The language of weather

The weather, my nation’s favourite topic.  Where would British small talk be without it?!

But weather, of course, provides more than a polite interchange between strangers waiting for buses.  A world without weather would be very strange indeed.  A world without weather would mean a world without plants so it wouldn’t be a world with humans in.

Scientific definitions

Before we get onto the more well used weather language, I want to take a look at the scientific language.  A lot of words are used in weather forecasts which we just sort of get used to and don’t really think about.  Some of these are everyday words which have specific meanings to meteorologists and some are words we don’t tend to find outside weather.

We have the Beaufort wind scale (more about Beaufort later this month) which uses fairly common language to describe and quantify wind levels.  Here we find “calm”, “light breeze”, “near gale”, “violent storm” etc, all used in day to day conversations to mean different things but when used in a weather forecasting or scientific setting, have very precise meanings.  The same is true of timescales in weather forecasts.  Imminent means expected within six hours, soon is six to twelve hours and later is more than twelve hours away.

I’m mentioning this use of language as it might be interesting to incorporate into some creative writing.  You could do some interesting playing around with meanings and mixing the scientific, precise definition with the colloquial one.

Weather metaphors

There are lots of weather metaphors, particularly used when it comes to discussing someone’s mood, eg chill out, he stormed out, face like thunder, got a frosty response…  You can be showered with gifts, have a foggy memory, be hit by a hail of bullets or be the sunshine of someone’s life.

You could find difficult relationships start to thaw as you enter your sunset or twilight years, but you could also find yourself in a bit of a dry spell… Unless you’re lucky enough for someone to take a shine to you and have a whirlwind romance! Of course, relationships might start to drift away as you enter the autumn of your life.  But your seasoned wisdom from weathering the storm may have taught you to make hay when the sun shines.  And there is no longer any need to save for a rainy way, you can chill out, shoot the breeze and have your head in the clouds without consequence!

See what I mean about there being lots of weather metaphors?!  Whilst I have obviously, intentionally, gone over the top in that last paragraph, bits of it could have been read without realising that.

Regional weather

One of the really beautiful things about weather is the regional words.  Often these words spring up because of specific weather phenomena which don’t occur elsewhere, or at least not nationwide.  For example, people living by the coast or making their living at sea will need more words for sea related weather than someone in a desert.  The former group need to know about different kinds of storms, different sorts of rain as they will affect their live and livelihoods whereas the second group of people have much less use for those distinctions as they won’t experience them.

A yowe-tremmle—literally a “ewe-tremble”—is an old Scottish dialect word for a week of unusually cold or rainy weather beginning in the final few days in June that is literally cold enough to make the season’s freshly-sheared sheep “tremmle,” or shiver.
Mental Floss

Robert MacFarlane’s book Landmarks is great for looking at regional words.  He looks beyond weather and compiles glossaries of words and phrases that relate to nature and tells us where they come from.  Another person to turn to for regional or specialised words is Suzy Dent.  Both have twitter accounts which shares a wide range of lost or little known words and their meanings.

Ammil is a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter. It is thought to derive from the Old English ammel, meaning “enamel”, and is an exquisitely exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen, but never before named. Shetlandic has a word, pirr, meaning “a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on the water”.

The variant English terms for icicle – aquabob (Kent), clinkerbell and daggler (Hampshire), cancervell (Exmoor), ickle
(Yorkshire), tankle (Durham) and shuckle (Cumbria) – form a tinkling poem of their own. 

Robert MacFarlane

Looking at Yorkshire, where I live but wasn’t born, we have a lot of interesting words which isn’t surprising when you think about the size of Yorkshire.  Because I wasn’t born here and didn’t grow up here, I’ve had to turn to other sources to find local weather words and whilst they are allegedly used in Yorkshire, that doesn’t mean to say they are used in just Yorkshire!

