No window of opportunity for a leisurely stroll in the balmy, breathless air. The blackbirds had it all to themselves.
Thing is, there was no evening birdsong. Most of the summer visitors had departed. And those that were still around were looking for winter habitat. Wrens can bundle together in numbers up to twenty-two in one disused nest. Body heat is the only thing that keeps out the cold. Wrens were doing a big business in re-roofing spring nests – for future reference.
There were other signs. I should have known.
round here have become permanent residents. They like the mild winters, so I’ve heard. They top up and home in on a familiar sheltered waterhole; they feed to stuffing point in leftover barley and wheat in open, harvested fields and then head out a little north of here to overwinter. In previous winters, winters without snow, there have been geese still tucking in in open fields in early December. This last fall, all the grain had gone by late October. Greylag geese
And the geese were gone too.
In late October my drenched sunflower was looking a little the worse for wear, but she was still hanging in there. Her strong stem was sturdy enough to support loads of hungry finches, tits, songbirds.They used her as a stopping-off point between hedge and feeder-table. As if they hoped her yellow bedraggled petals would somehow unfold to present them with a miracle in fat black and white stripey seeds. It was not to be.
The rain succeeded. Not in taming her, but when her petals closed in late October – usually a (midsummer) sign that the head is transfiguring, metamorphosing, setting seed – they chose not to reopen. She bowed her head and became silent. She’d had enough.
November raged and birds were blown about. Humans and animals prepared for what was to come. Early December brought some sunny days, but there was a chill in the air that nobody could really pretend was unfamiliar.
And then, one week before Christmas, the snowflakes arrived. And they fell in great soft plops of Inuit 32-linguistic varieties. And they didn’t stop falling until every last man, woman, child, blackbird, wren, robin, chicken, fox, wildcat, deer, rabbit and stoat had felt every possible chill factor they were capable of bringing.
* * *
There isn’t much point in going into the blow-by-blow of how difficult it’s been. But it might be interesting to look at the overview.
Scotland isn’t traditionally a snowy place. I’ve explained why. It sits on the northern edge of the Atlantic Ocean in a latitude akin to Alaska, but with temperatures more normal for the 42nd parallel of the Pacific Northwest. Yes, there are storms which come and go in the three months of so-called Winter, and local government services are never ready for them; it’s a standing joke. They complain before it comes, don’t deliver enough salt or grit enough or clear enough if it does and then blame central Government afterwards for not warning them or providing enough funding in the first place. As if the weather were not God’s fault, but the Labor Government’s.
People in Northeast Scotland have over time grown weary of bureaucratic bickering, complaining and infighting. In country districts in particular, they just get out and get on with it: fend for themselves. Farmers with snow-ploughs attached to tractors clear country roads which large council ploughs can no longer access.
This last winter saw more hardship, more strenuous community togetherness, more help-thy-neighbor-like-thy-life-depended-on-it gestures to make up for every snowless winter or heat-blistered summer of the new millennium.
To backtrack a little: we’ve all heard of, or been made aware of the ways of El Niño.
Spanish for ‘male child’, colloq. the Christmas Child, El Niño was the anthropomorphic name given by Peruvian sailors around 1892 to a warm northerly Pacific current in winter time. It is produced by a weather anomaly combined with atmospheric pressure: Indonesia usually experiences huge amounts of rainfall in winter under low atmospheric pressure, while high pressure hovers over the dry coast of Peru. This cycle produces a westward flow of tropical trade winds.
When the pressures weaken, the trades do too and a period of warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures arise in the east-tropical Pacific Ocean around December, blown along the surface against weakening trade winds which churn its billowing mass into a lingering ‘entity’; the length of its stay can influence weather conditions across much of the globe.
In an El Niño year, warm surface water encouraged by lessening trades migrates east from Indonesia across the central Pacific to the coast of Peru and Ecuador, bringing tropical rains which would otherwise fall on Jakarta, Bali and Papua New Guinea. Not only does the warm water linger, but with weakened winds, it forms a dense mass of warm ocean that does not sustain plankton (which prefer cooler waters) and consequently the larger fish that feed on this resource. In an El Niño year, the high desert, the Altiplano can experience huge rainstorms, while Australia and India suffer from drought.
Recent meteorological interest has been piqued by the growing frequency of El Niño years and the apparent resultant extremes in temperature worldwide which occur the following summer. El Niños since 1982 have occurred so regularly that world attention has been focused, not only on their effect on mean summer temperature but on the fact that they may contribute to ‘global warming’.
Recent El Niños happened in 1986-1987, 1991-1992, 1993-1994, 1997-1998; and in 2002-2003, 2004-2005, 2006-2007 and 2009-2010.
For comparison, using mean world temperature data, the hottest years on record are, in order of maximum extreme temperature:
1 2005, hottest on record since 1880
These freak hot summers all happened within the last two decades. And nineteen of the hottest 20 years have occurred since 1980.
Notably, and possibly related to the gap of non-El Niño years since 2007, 2009 is not one of them!
