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About the Weather

March 31st, 2012 by Christian Ford

In Seattle, weather is identity.  Never mind that it rains more in New York and Chicago.  Or that the Northwest summer is five  months long and that the July sun hangs in the sky for nearly sixteen hours.  No, Seattle’s identity revolves around Rains All The Time.

Now, given the extraordinary constancy of Seattle’s weather, you’d think that for the people who live here it wouldn’t really be a topic of conversation any more than the fact that the sun came up again.   But it is.

So why are we still doing it?   Why is the weather the most popular segment on local news?  Why, when  children are so indoor and plugged in that there’s actually a movement (No Child Left Inside) to remind them that playing outside is a possibility, should we bother to talk about the weather?  Why, when we travel from one climate-controlled point to the next climate-controlled point inside the climate controlled bubbles of our vehicles, do we even care?

Maybe it’s nostalgia.  But there’s a chance that it goes deeper.

That other person at the bus stop may be an absolute stranger, but there’s one thing we unequivocally share.  That would be the other presence at the bus stop, the one reaching out and touching both of us.  The weather.
Standing at the bus stop in the rain or the wind, the natural world has a direct bearing on us.  For most people, that’s pretty much the only time the natural world has a direct, immediately perceivable, bearing on their lives.  But it used to be different.

Everything used to have a bearing.

When your food comes from the world you inhabit and not the store, there’s always something to share, and something to talk about.  It’s difficult for most of us to understand the “information stream” that nature puts out, largely because we’ve become deaf and blind to how she communicates and I include myself in that.  If I wanted to begin to understand that level of awareness, the way in which the natural world permeated our consciousness and our whole way of perception, I’d have somehow step out of my culture with its mercantilist mindset and computer metaphors.

Fortunately, I can.  I can step into the thoughts of a man who knew it in his bones.  His name was John Clare.  He was English, born ten years after the American Revolutionary War ended.  His was barely schooled and he went to work in the fields when he was still a child.   He was also, fortunately for us, a poet.

In the same way that we talk about local food, Clare was a local poet, absolutely specific to a certain place, namely Northhamptonshire and the village of Helpston.  Called the “peasant poet” in his own time, his writing is studded with language that is local, too, words unfamiliar and yet somehow evocative, as though there’s a dim cultural memory of a time when these things were common knowledge.

This poem is called Sport in the Meadows, and allow me to playact tour-guide on your journey into the past.  It’s spring, and as the flowers are released from their winter’s confinement, so are the children in this poem.  Their game is a kind of scavenger hunt, to find bird’s nests and newly bloomed flowers, partly for the race, partly for food (cowslip tea for this day and cowslip wine for winter) and also to make a “cuckaball,” a literal ball made of flowers that they can throw.   It’s a landscape they know intimately, sharing understanding with the sheep and cattle of exactly where the flowers can expect to be found.  It’s a landscape that provides not only the field and substance of their play, but also medicine for their hurts.

Maytime is to the meadows coming in,
And cowslip peeps have gotten eer so big,
And water blobs and all their golden kin
Crowd round the shallows by the striding brig.
Daisies and buttercups and ladysmocks
Are all abouten shining here and there,
Nodding about their gold and yellow locks
Like morts of folken flocking at a fair.
The sheep and cows are crowding for a share
And snatch the blossoms in such eager haste
That basket-bearing children running there
Do think within their hearts they’ll get them all
And hoot and drive them from their graceless waste
As though there wa’n't a cowslip peep to spare.
—For they want some for tea and some for wine
And some to maken up a cuckaball
To throw across the garland’s silken line
That reaches oer the street from wall to wall.
—Good gracious me, how merrily they fare:
One sees a fairer cowslip than the rest,
And off they shout—the foremost bidding fair
To get the prize—and earnest half and jest
The next one pops her down—and from her hand
Her basket falls and out her cowslips all
Tumble and litter there—the merry band
In laughing friendship round about her fall
To helpen gather up the littered flowers
That she no loss may mourn. And now the wind
In frolic mood among the merry hours
Wakens with sudden start and tosses off
Some untied bonnet on its dancing wings;
Away they follow with a scream and laugh,
And aye the youngest ever lags behind,
Till on the deep lake’s very bank it hings.
They shout and catch it and then off they start
And chase for cowslips merry as before,
And each one seems so anxious at the heart
As they would even get them all and more.
One climbs a molehill for a bunch of may,
One stands on tiptoe for a linnet’s nest
And pricks her hand and throws her flowers away
And runs for plantin leaves to have it drest.
So do they run abouten all the day
And teaze the grass-hid larks from getting rest.
—Scarce give they time in their unruly haste
To tie a shoestring that the grass unties—
And thus they run the meadows’ bloom to waste,
Till even comes and dulls their phantasies,
When one finds losses out to stifle smiles
Of silken bonnet-strings—and utters sigh
Oer garments renten clambering over stiles.
Yet in the morning fresh afield they hie,
Bidding the last day’s troubles all goodbye;
When red pied cow again their coming hears,
And ere they clap the gate she tosses up
Her head and hastens from the sport she fears:
The old yoe calls her lamb nor cares to stoop
To crop a cowslip in their company.
Thus merrily the little noisy troop
Along the grass as rude marauders hie,
For ever noisy and for ever gay
While keeping in the meadows holiday.

