Long Live the Trees!

Elizabeth and DarcyHow many times have you watched the TV mini-series Pride & Prejudice (1995) with Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett and Colin Firth as Fitzwilliam Darcy? (Men need not reply.)

Confession time: I watch the five-part movie at least once a year with a group of girlfriends over the Labor Day weekend. It’s a tradition. After eighteen years, I can quote long sections of the script by memory.

Pride & PrejudiceIn one of the movie’s pivotal scenes, Elizabeth Bennett has gone with her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner on a tour of the Peak District. The Gardiners suggest a visit to Pemberley, the country estate of the Darcy family, and—horror of horrors—Mr. Darcy, who is supposed to be in London, shows up. Elizabeth, assuming that Darcy will be offended by their presumption, is mortified. To her amazement, he is “all ease and friendliness.” Seeing Elizabeth’s companions, he asks for an introduction.

“You are staying at the inn at Lambton, I hear,” Darcy says.

“Yes, sir,” Mrs. Gardiner replies. “I grew up there as a girl.”

“Delightful village. I remember running from Pemberley to Lambton almost every day as a boy during the horse-chestnut season. There was one very fine tree there.”

“On the green. By the smithy.”

England is famous for its fine and ancient trees. Most are found, however, not on village greens or in woodlands but in churchyards and historic parklands where they have plenty of space to grow and “long continuity of benign management.” (Britain’s Tree Story, Ray Hawes, National Trust).

Like all living things, trees have a life span. Unfortunately, England’s great trees are being lost at an alarming rate, victims to disease, storms, vandalism, and old age. Even after trees die, however, they can stand for many years, monuments to the past.

Queen Elizabeth IOne such tree is Queen Elizabeth’s Oak, which stands in the grounds of Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. On the seventeenth of November 1558, the young Elizabeth was allegedly sitting beneath its spreading limbs, either eating an apple or reading the Bible (depending on the version) when a messenger arrived from London with the news that Queen Mary had died, making Elizabeth the new queen. “This is the Lord’s doing,” the young Elizabeth is reputed to have said, “and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

In 1846 Queen Victoria took an acorn from the great oak. Queen Elizabeth's Oak 1893By 1935 the tree was on its last legs, propped up and bound with iron rings. The last remnants were finally removed on the seventeenth of November 1978, exactly 420 years after Elizabeth received the news that changed history.

Fortingall YewThe oldest tree in Britain—and reputedly the oldest living organism in Europe—is the Fortingall Yew, which stands near the parish church in Fortingall, Perthshire, Scotland. Recent estimates place the tree’s age at around 5,000 years. This tree witnessed the rise and fall of Greece and Rome. When Stonehenge was built, the Fortingall Yew was already mature. When Jesus Christ was born, the tree was ancient. In 1759, the Fortingall Yew measured an impressive fifty-two feet in girth. Natural decay of the ancient heartwood has turned the once-magnificent trunk into several stems, like individual trees.

Local tradition claims that Fortingall was the birthplace of Pontius Pilate, the Roman Procurator in Judea when Jesus was arrested and crucified. According to the legend, Pilate was born when his father visited the local Celtic peoples as emissary from Augustus Caesar. By the seventh century A.D., Fortingall was an important Christian center, the place where missionaries from the island of Jura off Scotland’s west coast came to preach to the Picts. Even then the Fortingall Yew would have been of significant size.

The greatest threat to the venerable tree has been relic hunters who, in the past, removed large branches to make drinking cups and other curiosities. Fortunately, the Fortingall Yew is now protected by a low stone wall. It remains in reasonably good health, producing abundant foliage. Cuttings taken by Britain’s Forestry Commission are being propagated for planting elsewhere, including a proposed mile-long hedge at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh.

Long live the Fortingall Yew—a very fine tree indeed.

Livin’ La Vida Fria: Life in the Polar Vortex

WINTER: most of us have at least one that stands out in memory. The year the snowdrift came over the windowsill. The year the car slipped down the hill and took out the neighbor’s mailbox. The year we made the snow igloo big enough for three whole kids.

OtziFor “Ötzi,” Europe’s oldest known natural mummy, the winter of memory—3,200 B.C. or thereabouts—turned out to be his last. A trip into the Ötztal Alps between Austria and Italy ended with an early spring snowstorm. He fell victim to that winter, his body hidden by glacial ice until he emerged, amazingly preserved, in September of 1991. We know what he wore, what he carried with him, what he ate at his last meal. For his family, never knowing his fate, it was a painful, private memory.

Other winters have become part of our collective memory. During the “Little Ice Age” in Europe, lasting from the mid-14th century to the 19th century, there were many memorable winters. On Christmas Day of 1564, Queen Elizabeth the First took to the ice on the Thames River and practiced archery. The first recorded “Frost Fair” in London was held in 1608. People traveled for miles on the frozen Thames, by sled and by sleigh. Frost FairAs the Frost Fair became an annual event, fires were lit and booths set up offering drinks, gambling, dancing, and souvenirs. The Thames became a thoroughfare and a village. Every sort of entertainment could be found, from puppet shows to bear-baiting to carriage races. The last Frost Fair was held in 1814, when an elephant was led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge. Someone during those waning years distributed handbills with the following inscription (now memorialized on five slabs of granite in the pedestrian tunnel under Southwark Bridge):

Behold the Liquid Thames frozen o’re,
That lately Ships of mighty Burthen bore.
The Watermen for want of Rowing Boats
Make use of Booths to get their Pence & Groats.
Here you may see beef roasted on the spit
And for your money you may taste a bit.
There you may print your name; tho cannot write
Cause num’d with cold: tis done with great delight,
And lay it by that ages yet to come
May see what things upon the ice were done.