What may be happening is that, with an erratic move away from climatic norm, weather patterns become reversed, unpredictable. Bottom line, for the weather man, a nightmare.
So back to the point. The year 2009 already marked the end of the hottest decade in history – or at least since they started measuring annual mean temperature. We are, of course eliminating Northern Scotland as a candidate here.
The winter of 2009-2010 will also go down in the history books, I suspect. Not just because Scotland was cut off from the rest of the world for virtually three months, but weather conditions everywhere were, shall we say, a little out of the ordinary.They had frozen citrus groves in Florida in January, snow in Georgia in February; and a big freeze in northern Virginia at New Year’s. Dickey Ridge (three miles south of Dickey Holler!) had an icestorm, windchill, winds of 50mph (Beaufort 9) which took the temperature down to 8ºF – that, for the Celsius Euros among us is minus 14ºC; and that’s the Deep Saw-uth.
This winter, Belgium had weather like Estonia; Estonia a brief snowfall like Guernsey. Scotland is the land of the deep freeze, British Columbia hasn’t had enough snow to support the Winter Olympics. Torrential rainfall in Sacramento, Monterey and Orange County exceeded seasonal maximum; Las Vegas had more rain in two days than in the entire previous year.⁃ Dare one touch on other phenomena, either closely or remotely related to earth changes? After the January 12th and 13th Richter 6.5 and 7.0 earthquakes of Eureka, California and Haiti respectively, probably not; save to mention that Etna is alive again, spewing out volcanic cloud and ash, Kamchatka’s twin volcanoes are active, as are the Chilean twins of Llaima and Pichillaima in the Temuco Lake District, despite an unseasonal cap of snow! And in the Windward Island chain, the Saint Vincent volcano, La Soufrière, the Sulfurer, collapsed last week.
We’re not experiencing anything out of the ordinary.
We’re just in the middle of a shakedown while Mother Earth gets herself ready for spring in the Northern Hemisphere. After all, we, her children, haven’t been behaving all that well these last two decades. So she’s entitled to shake her feathers like a tousled sea eagle and take a look round to see what else she can do to get us to pay attention. Weather is, after all, one of her mechanisms for that.
We decimate tropical rain forests, she sends less rain. We rape the desert for subterranean oil, she sends dust storms and African drought. We create huge whirlpools of plastic waste in the North Pacific Gyre trapping and killing earth’s most evolved sea mammals: it seems fitting that she should turn around and send us an oceanic anomaly to make us scratch our scientific heads in vain.
What’s in store for 2010?
If the Niño camp are right, and the winter of 2009-2010 is one of the ‘strongest’ El Niño seasons yet, then the summer which follows could outstrip all previous chart-topping statistics.Let’s look on the bright side. Vancouver may not have had any snow to speak of, but Iowa and Idaho, Kentucky and Montana have had their fill. As has (Scotland and) the whole of the Eastern Seaboard from Virginia to Vermont: snow so deep and penetrating that the earth is going to be busy soaking it up, getting ready for new spring growth, filling riverbeds and lakes, dams and reservoirs.
Snow melts down at about a 10 to 1 ratio, meaning 10 inches of snow equals about one inch of water. One thing’s for sure: we’ll have water in abundance to get us ready for the growing season.
Perhaps that’s what Mother Earth has in store. If the summer of 2010 turns out to be another like those twenty hottest years on record, maybe she’s filling up her tanks; mustering inner reserves; getting ready to take us through some punishing temperatures.
I mentioned animal signs. We humans may have lost our ability to intuit what lies ahead, but the birds, wild animals, flora and fauna know a thing or two.Swallows left early last fall, as if they knew what was coming. The autumn bird chorus was minimal, to say the least. My few chickens stopped laying in the first week of December and, apart from one jewel of an egg that miraculously appeared (probably by accident) on Christmas Day, the little group of eight didn’t produce a single egg between them until last week. Even then, I think it was only the bright sunshine that shone warm during the day that got them motivated. They’re still pretty quick to get back inside their henhouse before five o’clock sunset. Temperatures outside right now are maintaining a solid two or three below zero.
I mentioned Kamchatka. In the darkest days of solstice – and even in subsequent weeks when January turned to February and the light began to return – temperatures in this part of Scotland were, as I said, more appropriate for Siberia than for an island on the Atlantic seaboard. In the second of three storms, four blackbirds fell off their tree limbs in the night and died. I found the body of a fifth frozen under one of the vehicles, as if she hadn’t had the strength to fly for cover. A greenfinch died in my hands from sheer exhaustion and inability to get enough seed in her crop before nightfall.
As I see it, the winter of 2009/2010 has brought out the best and the worst. At the height of the storms, kind neighbors with 4×4 vehicles ferried immobile snowbound waifs to shop for emergency groceries. Birds died, but hens are laying again and there is birdsong. It’s a signal spring is on the way. The pheasant population, usually set by surrounding farmers as fodder for guns in the Spring Shoot are feeding by day with my chickens, roosting by night in my frozen trees. Safety not only in numbers, but also in the non-shooting enclave.
