"Roundheads and Ramblings"
When I’m getting ready to start writing a new book, I take
the time to find out what was going on during the historical period in
question. Normally I’m looking for wars,
major battles, presidential elections, economic crises, inventions, new laws—any
event that might change the lives of my characters. When my story is set in Charleston,
South Carolina or the Low Country between Charleston and Savannah, I check the
weather conditions, too. That’s a region prone to hurricanes, major temperature
fluctuations, insect infestations, earthquakes, and lethal epidemics.
This time, however, I was in for a surprise. I was getting
reading to write Henrietta’s Journa
set in Charleston in the 1830s, and I wanted to know if there had been any
hurricanes. The period turned out to be relatively quiet on the weather front.
Only a couple of tropical storms threatened, and those barely brushed the city.
I was not expecting to find two major astronomical events. They were both so
spectacular that I had to write them into my story. What caught me most off
guard was the realization that just as I would be getting ready to announce the
upcoming publication of this new book, two similar events would be
happening in South Carolina in 2017.
The first event was a massive storm of meteorities witnessed
all across the South on November 13, 1833. No mere meteor shower, this! People
were terrified, many declaring that the world was coming to an end as the
sparks seemed to be falling all around them. The occasion was the Leonid
Shower, which occurs in mid-November every thirty-three years. In 1833, the
earth’s orbit took it very close to the orbit of the comet Tempel-Tuttle and was said to have caused some 100,000
shooting stars per minute. Another legend says that the song “Stars Fell on
Alabama” was written to commemorate the event . And witnesses declared that this famous woodcut was an accurate depiction of what happened.
Now, in 2017, we are told that an even greater
meteor storm will fill the skies on Saturday, August 12. This one
comes from the Swift-Tuttle comet and is called a Perseid shower. Although
articles on the internet are claiming that it will be the brightest shower in
human history, its expected 300 shooting stars per hour cannot hope to rival
what Henrietta Ainesworth witnessed in 1833. Still if you want to get a feel
for what Henrietta’s experience was like, it wouldn’t hurt to look up at the
sky on Saturday night.
Stay tuned to hear about the second event.
Today—July 15—is St. Swithin’s Day. Why is that important? because it allows you to get a weather forecast for the rest of the summer. Here’s the traditional rhyme:
St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ‘twill rain nae mare
For the historically-minded, St. Swithun was an Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Winchester who lived in the ninth century. His tenure as bishop ran from 853 to approximately 862. This statue of him used to decorate the west portal of Winchester Cathedral. Today, if you want to see it, you can visit him in the crypt.
For the superstitious, I must warn you that his weather-predicting ability has been rated considerable below that of Puxatawney Phil. You must admit that the probability of England’s weather being consistently wet or dry for forty days in a row is highly unlikely. On the other hand, the prediction often works for our southern states. Today, for example, the weather forecasters here are predicting bright sunshine and clear skies with intermittent thunderstorms. I’m assuming that if we get both, a prediction that the mix will continue for the next 40 days does not seem unreasonable. I’d bet on it. Thanks, Swithun, old chap.
Does anything in this news article from 150 years ago sound familiar? I'm almost embarrassed to write anything about the weather because we've been very lucky in Memphis so far this year: NO SNOW! But our temperatures, like elsewhere, have been unusually low. We dealt with a frozen pipe after a 9-degree night a week or so ago, but nothing like what the Commercial Appeal reported in 1864!
In recognition of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, “Civil War-Era
Memories” features excerpts from The Memphis Daily Appeal of 150 years
ago. The Appeal is publishing from Atlanta. Perspective from our staff
is in italics.
Jan. 20, 1864
We have frequently heard of our troops “charging the Yankees,” but
they have invariably been fortified with muskets and fixed bayonets. It
remained for (Gen. Nathan Bedford) Forrest to inaugurate charging an
enemy without a weapon of any description. In his recent retreat from
Jackson, Tennessee, he was attacked by the Yankees near the line of the
Memphis and Charleston railroad, and his armed forces being small, he
ordered the new recruits, two thousand in number, who had not received
arms, to charge the enemy. They immediately rushed forward, and the
Yankees, astounded at the force coming toward them, fled in all
directions, leaving Forrest a clear road to Oxford.