  • Shockle – a lump of ice or icicle
  • Blatter – puddle
  • Blashy – wet weather
  • Maftin’ – hot and clammy weather
  • Nithered – very cold
  • Gliddered – covered with a thin layer of ice
  • Siling – raining heavily
  • Clashy – stormy
  • Dowly – dull, gloomy
  • Parky – chilly
  • Puckly – cloudy
  • Rawk – cold and misty

and my personal favourite

  • Snow bones – the patches of snow seen stretching along ridges, in ruts or in furrows after a partial thaw

There are lots of lovely regional weather words and I’d like to hear yours!

How we talk about weather

“Cold winter wind along the walls of the chapel. Not howling, not moaning, not dismal.  Can there be anything mournful about the wind? It is innocent, and without sorrow.  It has no regrets. Wind is a strong child enjoying his play, amazed at his own strength, gentle, inexhaustible and pure.”
Thomas Merton

How we talk about weather reflects the ideals and values of a society.  Weather is not a neutral topic, just listen to the weather forecast.  Hot, dry weather uses positive language whereas cold, wet weather uses negative language eg threat of rain, invasion of clouds.  Even if the reporter themselves doesn’t actually like the sun and much prefers the rain.

This way of speaking is part of our social vocabulary and that in turn affects how people feel about the weather.  For most people, rain is not a major problem, you grab a coat or umbrella and you’re fine, but to listen to how people talk of rain you’d think it was the end of the world!  We have stories in our mind, built by the language that us used and they sit there mostly unchallenged and shape your emotions and your thoughts.

For more about ecolinguistics, have a look at The Stories We Live By, a free online course.

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The what, where and whys of weather

I know this sounds like a silly question, we all know what weather is don’t we? But I want to use this space to separate weather from climate, something which not everyone knows or has thought about. I will also look, very briefly, at how weather comes to be.

What?

Weather is the day to day conditions of a particular place eg it is dry and cloudy in York today.

Climate is the average weather conditions over a long period of time, say 30 years. So the climate in the desert can be dry and hot but that does not mean you won’t get a wet day. This is why climate change deniers are wrong when they cite weather as proving climate isn’t changing.

The most common types of weather on earth are wind, cloud, rain and other precipitation. There are also less common events which have a much greater impact, that is natural disasters such as hurricanes.

Where?

Well, a more detailed definition is that weather is the state of the atmosphere, primarily the lowest level that is the troposphere. Weather fluctuates and is hard to predict because small changes make huge differences.

So weather is the effects of atmospheric activities.

Why and how?

This is where we’re getting a bit more technical and I’m testing my understanding of weather!

To start with, we need to understand the global circulation system. We all know the sun warms the earth and that the sun’s energy is concentrated on the equator and most dispersed at the north and south poles. With me so far? Good.

What you might not know (I’m assuming I have a range of readers here and you aren’t all experts!) is that nature likes things in balance and acts to rebalance them if they aren’t in equilibrium. So nature tries to make the poles warmer and the equator cooler. This, plus the earth’s rotation, creates six (three per hemisphere) circulation cells a closed loop in which air circulates. This is the global circulation system.

As well as moving heat, these create areas of semi-permanent high and low pressure. This is because air rising creates an area of low pressure and air sinking creates high pressure.

Hopefully you’ve got the idea. Warm air moves towards the cold air and as it does so the cold air moves to the warm air and thus we have wind!

Wind and pressure are important as they move and create other weather. That’s why the weather report is always talking about high pressure and low fronts and the like!

In brief, high pressure suppresses weather development so you get weather which is a bit more stable and tends to be calm, clear or sunny. There can also be cloud and fog which are trapped in the weather system and because it’s steady, don’t leave. Low pressure is more volatile and is when clouds are formed and comes with rain and storms. The interaction of high and low pressure also affects our weather.

One example I found helpful was that of the breeze you find on the coast. Land warms more quickly that the sea so we get an area of lower pressure on land than at sea. Where the two meet, on the coastline, the air from the higher pressure area moves into the lower pressure area, that is from sea to land (remember nature likes balance).

I think most of us have had to study the water cycle at some point in our education so I’m not going to look at how clouds and precipitation is formed, although I will return to clouds and snow later this month. And the other main part of weather, heat, is obviously partly down to the sun and cloud cover and factors like cold winds.