Aconite petals are gleaming with frost, but their yellow is trying to shine.
They remind me of my sunflower. Beaten but unbowed, she made it through some of the harshest conditions ever to greet one of the girosol family. She stood all winter, too. She stands there still. No flower, no seed, but her stem as strong as a sapling.
If she can make it through, I guess some of the rest of us will, too.
©2010 Marian Youngblood
“If Candlemas be dull and cool
Half the winter was bye at Yule
If Candlemas be fine and fair
Half the winter’s to come – and mair”
Scots wisdom – Anonymous
Today is Candlemas: February 2nd in the ancient Celtic calendar signified the half – way point, a cross-quarter day, between midwinter and spring. It’s pretty amazing we’ve lasted thus far: three storms and more threatening; it’s already six weeks since solstice and in another six we’ll have reached the vernal equinox. Looking at Scotland’s current snowy landscape (or, more immediate, trudging through it), that calendar fact seems hard to believe.
Old countrymen before the agricultural revolution – farmers and field hands – kept an inner calendar, depending on the direction of the wind, hours of daylight and signs from birds and wild animals for their information.
We seem to have lost the knack.
One might blame it on global warming, but that’s merely an excuse. We spend less time outdoors now as a culture than we ever did. Despite ‘power runs’, jogging, (with natural sounds deadened by earphones strapped to head) and weekend walks (complete with cellphone), we are constantly reminded by the technology of our own devising that we are no longer creatures of the corn.
We have evolved to become slaves to the newspaper, the television set, radio, telephone and computer media and have stepped out of our former selves, the ones who tuned into birdsong, the opening of a snowdrop, the smell of first growth in the forest, lengthening days of sunlight.
Some would say we can’t be blamed for the way society drifts: isn’t it important to keep up with the news? to judge if politicians are doing their job? Don’t our livelihoods depend on our connection to what’s happening in the ‘real’ world?
To my mind it’s a matter of choice. Some of the thirty-somethings these days are so concerned with their career in the City, commissions on deals that make them millions, the need to unwind on a skiing holiday mid-season, the latest SUV, that they don’t notice that their youth is slipping away. When grandparents used to advocate a ‘back-to-basics’ approach, a ‘breath of fresh air’, or a break from concentrating on the ‘almighty dollar’; they had no idea our culture would so soon become divorced from those concepts so radically; would be so far down the road to technological dependence that we no longer recognize the sound made by a robin in spring.
What has all this to do with Candlemas? you may ask.Before there were man-made calendars, there was a cosmic one: the language of light spoken by the sun on its annual journey. Our neolithic ancestors recognized the solar (and lunar) rhythms and built ‘calendars’ in stone, dragging massive megaliths to create stone circles whose shadows cast a moving ‘hand’ across the face of the earth like a sundial or the hands of a clock. In the Northeast of Scotland that particular variation of stone circle usually takes the form of a window in stone – a recumbent giant flanked by the two tallest monoliths in the southwest quadrant of the circle. This window invariably faces the point on the horizon where the midwinter sun sets and, conversely, where the midsummer full moon also sets.
There were other points marked on the calendar of stones. Assuming the recumbent and flankers stand at ‘seven o’clock’ in a recumbent stone circle where heights always diminish towards the northern arc, the circumference stone at ‘twelve o’clock’ marks the midsummer sunset point on the horizon viewed from within the ‘platform’ – a rectangular space next to the recumbent group. This is beautifully portrayed in settings such as Midmar (map ref. NJ 699 065), Sunhoney (NJ716 057), above right, or even the ruined Kirkton of Bourtie circle (NJ 801 249), where this unremarkable stone acts as the dial point for the sun to come to rest on the longest day of the year. Not content with marking the four quarters, stone circle stones also point to cross-quarter days, too. At Easter Aquorthies (NJ733 208) near Inverurie in central Aberdeenshire, illus. top left, in addition to a solid block of red jasper which marks the equinoctial sunrise on the east of the circle, its two neighbouring perimeter stones draw the distinctive shadows of recumbent and flankers (the ‘window’) into their own minor magical precinct, until it disappears to a point of nothingness at sunset on Candlemas.
These amazing stone calendars served generations of early farmers through bronze age, iron age and early-historic times, until the arrival of the Celtic Colginy Calendar and its Roman counterpart, the Julian calendar, both originally, like all early societies, based on a lunar month. The sixteenth century Gregorian calendar altered our thinking to calculating almost exclusively in solar time. The oriental calendar, however, like the Ethiopian, Vedic, Muslim and some African calculations, remains lunar.
Candlemas, before Gregorian calendar takeover, was held as a celebration of light on the first new moon in February. It is significant that Losar, Tibetan New Year, still takes appearance of the New Moon in February each year as its calendar starting date: this year Losar falls on February 15th.