Now you could peg me as a luddite or nostalgacist for preferring that children get as excited about real birds as Angry Birds.  And you could point out that Clare hasn’t immortalized the small-pox scars on the children’s faces, or the life of hard work that this “sport” is an escape from, nor poetically captured the tubercular cough that Clare could hear in his own household.  (Not that he couldn’t.  If you’d like to have part of your day exquisitely ruined, you can read Clare’s The Dying Child).

I don’t want you to get me wrong.  I like being able to look up John Clare on Wikipedia  and not having to think about whether this summer will bring a particularly bad polio season.  But as much as we like to think that we’ve transcended our earthly origins, left behind the tyranny of being an animal at the mercy of nature, I don’t see anyone giving up food.  We have a relationship with nature that is as primal and essential as it can possibly be but, to look at our cultural priorities, (say the amount of play the price of gasoline gets vs the loss of topsoil) we seem to be in complete and willful denial.  There are times when I think that we’re still reacting to some sort of ancient, cultural memory, of when we truly were buffeted and killed by nature’s slightest whims; after all, Mother Nature has devastated her “children” in five separate Great Extinctions.  Psychologically, humanity behaves like an escapee from an abusive relationship.

Except there’s nowhere to escape to.  We’re still here, still in the relationship and the problem is that now we’re the abusers.   If you need proof, take a look at the Sixth Great Extinction, the one happening now at a rate of 140,000 species per year and the first great extinction that doesn’t have nature’s fingerprints all over it.

For a species locked into a life-sustaining relationship, we’re having a pretty serious communication breakdown.  It’s not that nature isn’t trying.  She’s even gone so far as to attempt to put the message across using the one channel of communication that we still notice, namely, that stuff we talk about at the bus stop.

But, you know, she says climate, we say weather, let’s call the whole thing off.

Which is too bad, because it seems to me that there might, just maybe, be something in between our world and John Clare’s, a space where both human desires and nature’s needs are heard.  It would require more work on our part (but given the employment numbers, I don’t know that that’s a bad thing.)  It would mean understanding that there’s a certain amount of sharing required, both with each other and with the other kinds of lives that inhabit the planet with us.  It could lead to a more harmonious existence, but it would require some sacrifice.

That’s the pinch.  Why should we change?  Why should we give up anything?  Why, just when we’ve domesticated nature, broken her from murderous queen to meek little wife, should we go back to listening to whatever she’s trying to say?  Maybe because, as Raymond Chandler reminds us, when the hot wind blows, anything can happen.  Even “meek little wives will feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.”

 

Pix:

Cowslips + Church by Lindsay Robinson
Cowslips Up Close by Andrew Stawarz
Ladysmock in Field by Jacob Whittaker
Ladysmocks Up Close by Dave Rogers
Waterblob by Clinton Little
Hawthorne Tree by Ambersky235
Hawthorne Blossoms by lostinfog
Plaintain by Aiaraldea Komunikazio Leihoa
Mother Nature by Alfred Hitchcock

Tags:  Food Culture 
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