Of course there are other factors which influence things such as the earth turning and the sun hitting earth with different intensities depending on the season but I hope this has given a basic idea.

December – a month of weather

This month I’m looking at weather.  Although it’s perhaps not an immediately obvious part of nature – we tend to think plants, animals, landscapes – it has a major bearing on the world and is inextricably entwined with those more traditional elements.

Ducks

Whilst, on the whole, this isn’t going to be a technical look at weather, I will be looking at a few of the more scientific aspects.  If this is something that you find interesting, you might want to take a look at the Future Learn course about weather.  I completed this back in September and found it very enlightening.  I can now also understand isobars which makes me very proud!  The met office also has a learn about the weather section, from which a lot of the future learn course was drawn from (it was taught in association with them).

Instead of the science behind weather, I’ll be focusing on the language of weather, weather in literature, weather and plants and animals and of course, given the timing, snow.  I’m also interested in traditional methods of forecasting the weather and will be trying my hand at some weather poetry.

Dean's Park

I have a difficult relationship with weather.  Because of my ill health, there are some types of weather which are really restricting and isolating – rain stops me going out, snow and ice stop me going out and stop people coming to me.  It also affects my pain levels and I tend to find I have worse pain during the transition times of year – April and October – when the weather in the morning is different to the rest of the day or one day is drastically different to the next. My body doesn’t like that changeability.

I have always hated the wind.  I feel attacked, I feel buffeted and I feel bullied.  I don’t know why and I have tried to explain my dislike of wind to people in the past and received funny looks in return… I think the wind makes me feel vulnerable.  I don’t like the potential dangers which come with it – flying cans and houses and the risk of ending up in oz!  There was a Christmas, many many years ago, with storms and high winds.  My dad had to go out in the dark to do something critical.  We had no electricity.  He took a torch.  He was gone for ages.  I was getting really worried.  I have a vivid imagination and at the age of 7 or so I was picturing all kinds of terrible scenarios.  I tried to raise my concerns and was told off.  I see now that my mother was probably just as worried and that her reaction was to shut me up.  But it’s fed into my history with storms.

I can’t begin to imagine how our ancestors felt about these violent winds, the flashes of light from dark skies and the loud rumbles of thunder coming out of nowhere.  I still hate storms and I know what they are, how they came to be and I’m also safe inside a brick house.  Weather in the past must have been experienced so differently to how we see it today.

Do you have specific weather related memories?  Do you have a favourite kind of weather?  Or weather which you really hate?  Let me know!

December: A pre-introduction – coping with the weather

The darkness has arrived.  It is engulfing us.  And it is crushing some of us.  Winter can be a difficult time for some of us, for our mental health and our physical health.  Winter weather can restrict and isolate us.

Before I get onto this month’s topic, I want to say a bit more about how I am currently thinking about winter this year.  In the past I have battled against it, I have set myself up to fight the winter.  This has involved SAD lamps, meal plans, cooking and freezing in bulk and late winter holidays to sunnier places.  But I was constantly on the defensive and to be honest, my success was limited.  I would still get to the end of winter having faced worse depression and increased physical pain.

Then last winter came and it was my first winter not working and so I wasn’t going out and seeing people and wasn’t feeling useful and so on.  All great things for your mental health.  In addition to that, most people I knew were working full time and I can’t go out in the rain on my own because I can’t put on my own wheelchair waterproof.  On the whole, these things are still the case.  I do now know people who don’t work which is good but I still can’t go out in the rain without help and the cold is bad for pain and the dark is bad for mental health.

Then, last Christmas, an amazing friend of mine gave me the wild unknown animal spirit deck.  And shortly after, I started my blog series, looking at each animal more closely and getting to know them.  The first card was the bear.  And it was one of a few things that really transformed my approach to winter.

Instead of battling, the bear teaches us to go with the seasons, to let the rhythms flow with us not against us.  We can embrace the urge to hibernate, as long as we balance it with more active times in the spring and summer.  I’ve already repeated a lot of the bear post in many other posts so I’m not going to talk much more about it, but I do recommend looking at it.

