medieval weather

Snow20121229I remember blizzards in Manhattan in the 1970s, when several feet of snow would bring the city to a standstill. For the first day after the storm, you could see sleds and cross-country skiers in the middle of the streets, no cars in sight — except for their outlines under the snow.

The city recovered quickly, but I enjoyed that sense of being out of time, of life (and especially school!) being suspended. This comes back to me as I read James Burke’s The Day the Universe Changed, in which he describes how life reshaped itself as Europe left the Middle Ages:

Without calendars and clocks or written records, the passage of time was marked by memorable events. In villages it was, of course, identified by seasonal activity: “When the woodcock fly,” “At harvest time,” and so on. Country people were intensely aware of the passage of the year. But between these seasonal cues, time, in the modern sense, did not exist.

Not only did the weather determine our awareness of time; it determined almost everything about our lives:

Throughout the entire history of man until 1720, the number of people alive at any time in any society was ultimately dictated by the weather. In good weather and full harvest, people ate more and were healthier. They produced more children, because they expected them to be able to survive in the clement temperature. When the population became too big for the land to support, either more land was cleared and planted, or the food supply became marginal. Whichever was the case, the next time the weather turned bad, the fall in crop levels would cause widespread famine and death. In turn the succeeding generation married later and had fewer children, so there were fewer mouths to feed. Fewer people would work the land and output would fall again, until the return of good weather.

The Day the Universe ChangedBy the 20th century, the weather had become a circumstance within our lives instead of the overwhelming factor determining them:

Above all, our lives are no longer totally controlled by nature. In general we do not suffer the cycle of feast and famine brought by the vagaries of the seasons. We control nature, with power far beyond what it can muster against us.

But in the Catskill Mountains, at the close of 2012, I’m feeling much less in control of nature, despite the heat and electricity and hot and cold running water. I’ve made two trips down and back up the mountain recently, first to get my mother-in-law from the airport and then, a week later, to return her there so she can fly to France. She had scheduled her flights well in advance so that our timing would allow me to drive back up the mountain before dark. Just before she arrived, it had rained so much in the Catskills that the creeks and rivers were overflowing. As I drove down the mountain road to get her from the airport, there were waterfalls where there’s usually only rock face. Some of the waterfalls were pouring down onto the only road, a curvy cliff-side route that I’m cautious driving on under the best of circumstances. (As I approached the Albany airport, the clouds parted, and I saw, over the runway, the largest, brightest, most vivid rainbow I’ve ever seen.)

The worst of Hurricane Sandy passed us by, but we know fellow homeschoolers who were without power for weeks. They seemed to take it in stride. This aspect of the rural mindset is still alien to me. Without power, how do you charge your Kindle?

With Christmas over, it’s time for us to return to (slightly) warmer climes, but now winter storm "Freyr" is laughing at our arrogance in thinking we get to plan the timing of our comings and goings. I’m happy that all my gadgets are working, but I do feel a bit like the weather’s plaything.


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