It is coincidentally the first day of the oriental Year of the Tiger.
Gregorian time did not totally demolish earlier lunar times. They were seen in Rome, and in Roman catholicism generally as ‘pagan’ (from Latin, paganus, a countryman) and therefore ‘ignorant’ of Christian belief.Candlemas had been held by country people as a major light festival from pre-Christian times: Celtic Imbolc (Oimelc), in northern latitudes celebrated the first day when light from the sun feels warm on the face; when larks start into song, when the wren, a magical Celtic bird, the ‘Queen of Heaven’, begins to build her nest. Lambs traditionally started life in February and ewes began lactation. The earth came alive. The farming year looked forward rather than back. So it served the Roman papal calendar well to continue the festival. It, too, was celebrated with light, but held as a mass for Mary, Queen of Heaven (not the bird) and Bride, under the light of a thousand cathedral candles, which gave it its name. Its pagan earth and sun connections were buried deep. Like most adopted Christian celebrations which had featured as a moon date on the Celtic calendar of months named after trees (earth spirits), instead it became dedicated to an early Christian saint: the Feast of Bridget, Bride. The fact that pre-Christian Goddess Bhrìghde, Brigantia, Bride was the Earth Mother, the triple goddess of earth, fire and home, her day seen as the embodiment of the Earth coming awake at this time, was not lost on the papal calendar-makers. They chose deliberately to enhance the festival and make it one of their own; gradually subsuming previous belief.
One pre-Celtic remnant of paganism remains in the, mostly ridiculed, American Groundhog Day. On this day the groundhog, a ridiculous figure, poor creature, comes out of his winter hole. If he sees his shadow he returns to his hole for another six weeks’ sleep. If he does not see it, he resolves to leave hibernation and get on with spring. It has resonance with the Scots version in our opening lines. Another is:
Bride put her finger in the river
On the Feast Day of Bride
And away went the hatching mother of the cold. — Carmina Gadelica
Gregorian calendar festivals became more rigid after the Reformation and by 1660 many previous celebrations which smacked of paganism were banned. One of these is worth resurrecting. In the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, before it was abolished, a ritual was held on Bride’s Feast Day the calendrical opposite of that held by all farming communities until the first European War of creating the harvest corn dolly which was carried round the fields to bless the harvest.
In the Islands, it was believed that on the eve of Là Fhéill Bhrìghde (Feast of Bride), the Old Woman of Winter, the Cailleach, journeys to the magical isle in whose woods lie the miraculous Well of Youth. At the first glimmer of dawn, she drinks the water that bubbles in a crevice of a rock, and is transformed into Bride, the fair maid whose white wand turns the bare earth green again.
On Bride’s Eve in the Islands young girls made a female figure from a sheaf of corn, kept in reverence from the previous year’s harvest. They decorated it with colored shells and sparkling crystals, together with snowdrops and primroses and other early spring flowers and greenery. An especially bright shell, symbol of emerging life, or a crystal was placed over its heart, and called ‘Bride’s guiding star’. They dressed themselves in their own finery and carried their effigy through the village on Bride’s Feast Day to invoke the light.
Harvest warm (Summer) Mother turned ancient cold (Winter) Crone reborn as fresh (Spring) youthful Virgin. And the cycle continues.
There is much to glean from these lovely old tales, fast becoming trivialized and forgotten.
One might suggest that our culture is in its last days, its death throes, too driven to see into either past or future.
Like the prelude to Roman decline and fall when successive emperors and the Senate prescribed bread and circuses as an opiate for the masses, our opiates – television, supermarkets, football games and expensive toys – provoke a ‘dumbing down’ fueled by corporations with political power and access to billions. We are not encouraged to draw lovingly from our past in order to find a gentler path in our future. We are not encouraged to question where we are going; where we as a global community might genuinely contribute to the care of our planetary mother, to save her from destruction; where we her children might become reborn, rise from our own ashes. As Carl Sagan says, the Universe is within us. We are capable of so much more than we allow.
If Candlemas has a message, it is neither to look forward or backward, but to carry with us the best of our past, and yet to anticipate the most miraculous for our future. And to hold in our consciousness the reality, the fragility of the Earth, the planet which is our home, our only home. Therein lies all creativity.
Fortunately our civilization has advanced enough so that we experienced minimum electrical ‘outages’, despite heavy snow, icicles and ice on power lines. There were, however, multiple power ‘surges’ and computers countrywide were frozen in mid surge. Mac and pc-owners and related computer businesses are still counting the cost. Curry’s have been doing a roaring trade in replacement laptops!
It seems to have hit a lot of young ones harder than they might have thought: not that closing schools and cancelling bus and train services are a hazard; more time to make snowmen, play and enjoy winter sports, you might think. Lack of reliable public transportation, however – counting on any public services, in fact – four weeks without refuse collection borders on neglect, were commuters’ and householders’ concerns. Abandonment, remoteness and surprise at being cut off suddenly are what hit the teens hardest, I think because they are unaccustomed to having their social life curtailed by ‘weather’ and few had experienced conditions such as these in their young lives.