Along with the bear, I was also finding I was reading about the necessity of the darkness.  The need to have space and time to go within ourselves and to nurture ideas and seeds which aren’t ready to be externalised and made vulnerable.

Some of what I was reading was talking about changing the way we think of darkness.  It is not the absence of light, but something immensely valuable in itself.  Without the dark, we cannot see the moon, we cannot see the stars and we do not appreciate the light.  This is a time of rest, of restoration, of recuperation.  A necessary part of the year.

But of course, the winter can feel long and this is why we have festivals and celebrations.  December has long been considered a holy month, holding as it does the winter solstice and later the Christian Christmas as well as Hanukkah, and various other feast days.

Links

November’s resources

I’ve found this to be another fascinating topic.  I was slightly concerned that there was going to be lots to think about when it came to animals and humans and significantly less when it came to plants.  I’ve been proven wrong.  Perhaps it’s obvious that since we are so connected, our lives so indebted to plants, there was going to be plenty of fruit to harvest.  But again, that plant blindness has fooled me.  If nothing else, my key takeaway from this month is the value of plants and how overlooked they are.  I hope in the future, I see plants through a different eye, that I can learn more names and get to know my local plants more intimately.  This has been something I’ve been working on very slowly this year but I’m terrible at remembering what things and people look like so it’s not coming especially naturally.  But I  feel I owe it to the plants, and to myself, to try.

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Books etc

  • A little History of British Gardening by Jenny Uglow
  • Plants are Magic Magazine
  • Creative Countryside Magazine
  • The day of the triffids by John Whyndham
  • Yorkshire Through Placenames by R.W. Morris
  • Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees by Ernst and Johanna Lehner
  • An Empire of Plants by Tuby and Will Musgrave
  • Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland
  • What a plant knows by Daniel Chamovitz

TV

  • The Secret History of the British Garden with Monty Don
  • Botany – A Blooming History
  • 73rd St Productions – lots of really interesting talks
  • Ken Albala – his youtube channel has a lot of fascinating information about the history of food and drink, something I’ve not covered too much here but which provides a lens into the history of humans and plants
  • Why Fruits Change Color and Flavor as They Ripen
  • How aspirin was discovered
  • Into The Imagined Forest
  • Little Shop of Horrors (on Prime)
  • It’s stretching things a bit but The Martian involves a botanist who uses his plant knowledge to survive, I enjoyed it anyway! (Netflix)
  • A monster calls (Prime)

Websites and articles

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An interlude

So, I’ve ended up in hospital. 

If you’re reading my nature and writing posts then there are a few more already written and scheduled but soon there will be a period of radio silence.

Caption: Little nurse deer Clive at the end of a tough shift
Trigger warning: eating issues

My swallowing issues got a lot worse. Two weeks ago I got ill. I had sickness and diarrhoea, which on top of swallowing issues was not fun. I couldn’t drink enough to hydrate myself and I can’t swallow those staples of sickness, toast and ginger biscuits so I couldn’t get food in me either. It took too many days for the Dr’s to accept I wasnt going to rehydrate the regular way and a week and a half ago I was admitted to hospital. 

I am now hydrated but have only managed a few mouthfuls of ice cream and fortijuice in the last two weeks. There has been a lot of doctors saying we’ll just wait and see… 

Today I’m hopefully having a swallow test (again) and the Dr said we will be getting nutrients into me by the weekend, most likely ng tube. I feel OK in myself until I stand up, then my breathing drops and I have some weird numbness going on.

On a related note, my friend sent me a pay as you go WiFi hotspot thingy which has all you can eat data for first month. Best hospital present ever. Especially for me as I have a phone who’s only feature is a torch and a tablet which can only connect to WiFi. This means I have downloaded lots of audiobooks and TV boxsets to entertain myself. Hospital TV is pricey and rubbish and when you’re interrupted you can’t pause it. 

Expect a hospital related tips post in the future!

