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
This is what a sunflower is supposed to look like. All things being equal, you plant the seed in March or April (not outdoors in Scotland; on a windowsill or in the greenhouse, because it’s 57degrees N 2ºW where I am: that’s the latitude of Juneau, Alaska); water, love, watch and wait. About the last week of May it’s usually all right to plant it out into the garden. And in any given summer, Nature takes over and you get a sunflower: you know that big yellow thing with petals circling round a yellowish – sometimes blackish – centre, which bees love and when the seed sets, birds come and perch all day, pecking.
An attribute to any garden: that’s what they say in the horticultural centres and supermarkets across Britain: there, of course, they’re trying to sell you a potted plant because they think you haven’t been on the ball enough to plant your own from seed.
I do it every year. I plant seeds from last year’s sunflower success or a couple of big stripey ones from the birdseed bag. It doesn’t matter: in the Northeast of Scotland, you need all the encouragement you can get: any seed that sprouts is a success; if it flowers, it’s a glorious success. If it sets seed, then it has to be the summer of 1976, 1996, 2006: you know, a ‘bumper’ year.
So this March I found a really fat stripey seed – the last in a packet of ‘Giant Sunflower’, a big smiley yellow and black face to show you what to expect on the well-worn packet. In it went. Watered it, spoke to it, watched the curved thick neck pop out of the compost in its pot with joy and anticipation.
‘Plant out when all danger of frost is past’: they always say that on Thompson & Morgan seed packets. They must know they have customers in Ultima Thule, on the edge of the Arctic Circle. They have to cover themselves in case someone complains their product didn’t grow.
This year I waited until June. Frosts had to be past. Swallows were back, firmly in residence, busily building nests and laying eggs in mud scoops on rafters in my sheds. I had in the intervening months been carefully transferring the giant baby from pot to bigger pot in the greenhouse. At waist height, she was ready for the move.
I’d made a new ‘border’ the year before. What an inadequate Victorian description. I nearly killed myself digging out a section of unmown grass on a sunny slope; adding chicken manure from my faithful avian friends, and backfilling with rich mulch left from prolific leaf-fall on the driveway the previous autumn. A gardener’s delight: deep rich flower bed, simultaneously cleared avenue, so cars can actually get up the hill to my house, overgrown with and surrounded by Nature’s bounty. The sunflower and I were just dying to get into the new earth and get ‘established’ (another gardening term they’re fond of in catalogues).
June went well. I planted out other beauties cossetted and nurtured in the glasshouse through an uncertain spring: sweet peas, poppies, nasturtium, nicotiana (‘tobacco plant’) and penny black. People who read about and plant their annuals direct in the earth have no idea.
But things were looking up.Days lengthened to become endless wonderful light-filled experiences one following another. At 57ºN by the middle of June there are roughly three hours of ‘dark’. It’s not quite the land of the midnight sun, but it’s close. You can read a book outside at midnight. And this June was a balmy month.
At solstice and lasting for around two weeks there was a remarkable heatwave. That’s what we call it in Scotland. In other places in Britain they call it ‘summer’. It’s when the sun shines consistently over a period of a week or so; you know, blue sky, no wind, temperatures rising into the 70s. That’s Fahrenheit. I never could get my mind around Centigrade, except for the boiling point of water. Up here near the Arctic circle there’s really no point converting your way of thinking about temperature, because any minute it’s going to change.
This unprecedented spell of warm allows plants and humans to believe all is well with the world. That Scotland is just another place on the planet where life goes on like other ‘real’ places and the garden is a room added to the house. The rural idyll envisioned by Charlotte Brontë and Thomas Hardy.
By the first week of July I had the best crop of strawberries I can remember – ever – coinciding with the second week of Wimbledon. At this latitude, that is a miracle.Sunflower Sally was stretching up there; the stem was big like a fist at the base, needed stakes to keep her in position – in case a stray gust of wind should arrive and surprise…
The rest of the border was coming along nicely, everything starting to flower and send out scent into the warm air. It was like paradise. Green sward, pink, peach, blue, violet, red and orange blossoms mingling with ferny foliage, bees’ buzz, birdsong; hardly a cloud in the cerulean sky. It lasted another week.
Then Scots summer returned to normal. Wind blew from the west, clouds scudded, rain fell on fields and felines, hens stopped laying, day followed night. You know, the usual. Great for growth, they say in other parts of the world. Very green, they say in places where they have forest fires, ground cracking and drying up from lack of water. Yes, very.
I needn’t go on. You get the picture.
August followed July. It rained. Hurricanes Ana and Bill hit the Bahamas and the tail end wound up battering the East coast of Scotland. Crop circles appeared in English fields with regularity until harvested; then the phenomenon was relegated to blogs and picture files. No crop circles in Scotland – Cosmic Consciousness knows better than implant a design in a place where there’s nothing to harvest until mid-September. If you’re lucky. No people either, to come and analyse and gawk.
It’s now the middle of September and farmers round here have finally had their prayers answered: three days of ‘open weather’ (that’s shorthand for no rain) to cut, bale and bring in their barley. They’re all doing it. The air is still warm, buzzing with the distant sound of combine harvesters and tractor loads of grain to-ing and fro-ing from yellow field to dry barn. Nobody has come to marvel at my 12-foot special: tall, stately, erect (staked like a buttress) and still green. They’re all busy. The days are shorter, nights cool. Crisp.
They say if there’s a polar shift, the East coast of Scotland will be the most desirable place to live on the face of the planet. No people means endless vistas of green, space to ruminate and meditate and gaze at mountains and plain. No sticky problems getting to work on overcrowded motorways and packed trains.In a polar shift, days would be shorter but warmer; sunflowers would blossom; and pigs might fly. I’ll stick with positive affirmations. You know, visualization of the mighty solar orb sending light beams for one more month…
Time to go outside now and see if she’s showing the merest hint of yellow.
One swallow does not a summer make. Or one sunflower, for that matter.