Some of us older oldies remember the winter of 1981/2 with shivering empathy; electrical failure, power cuts, snow drifts higher than houses; evacuating and rescuing neighbours, birds frozen overnight in trees. But that was back in the Thatcherite era, before the internet, when we didn’t EXPECT everything to run on time, snow ploughs to get through, petrol in cars not to freeze.
Human culture has changed in nearly 30 years: Even in the modern backwater of Aberdeenshire, the County of no motorways, the self-styled Oil Capital of Europe.For those unfamiliar with our ways, this corner of Scotland – the Northeast triangle between Rivers Don and Dee and the balmy Moray Firth – has always flourished, but more than that, it looks after its own. Rather, I suppose, like Geordies idolizing their working-class heroes that went ‘down the pits’ or Scousers joking ‘don’t bomb Iraq; nuke Manchester’. Parochial in the extreme.
Unlike some other lesser-urban metropolises, however, (Dundee, Perth, Stranraer), Aberdeen has always pulled through its hardest times: Dundee used to be known (an age ago, when the world was young) for its Jute, Jam and Journalism. Now it is home to none of these; but it has Robert Scott’s ‘Discovery‘, the Tay Bridge and it’s on the way to St. Andrews, which every golfer in the world has heard of; i.e. it participates peripherally in tourism, but some of its poorer districts are in appalling shape.
Perth floods every year and millions of national money poured in to rescue low-level housing has been a nightmare. Stranraer we won’t go into. It’s no longer on the way to anywhere.
Then there’s Aberdeen.
Perched on the westernmost limb of the North Sea’s mild Gulf Stream current, its dry climate (usually, rain from the west is captured by the Grampian mountains before it reaches the plain) and its remarkable latitude (57ºN2ºW ), akin to central Alaska, give it a climatic anomaly. Its farming hinterland was rich in Neolithic times and has grown richer.
A century and a half ago the city was hub to a thriving fishing industry; its harbours built, housed and skippered trawlers, tall clipper ships, deep sea schooners and whaling vessels. Thermopylae and Elissa were built here. Names like Alexander Hall & Sons, John Lewis and Sons, the Devanha Fishing Company sprang from everyone’s lips. As a merchant marine capital it was second only to Glasgow in Scotland and Liverpool south of the border.
Aberdeen, however, was never one to have only one egg in one basket: it was also the sole exporter of granite to needy growing urban centres: London streets were indeed paved with (Aberdeen granite) gold. Craigenlow quarry at Dunecht supplied the English capital with tons of its ‘cassies’ or granite sets – hand-cut granite blocks the size of a gingerbread loaf – to meet the demands of a city experiencing growing Victorian traffic problems. If they had but known…
At the height of Georgian expansion, Aberdeen city burghers were so wealthy, their coffers overflowing from the ocean tea trade, the Baltic route, their fishing ports supplying Europe’s tables (nowadays it’s the other way around), their granite exported the world over; that they chose to beautify: and the mile-long boulevard known as Union Street was built in 1801-05. This grandiose gesture – a feat of engineering which levelled St. Catherine’s Hill and carried the extra-wide thoroughfare across arches built over the previous lower Denburn and ancient market Green – almost bankcrupted the burghers, but brought the city fame to add to its already growing fortune.As early as the mid-18th century, Aberdeenshire’s famous Baltic merchants continued to bring their fortunes back home; so the county continually thrived, regardless of the ups and downs of a world economy. Robert Gordon (1688-1731), founder of the Robert Gordon Hospital, now RGU, was famous for lending money made in the Danzig trade to Aberdeen businessmen who needed large working capital at even larger rates of interest. ‘Danzig Willie’ Forbes ploughed his fortune from the Baltic trade into the building of exquisite Donside château Craigievar between 1610-1625 on the family estate of Corse, when he was already landowner of Menie estate on the Belhelvie coast north of Aberdeen. John Ramsay, an Aberdeen merchant in 1758 built his palladian mansion at Straloch. Others followed suit. The county is today littered with stately Renaissance piles and Georgian mansions more appropriate to the valley of the Loire, the home counties or the wilds of Gloucestershire.
Within this mix stir a couple of ancient universities – one founded in 1495, the other in 1593, both fostered and supported through the centuries by Aberdonian merchant success.
The world joke about the Aberdonian who watches his pennies is not entirely untrue. And the tradition goes back farther than the fifteenth century.Even more relevant to the characterization, perhaps, is the fact that Aberdeen Harbour (presently run by the independent entity Aberdeen Harbour Board) is in fact the oldest running business enterprise in the United Kingdom of Great Britain, having been founded by charter signed by King David I in 1136. The business head of the kingdom resides on the edge of the North Sea.
But the bell tolled. The fishing industry worldwide killed its own small fry: when container ships and tankers beheaded sailing vessels, similarly Icelandic and Norwegian refrigerated freighters signalled the death knell for trawlers and owner-operated fishing boats; and Aberdeen’s shipbuilding days were over.