An account from Jan. 23 describes the charge in more detail:
(Forrest) divided his men into two columns, one of which he sent, under
Col. Faulkner, across the railroad, within five miles of Memphis. The
other he commanded in person, taking the Bolivar route, and crossing the
railroad near Collierville. Near Bolivar, he met Col. Hatch’s Yankee
cavalry, and though they largely outnumbered his force, he charged them
with a yell, causing them to scatter in every direction ... Not more
than a third of Gen. Forrest’s men were armed, but he mixed up the armed
with the unarmed men, and ordered the whole to charge at once. His men
were nearly all raw recruits, while the Federals had, from their own
accounts, not less than twenty thousand disciplined men after him.
Jan. 22, 1864
Letter from Mississippi (Grenada) — The weather continues intensely
cold. The managers of the hospitals are taking advantage of the heaviest
ice ever known in Mississippi to lay in a supply for next summer.
Travel and mails have been much interrupted by water and mud freezing
over the railroad tracks.
Memphis Intelligence — The cold was severe in Memphis — 10 below zero
... On President’s Island about eighty negroes perished. A detachment
of ten soldiers from Fort Pillow, chasing after deserters, were frozen,
as were also five on a sandbar in the river ... At Cairo the mercury
stood at 15 degrees below zero, at St. Louis 25 below.
It's been gloomy all day here in Memphis -- warm, for the most part, but terribly windy, dark, and rainy. The prognosticators are still calling for rapidly-dropping temperatures and copious snowfall, but the radar maps suggest that the whole winter storm thing is going to pass us by, for the umpteenth time. That's not a complaint, really. We've been very lucky to have avoided all of the weather-related trauma that the rest of the country has experienced. But it makes me a little nervous. There's a pattern forming here.
The weather man predicts gloom and doom.
We all get ready -- stocking up on ingredients for French Toast parties (that's milk and bread!)
Next time the warnings com it's harder to get all excited. And complacency is dangerous.
Anyway, I've been hunkered down all day, picking away at bits of research but unable to concentrate much on writing while scanning the horizon for the snow clouds. I've been badly in need of an "Atta-Girl!" to push me back into full-frenzied writing mode.
And then one arrived. The Winter 2014 issue of Dispatches
, the online magazine of the Military Writers Society of America, popped up in my inbox. And there I discovered not one, but two "Atta-Girls" for my book The Road to Frogmore.
First came an announcement that Frogmore
had been chosen as Book of the Month for last November. And then a second commendation included it on the Author of the Year's recommended reading list for Winter 2014.
So thank you, all, for your kind reviews and complimentary remarks. It's lovely to be reassured that serious books can earn serious attention. Now -- back to work!
Anybody else ready for Spring? Yeah, yeah, I hear all you folks snowed in again in the northeast, and I'm sure you don't want to hear a lament from Memphis, where it just keeps raining. But I'm feeling particularly gloomy, so you'll just have to bear with me for a bit.
I always have difficulty with this time of year. In 2000, our only son died of cancer at the end of February, just 10 days short of his 29th birthday. Most of the time we have learned to cope, but late February and early March are days we just "get through," no matter how busy we keep ourselves. And this year, what with stubborn politicians, tornadoes, blizzards, floods and drought, a pope who quit and a cardinal admitting his indiscretions, Apple stocks plummeting for no good reason, and all the other worldwide crises, I've had more than my usual trouble finding bright spots.
Our 18-year-old cat wanders the house wailing in a particularly shrill way, probably because he's going deaf and can't hear himself if he just meows. Our homeowners' association just issued a "new plan" to deal with potential criminal activity in the neighborhood; it involves leaving a note in a sealed envelop in a box outside the clubhouse door --which seems to me to be a particularly ineffective (and potentially dangerous) method of reporting a prowler! I'm trying to help with the printed program for a dinner on Thursday night, but everyone involved keeps making last-minute changes. I've had two more this morning. I'm also trying to get ready to run a two-day meeting on Friday and Saturday, while people are still fussing about the price of a hotel hamburger lunch. The CEO of our non-profit wants his performance eval done this week but so far has failed to get the correct form to me. The household pest treatment guy just did his quarterly thing and left me a bill without the amount filled in. Do you think I get to choose the price? A commenter on this blog took me to task for failing to do research, all the while revealing that s/he had no experience with the issue s/he was arguing about.
And so my week goes. Can it really only be Tuesday morning? Why are the juncos still hanging around? I'm ready for robins and bluebirds. Our temperature just dropped within the hour from 61 degrees to 39 degrees and the wind is now whipping around the house. Aren't our southern trees supposed to be budding out by now, and shouldn't there be daffodils and tulips?
Daylight Savings Time starts this coming Sunday, so the longer days may help. Maybe the world will come to its senses next week? Or the week after, when we head for Hilton Head for a week of relaxation (except for two book talks and signings)? I definitely need a Spring Break!