The holly and the ivy

This month, looking at plants, is nearly at a close but before we head into December, I thought it would be timely to consider plants and Christmas.  I’m not especially into Christmas but there is a lot of tradition surrounding it which can be interesting.  Also, I’ve not yet looked at holly or ivy in my plant spirit posts and was already planning to, so this will kill two plants with one blog post as it were.

According to the telegraph, the song relates to ancient fertility mythology and the association of the male with holly and good and the female with ivy and evil.

Holly

Holly is a broad leaved, evergreen which is found in most of Europe.  In Britain, it tends to grow as an understory beneath oaks.

Holly is well known for it’s spines which are obviously there to deter predators, and less sharp leaves can be found higher up the plant.  For those intrepid herbivores who still take a bite, the leaves contain bitter tasting alkaloids.

It is a slow growing plant which can live for 250-300 years which has become iconic at Christmas time.  It’s wavy edged leaves and prickly spines, glossy and rich green take a long time to decay.  This may be one aspect of the holly’s nature which has contributed to it’s association with eternal life, with it’s evergreen demeanour being another.  In the midst of winter, when all is dark and cold, the holly continues to rule with dignity, facing the challenging weather head on.

Holly is considered masculine to the ivy which is feminine, possibly because the holly is spiky and defensive where the ivy is more graceful?  Interestingly, the nature of the holly brought into the house is supposed to determine or predict whether the house will be ruled by man or woman in the coming year.  The smooth edged type signalling a woman’s rule. Another tradition says the same but for holly and ivy, with the plant first brought into the house marking the future year.

Holly was planted near homes as it was said to protect against lightning strikes.  As with the oak, it is said to be associated with thunder and hence Thor.  Bringing twigs into the house wards off evil spirits, which I imagine are particularly active in the dark nights of winter.  Another seasonal link is found with the holly king who rules the year from mid summer to mid winter, when the oak king takes over.

Whilst the tradition of bringing holly into the house goes back much further, Christianity has appropriated it as a representation of Jesus.  Holly is said to be representative of his crown of thorns, the red berries his blood and the white flowers a reminder of purity and his virgin birth.

Ivy

Ivy is another evergreen plant and also represents eternity.  It can grow in difficult environments and climbs upwards, using other plants, to reach the sunlight.  Given enough time, they can also bind together other plants which has been taken to mean it is symbolic of unions, whether friendships or more.  It can also mean fidelity and peace (as it brings together different plants).

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As we’ve just seen, ivy is considered feminine and apparently in Ancient Greek mythology, there was a dancing girl who danced herself to death, dying at the feet of Dionysus.  He was moved by her dancing and transformed her into the ivy plant.  Moving to Rome, ivy is said to be linked to the god of wine, Bacchus, Dionysus’ counterpart.  I wonder if this is in part due to the way ivy grows in a similar way to grape vines?  Don’t try eating ivy berries though… they’re poisonous.

On Owlcation, Edith Rickert, who researched carols from 1400-1700, is referenced as noting that many holly and ivy carols existed during this time period and often involved a debate about the relative merits of men and women.

From a Christian perspective, Ivy, with it’s need to use other plants for support, is said to be a reminder that we need to cling to god for support…

If you’ve read some of my animal spirit posts, you’ll have realised that virtually everything is a symbol for an aspect of Christianity.  Hence my cynical tone here is not about the religion, it’s about the shoehorning of symbolism.

And a tiny note about mistletoe

Mistletoe was thought to protect from evil and was also associated with fertility.  Whilst we use it today for Christmas, it was thought to be bad luck to bring it into the house before New Years Eve.  On a basic level, this makes more sense for the current practice of kissing under mistletoe, surely you want a new relationship to start as the year starts not as it dies?

It was used in homes to protect from lightening and evil but because it is associated with paganism, it’s said to be banned from churches*, except York Minster.  Here, it is laid on the high altar on Christmas Eve.  Then a proclamation was made which pardoned and granted freedom to “inferior and wicked people”.

*Although in practice I’m not sure this is actually the case…