In the early 1970s, Britain was experiencing the three-day-week, unemployment stats for the country were the highest then known, and even the granite industry declined. Its clients metamorphosed from those who appreciated polished stone to faceless ‘councils’ and ‘road departments’ which required the precious quartz and gneiss resource to be ground into dust-like fragments which could be mixed with tar and spread in increasing quantities on the nation’s arteries.
It looked as if Aberdeen, like every other Scots city, might founder on the rocks of history.Then, lo and behold, along came oil. Bubbling up from below the North Sea in 1971, another industry was born. And the ‘silver city with the golden sands’ was perched on the shoreline, ready to receive it.
It is said that because of its very geographic isolation the county learned to take care of itself. And its humour has a lot to do with its character.
Now that there is talk of worldwide recession and dwindling of the oil resource, the current Aberdonian humorous response is ‘oil goes out, Donald Trump comes in’. This refers to the New York entrepreneur’s £1 billion golf course resort where sand dune reinforcing work has just begun on the very landholdings of Menie once owned by Danzig Willie. Aberdeenshire is not averse to turning full circle. It has so far weathered many storms through centuries of change.
So how did we fare in this last Great Storm? How did the planet fare?
Greece had 100ºF temperatures at Christmas and Abu Dhabi and Dubai had HAIL the day before the launch of the 2,717-feet Burj Khalifa tower in the first week of January.
Scotland and Aberdeenshire in particular were at the time experiencing the grip of an Arctic winter, with traffic on all roads down to minimum and gritting and snow-ploughing said by Council spokesmen to be ‘impossible’. While they reported worries that supplies of salt from the Cheshire salt mine might be exhausted, citrus orchards throughout the state of Florida were hit by snow and frost lingered long enough to decimate their total citrus crop for 2010.
At the same time Mount Nyamulagira in a sparsely populated area of the Democratic Republic of Congo erupted, threatening an enclave of rare chimpanzees.
Eureka and Haiti had 6.5 and 7.2 Richter earthquakes respectively, while inland Northern California and Southern Oregon, usually inundated with snow, received not one drop. States of emergency were declared for Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Francisco and Siskiyou counties and as the rainstorm headed east, floods swamped the Arizona desert, threatening homes and killing migrant birds. Las Vegas, Nevada had more rain in two days than for the total year of 2009 (1.69 inches). Alligators in the Everglades froze to death.
France’s Mistral blew early this year, wreaking havoc and damage to vines and vineyards in southern départements of Lyon and Provence; the Riviera harbours of St Tropez and Marseille suffered damage to private yachts.
Since the snowmelt arrived in Scotland in mid January, it is superfluous to mention that the resulting floods have routed gutters and drains in cities and country towns and overflowed ditches in outlying country areas. Perth (again) and Inverurie, Huntly and Kintore were unable to cope with the deluge. These levels of precipitation bring Aberdeen’s rainfall statistics for the year 2009 to mid January 2010 to 101.23 inches, for a county normally experiencing 33.6 inches per annum.
The Earth doesn’t like what we’ve been doing to her in the last thirty years. She’s beginning to fight back.
I am being a little self-driven here, but the temperatures in Northern Scotland recently have been a little more akin to Estonia and the temps in Estonia rather more like Scotland. Estonia had a rapid freeze over Christmas, but by Boxing Day it was blazing sunshine and thawing. We in the northern isles, on the other hand, had a solstitial temperature of -16ºC (approx. 25ºF) and more snow descended. One day of sunny plus degrees and then a refreeze. It’s down to minus something awful again tonight.
It all has something to do with that great author Arthur C Clarke who first predicted a new civilization with his 2001: A Space Odyssey and then followed it with the lesser-known sequel 2010: Odyssey Two.
Or, it could just be that dreaded winter high pressure over Iceland.
All summer long we prayed, begged, cajoled the elementals in Mother Earth’s atmospheric arsenal into giving us a high pressure over Iceland. These little devas may have been listening but they weren’t about to hand one over. A high pressure over Reykyavik in July and August just about guarantees the eastern and northern portions of the Scots peninsula temperatures like you would not believe!
We did have one tiny blip; I do remember. It came and hovered over this long-forgotten plain for two weeks around the time of Wimbledon. I remember this because when it’s Wimbledon, they are serving strawberries to the punters in the interval while the rest of us are craving the taste, the whiff of that red juice; our gardens are trying their best to ripen the much sought-after fruit, and it usually comes two weeks later after everybody has forgotten who won.
Not this year.
When Wimbledon was being served strawberries, the huge luscious berries in my strawberry bed were at their ripest. They were more delicious than any I can remember. So, some of us poor misguided souls thought the summer of 2009 was going to be another nine on the global-warming scale of one to ten.
It was short-lived.