I’ve seen some memorable winters in my time. In February of 1980, a team of amateur hockey players, against all odds, took the gold in Lake Placid, New York—the “miracle on ice.” The great Blizzard of Buffalo took place at the end of January, 1977. Winds gusting up to 75 mph brought snow drifts that covered cars and stranded people in their homes. Buffalo BlizzardOne of my relatives, who lived near Tonawanda, outside Buffalo, lost her heat and had to burn furniture in the fireplace. Now that stuck in my memory.

The most memorable winter for me was the one my husband and I spent on a remote Air Force station in Clear, Alaska. As fate would have it, we set the record that year for the coldest temperature ever officially recorded in the United States. The day was January 23rd, a Saturday. My husband was taking his shift in the radar facility, watching for missiles from Russia. I was working in the office of the NCO/Officer’s Club. The day began at a balmy 30 degrees. Then the temperature started dropping, fast—so fast that the temperature was broadcast hourly, site-wide, over the PA system. Around noon we slid past zero and kept going: 10 below, 30 below, 50 below, 70 below. Having never experienced an Alaska winter, I felt like the temperature might keep plummeting forever. It was scary.

We eventually bottomed out at minus 80 degrees, a new record—one that still stands. But that was only the beginning. That day was the first in a low-temperature period that lasted until March. For six weeks, the temperature never got above 50 below zero. As Garrison Keillor once said, that year “Mother Nature made a couple of serious attempts to kill us.” Driving anywhere to get supplies was out of the question. We calculated the exact half-way point between home and the base, just in case the car died—although walking for help was a pipedream. Jnorthern lightsust breathing the outside air could permanently damage your lungs. One amazing experience that winter was seeing the spectacular Northern Lights.

We lived off-base in a trailer, if you can imagine that. Our poor oil furnace worked continuously, managing to keep us in the range of 50 degrees or so. All our windows frosted over. Our water pipes froze solid, and we had to bathe and wash clothes on base. Even our propane froze (is that possible?), so we ate our meals on base as well. Come March, the cold finally abated, and we moved from the trailer to a double log cabin in the tiny village of Anderson. It felt like heaven.

The memory of that winter puts our cold weather this year—the so-called “Polar Photographer UnknownVortex”—in perspective. Besides, February is just around the corner. Groundhog Day. Then March will come, bringing rain and the first hints of spring. Oh, how we will celebrate spring this year. In the meantime, we can dream.

1816: The Year Without A Summer


Have I missed something? It is mid-May, right? 

Two days ago I received an email from an English mystery-writer friend who is vacationing in Colorado after the Malice Domestic convention. “It’s snowing here,” she wrote. This morning I awoke to a weather report forecasting below-freezing temperatures in many parts of the upper Midwest. Including the part where I live. The winter of 2013 is going down in memory as The Winter That Refused To Go Away. 

At least things aren’t as bad as they were in 1816—at least not yet. That year is known as The Year Without a Summer or The Summer That Never Was or Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death. The unusually cold weather in 1816 was felt across the northern hemisphere but had the greatest impact in the northeastern United States, Atlantic Canada, and parts of western Europe. 

In New England, the summer of 1816 witnessed snowfalls in May, June, and even early July. These were followed by nighttime frosts in July and August and killing frosts by early September. Crops failed, and food shortages led to the first mass migration from New England to the Midwest, shifting the center of farming in the U.S. forever. In Europe there were food riots. At least 200,000 died from hunger and a severe typhus epidemic. 

So what caused the unusual weather in 1816? At the time, some blamed it on God’s displeasure with the War of 1812 (which lasted until February of 1814). Others blamed it on Benjamin Franklin’s crazy experiments with lightning rods and electricity.  

Today, climate studies indicate that 1816 was the culmination of a “mini ice age” that lasted from 1400 to around 1860. In addition, the eruption on April 15, 1815, of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia spewed an estimated 1.7 million tons of ash into the atmosphere.  

Every cloud has a silver lining, they say.  

High levels of volcanic ash in the atmosphere led to unusually beautiful sunsets as captured in the paintings of J. M. W. Turner. The lack of oats to feed horses gave the German inventor Karl Drais the brilliant idea for the “velocipede,” a method of horseless transportation that led to the modern bicycle. And the cold, wet weather kept Mary Shelley and a group of literary friends cooped up during a Swiss alpine holiday. To redeem the time, someone proposed a contest to see who could write the scariest story. Shelly’s offering was her novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Lord Byron’s was “A Fragment,” a short story which later inspired Polidori’s The Vampyre, a precursor to Dracula. 

I’m looking for the silver lining this summer. Maybe I’ll get a lot of writing done.