Four weather writing lessons from someone who died more than 300 years ago

January 26, 2015
Category: Uncategorized

I have dear friends and family members from Maryland to Maine so I am paying special attention to their fate over the next few days.  The weather event has an interesting name:  a bombogenesis, more sinister, it sounds, than a polar vortex. Forecasters are describing a storm of “historic proportions,” one that might produce as much as three feet of snow in parts of New England.

To family and friends in Rhode Island, I say, only half in jest:  move to Florida. But not this week.

 Sir John Evelyn

Sir John Evelyn

I am a reading and writing teacher so it’s my habit to look for lessons in the journalism and literature of the past. In the case of weather, I have stumbled upon the work of a British author named John Evelyn (1620-1706). He led a long and distinguished life as a thinker, author, botanist, and early environmentalist. But it is his diary, first published in 1818, which revealed the full range of his interests. One is weather and its effects.

There is a brief entry for January 1, 1684: “The weather continuing intolerably severe, streets of booths were set upon on the Thames; the air was so very cold and thick, as of many years there had been the like. The smallpox was very mortal.”

For the record, this report comes in just 36 words. To break it down into themes may be stretching it, but, hey, it’s what I do. It has, remarkably, five parts:

  1. An analysis of the severity of the weather.
  2. A report on human activity inspired by the weather.
  3. A mention of air quality.
  4. A comparison of this bad weather to bad weather from the past.
  5. An assessment of the effects on the most vulnerable.

People look for indoor entertainment in the bad weather and our author found it the next evening at the house of Sir Stephen Fox: “After dinner came a fellow who ate live charcoal, glowingly ignited, quenching them in his mouth, and then champing and swallowing them down. There was a dog also which seemed to do many rational actions.” (Stupid human and pet tricks, even back then!)

Four days pass to the next entry: “The river quite frozen.”

The frigid weather continues in London for more than a fortnight, and it is the entry of

January 24, 1684, that has received most historical notice, including a reference in John Carey’s historical anthology Eyewitness to History:

The frost continues more and more severe, the Thames before London was still planted with booths in formal streets, all sorts of trades and shops furnished, and full of commodities, even to a printing press, where the people and ladies took a fancy to have their names printed, and the day and year set down when printed on the Thames: this humor took so universally, that it was estimated that the printer gained £5 a day, for printing a line only, at sixpence a name, besides what he got by ballads, etc.

Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs to and fro, as in the streets, sleds, sliding with skates, a bull-baiting, horse and coach-races, puppet-plays and interludes, cooks, tippling, and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water, while it was a severe judgment on the land, the trees not only splitting as if the lightning struck, but men and cattle perishing in divers places, and the very seas so locked up with ice, that no vessels could stir out or come in.  The fowls, fish, and birds, and all our exotic plants and greens, universally perishing. Many parks of deer were destroyed, and all sorts of fuel so dear, that there were great contributions to preserve the poor alive.

Nor was this severe weather much less intense in most parts of Europe, even as far as Spain and the most southern tracts. London, by reason of the excessive coldness of the air hindering the ascent of the smoke, was so filled with the fuliginous [sooty] steam of the sea-coal, that hardly could one see across the street, and this filling the lungs with its gross particles, exceedingly obstructed the breast, so as one could scarcely breathe. Here was no water to be had from the pipes and engines, nor could the brewers and divers other tradesmen work, and every moment was full of disastrous accidents.

What a remarkable 331-word report.  Let’s X-ray it for its elements:

  • Lesson:  Even in the worse storms some people have to be outside, others want to be outside, others find opportunities to work outside. What has happened in London is that it is so cold that the Thames has frozen so hard that the citizens turn it into a spontaneous thoroughfare. Rather than petrify the city, the ice and cold become an opportunity for enterprise.  People sell goods and food, there are games and entertainments, even the prostitutes, one surmises, occupy the “lewd places” for a quick warm-up. The great detail is that a printer sets up shop on the frozen river, printing out the names of ladies as novelties to mark this historical cold snap.
  • Lesson: In any great storm, there are winners and losers. For the ingenious, the frozen river turns into a “bacchanalian triumph, a carnival on the river.” But in the second half of that second paragraph, we see the catastrophes on the land. The point of view has a cinematic effect, a kind of aerial shot capturing a devastated landscape, where living things are destroyed, from the trees to deer to human beings, and powerful human industry is frozen in time and place.
  • Lesson:  While there is a degree of democracy in the weather – the snow falls on rich and poor alike – the privileged have more ability to deal with the consequences, leaving some stakeholders – the sick, poor, and old – most vulnerable. The big London freeze put a premium on the acquisition and use of fuel, and the poor needed contributions from those who had more. The lack of flowing water put both industry and human life in jeopardy. Accidents are everywhere.
  • Lesson:  Weather creates direct and collateral damage to the environment. In that final passage, John Evelyn describes a poisoned atmosphere and the health risks that accompany it. A weather event – blizzard, hurricane, tsunami – is a destructive force, one that will be judged historically by the loss of property and natural resources – but most powerfully by the loss of life.

If you are reading this from heaven, Sir John Evelyn, we say thank you for keeping your journal, for your vivid reporting, for your concern for the health of the environment, and, most of all, for your attention to life and its loss.