I am not ungrateful. Those berries tasted so delicious, I can sense the tingle in my mouth even now. But two weeks after Wimbledon, two weeks into the height of strawberry harvest, we in Scotland were plunged into rain. And it rained from the end of July until the end of November and then the snow came. I think you might call that a little unfair of Santa’s little helpers in the department of the stratosphere over Iceland.
I should explain.The jet stream, just like the Gulf Stream, whooshes perennially by these shores. It arrives from the west and comes in a kind of wavy motion, following the temperature boundaries where, for example, cold from the polar Arctic region meets warmer air masses from the tropics. Jet streams are caused by a combination of atmospheric heating – solar radiation – and the earth’s rotation on its axis. The main commercial relevance of the jet stream, naturally, is in air travel, as flight time can be dramatically affected by either flying with or against the jet stream.
Meteorologists use the location of the jet stream as an aid in weather forecasting. But, as we know, weather is no longer predicted as you and I do it, looking at the sky and feeling the wind change; cloud-watching; most weather forecasting nowadays is predicted by computer with numbers on charts.
But there is something comforting about looking at a temperature gauge or a barograph or barometer and seeing the wavy line change from low to high. If the movement is rapid, excitement is tangible: good weather is on its way.
This is where the high pressure comes in. High pressure attracts warm and warm brings clearing skies and clearing skies make clouds disappear, dissolve, evaporate and we get that yellow glowing thing in the sky called the solar orb, sunshine. I know, I sound as if I haven’t seen it since July. It is almost true.
A high rotates as a cyclone with isobars travelling in a clockwise direction; northerly air stream (wind from the north) heralds the end of a low pressure and the start of a high; ; So when a high pressure sits overhead, in the cyclonic centre it is a still, clear day. High pressures centered over Iceland tend to sit; generate another friendly high and sit again. So the northern isles of Great Britain benefit by osmosis. By contrast, if the high pressure of June, July and August lingers (as it did throughout the summer of 2009) over the Bay of Biscay, then the edge of the high is too far away from our northern shores and all we get is the edge spin, suggested above: the following edge of a counterclockwise low drags after it a high; and conversely the following edge of a high brings an anticyclone low. Bay of Biscay high equals northern Scotland low, low low. That translates as cloud: rain, rain, and more rain.
July through November the lows bred more lows and hung over us like a meteorological hangover.Now, rather late on the scene, the high pressure has arrived; and because it is winter, those clear open skies are so clear and open we are receiving Arctic conditions daily. No cloud to keep the temperature from falling. Below zero freezing conditions more usual in eastern Europe at this time of year. Snow-clad landscape; white mountain ranges sparkling in clear air fifty miles distant.
At times like this our forebears would gather round the fire after a splendid seasonal feast and tell stories. Nowadays, of course, there is tele: and after New Year, if the snow is still with us (forecast is for it to continue) there will be more TV: for our American cousins and for those with satellite reception it will be Rose Bowl season: days on end of watching the sport of bling: football. I don’t begrudge the fans: we all need something to exercise the mind when the body is hibernating and adjusting to the rigours of winter.
We as a society have become near-immune to what is called in meteorological circles ‘severe weather’. But let’s think about that for a moment.
We have been subject lately to some pretty severe space weather. I heard (but it’s only a rumour) that another solar surge is on its way. We know that during the current solar minimum sunspots are infrequent, but, like the unexpected flare which took us by surprise on July 7th this year, coronal mass ejections (CMEs) can play havoc with our geomagnetic systems. Now that we are (practically) all on the same grid (electrical, telecommunications, satellite, computer, transport, GPS navigation), power-driven systems are extremely susceptible to solar storms. It’s not just snow freezing the light cables and clogging the plumbing: a mass power failure would not be a good thing while temperatures are as low as they are at present. We might suddenly come to the scary realization that the wall is very thin between us who are dependent on our winter heating systems for warmth and the homeless man lying wrapped in newspaper under the freeway.
Let’s look, just for example, at the strongest geomagnetic storm on record: the Carrington Event of September 2nd, 1859.This CME is named after British astronomer Richard Carrington who witnessed the solar flare with unaided eye while projecting an image of the sun on a screen. Geomagnetic activity triggered by the solar explosion electrified telegraph lines, shocked technicians and set fire to their telegraph papers. Aurora Borealis, (Northern Lights) spread as far south as Cuba and Hawaii; auroras over the Rocky Mountains were so bright, the glow woke campers who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning.
God forbid we should have another Carrington Event. We are ill-equipped as it is. In Northern Scotland, where there is no such thing as a motorway, autostrada or freeway, it takes council services all their time to grit icy roads to fragile outlying communities. People’s boilers and gas central heating break down and service technicians can’t reach remote districts because roads are impassable. This is what our society now expects: instantly accessible power; we are failure- and breakdown-intolerant. We do not expect the unexpected and yet the signs around us all point to Mother Nature giving us a shakedown.
I consider myself to be one of the fortunate ones: in that I have a winter store of homegrown vegetables, chickens that lay when it’s not too bitter, and an accessible supply of wood and (dare I say it, that politically-incorrect fuel): coal. If we get a severe storm warning, either earth weather or space weather, I shall, with angelic help, get by. I am not so sure about the flimsy-skirted, T-shirted commuter driving home in her mini without her winter boots, a hat or gloves, who gets caught out in the snowstorm or marooned in a drift.
If the devas are showing us signs of natural occurrences as we enter that long-heralded epoch beginning in twenty-ten, to keep us on our toes, may I suggest we prepare ourselves for what might be a year to remember.
There used to be legal ‘lighting-up times’ in Britain: this wasn’t a comical reminder to smoke a cigar or kindle the wood burning stove; it was a law that drivers should switch on headlights 30 minutes after sunset and off 30 minutes before dawn. These laws no longer exist. Legally drivers must simply switch lights on in vehicles whenever visibility is reduced.i rather miss the old ‘lighting-up times’. It was a way of keeping us in alignment with the hours of the day, with sun times: it helped us tune into the ‘real world’; you know that one out there that’s chucking down snow at us right now and freezing the pipes and causing animals in fields to die if they don’t have shelter; not really that a motorist these days has much time for such banalities. If you are driving in Sheffield or Sacramento, night time looks the same as day because all the lights are on anyway.
Just in case no one believes me, here are some sunrise and sunset times for Britain at the moment: if you live in Bournemouth, or the Isles of Scilly, the sun goes down at 4pm: you are blessed to be able to have a whole hour more light than someone living for example on Unst, the most northerly of the British Isles. Sunset there is 3pm. You get it at the other end of the day, too. You have the blessing of daylight as you drive to work in, say, Dover because the sun comes up at 8am. Pity the ferryboat captain in Wick harbor who doesn’t see the sunrise until 10 minutes to 9am and has to have his lights switched on again at 3pm for sunset.I started writing this at sunset: on the Moray Firth that’s 3:14pm and the day has ended. Night time activities begin. Living in the country, if you haven’t got all your animals inside, fed and watered, you’re going to have to do it in the dark. This was a way of life for thousands, perhaps millions, in days of yore, but few give it a thought these days. I won’t see sunlight again for another seventeen and one-half hours. That’s a remarkable amount of night time, if you really think about it.
There are compensations. Aurora Borealis, for one. Displays at these latitudes can last for hours. And, of course at the height of summer this far north, there is the most awesome array of light showered from above in a day which lasts equally as long as this winter night. Seventeen hours of light in summer; seventeen hours of dark in winter. No wonder they say the Norwegians, Icelandic poets and Scots bards have a poignancy in their work like no other, except perhaps the Russians.Nevertheless, because of the snowstorm, this writer is focused more at the moment on keeping body and soul together and that means the old Nirvana adage: ‘before and after achieving Nirvana, chop wood and carry water’.
And while that is a really poor excuse for an introduction to another poem about trees, wood, and burning logs; it’s all I’ve got right now. Days are short; birds and animals bring other demands. Night is a hard taskmistress.
I gave the wonderful wood-burning rhyme in a previous blog ‘for a Queen to warm her slippers by’. This one has slightly different meter, but it includes a more diverse array of woods.
I am particularly fond of the admonition toward the end. The writer (our perennial friend Anon) is quite clearly a supporter of the ancient Caledonian Pine, Pinus sylvestris now in short supply, although being gradually re-introduced and replanted privately.
For a country (Caledonia) which the Romans described as ‘thriving in Pine’, because the origial Caledonian Pine Forest stretched from coast to coast, we have been remarkably careless with this beautiful native tree.
Robert I Bruce, of course, was the main culprit: he burned his way from Kelso to the Comyn stronghold of the Earl of Buchan near Fraserburgh in 1308. This ‘herschip’ or harrying of Buchan was a treatment from which the country never recovered.
It is encouraging to note that the charity Trees for Life is replanting this and other native trees in considerable numbers in a northerly enclave of the original Caledonian Forest.
That little divertissement was a mere sidestep for tree-lovers. For wood-burners, here is the rhyme by our friend Anonymous.
Logs to Burn
Logs to burn, logs to burn
Logs to save the coal a turn;
Here’s a word to make you wise
When you hear the woodman’s cries
Never heed his usual tale
That he’s splendid logs for sale
The proper kind of logs to burn.
Oak logs will warm you well
If they’re old and dry.
Larch logs of pinewoods smell
But the sparks will fly.
Beech logs for Christmas time
Yew logs heat well
‘Scotch’ logs it is a crime
For anyone to sell.
Chestnut scarce at all.
Hawthorn logs are good to last
If cut in the fall.
Holly logs will burn like wax
You should burn them green.
Elm logs like smouldering flax
No flame to be seen.
Pear logs and apple logs
They will scent your room
Cherry logs across the dogs
Smell like flowers in bloom.
But ash logs all smooth and grey
Burn them green or old
Because of all that come your way
They’re worth their weight in gold. Anonymous