Posts Tagged ‘weather’

Robin redbreast on a fence

robin in winter

Robin in winter. Image from http://www.dw.com

I still ponder why it meant so much, that Christmas morning in England in the 1960s, that a robin sat on the back fence. The field behind the fence was white, the fence wires thick with hoar frost, and the little red-breasted bird made the scene perfect. Finally, I told myself, a ‘real’ Christmas.

I have tried for many years to clarify my feelings about the disconnect between the traditional trappings of the season and my experience of growing up in New Zealand, where the seasons are reversed. My childhood Christmas memories are of summer: the tree laden with oranges in my grandmother’s garden where we hung our presents and picnicked on the lawn; the scent of magnolia blossom outside the church on Christmas Eve.

Christmas card robin

Robin on a Christmas card. Image from http://www.corkcancersupport.ie/

Also the Christmas cards with their images of snow (which I’d never experienced) and yes, the English robin. I knew about robin redbreast from the old nursery rhyme, but until that Christmas I hadn’t seen one.

North wind rhyme

Nursery rhyme page. Image from http://vintagebooksfortheveryyoung.blogspot.com/

Now on the coast of Northern California, I have a different understanding of how to celebrate the winter season. Our multicultural society recognizes many winter festival stories and traditions: the birth of Jesus in a stable, the menorah candles of Hannukah, the Swedish light-bringer St. Lucia, the gift-bringer St. Nicholas (known also as Santa Claus), and many others. The celebration that holds the deepest meaning for me now is Winter Solstice, the return of the light. From summer to winter, I note where on the horizon the sun sets, and how the darkness grows. Even as clouds gather, the place where sun disappears into ocean fogbank moves steadily to the south. When the prevailing westerly wind shifts to the southeast, I know to expect the winter rains. Sometimes a shower or two, sometimes, such as this past week, a prolonged deluge that floods rivers, downs power lines, and closes roads.

Meanwhile, the earliest spring flowers are breaking bud, and over-wintering birds gather hungrily at my feeder: Steller’s jay, spotted towhee, hermit thrush, acorn woodpecker, hordes of white-crowned sparrows. I love them dearly. I am happy that I have learned to understand the connection between the flow of seasons and human efforts to explain them with stories and festivals. And I still have a place in my heart for the memory of that cheery robin redbreast who brightened an English winter.

Other people’s weather

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls half frozen. Photo by Tony Eppstein

An ethereal music filled the air as Tony and I stepped down from the Greyhound bus at Niagara Falls in March 1962, a music so sweet and high it seemed to come from some magical place. I gazed about me. Nothing but bare trees and an almost empty parking lot. A wind that stung my ears. Then I saw them: icicles, many inches long, hanging from every twig and tinkling against each other with every gust.

Growing up in the subtropical north of New Zealand, I did not see snow until I was an adult. Our winters had heavy rain and an occasional frost, enough to whiten the grass and form thin sheets of ice on puddles. But nothing like this: the gigantic falls themselves half frozen and the temperature the coldest I had ever known. Historical records tell me it was probably about 30°F. (though the wind chill factor would have made it seem colder), and that the winter was pretty much a normal one.

We had broken our journey from New Zealand to England in New York to visit my elder sister, who was completing her doctorate at Syracuse University. As we rode the Greyhound bus upstate to Syracuse, what fascinated me as much as the landmarks my sister pointed out were the piles of dirty snow everywhere. I began to comprehend the northern hemisphere stories I had grown up with, where winter was a time of death and darkness, the weather something to be feared, and the spring thaw a time of great rejoicing.

Having recently passed through the tropical miasmas of Panama, I was also discovering that people could learn to live in places where the climate was not friendly, though the strategies they used to deal with the climate sometimes left us puzzled. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for example, where our ship had berthed for a day on its way to New York, we were stunned by the difference between the searing heat outdoors and the air-conditioned iciness inside the big stores.

Tony and I realized then that that we were just starting on the great adventure of learning how the rest of the world lives.

 

Maureen is exploring the contents of an old black filing cabinet in her attic, which contains 55 years of her writing notes

 

 

Between Storms

Mid-morning the sky clears, a break between storms. Our generator rumbles. The power is out, a downed line somewhere back in the forest. So is our cable internet service. From the house we can see spume lifting high over the cliffs. Nothing for it but to go there, to walk the cliff path around the Mendocino Headlands, to exult in the roar, the tumble of white, the spritz of salt spray on our faces. At the big blowhole near Main Street, huge plumes of water rise with a satisfying ker-thump.

We decide to avoid the muddy parts of the trail further on, and head up to Main Street. Nearly all the stores are closed because of the power outage. But Gallery Bookshop, on the corner of Main and Kasten, is open, though unlit. We step in to say hi.

“Electricity, schmelectricity,” laughs Christie, the owner. “We never close. We just do everything on paper and input it later. We have the little swipe-swipe machine for credit cards. The only thing that’s hard to do without the computer is book searches.”

Tony finds a novel he wants, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize. At the checkstand in the center of the store we chat with Christie and two other staff members, Johanna and Jane, about this book and another we’ve been reading lately, A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book. I love the cosiness of these conversations about books. I love being a local in this remote and beautiful place.

The Storms of Yesteryear

Intermission at a Sunday afternoon concert, a knot of people take the air in the porch of Preston Hall. “That’s a beautiful sight,” a woman says, pointing to the rain sweeping in across Mendocino Bay. We are all excited. The weather gurus have warned that this rain is just precursor to a series of large storms expected to hit over the next several days.

“Remember that time we we had twenty, no forty inches of rain in one storm?” someone says.

“What about the time that rogue wave went right over the lighthouse?” Point Cabrillo Light Station, a one-story structure with a turret on top that holds a magnificent first order Fresnel lens, sits on a crumbling headland about fifty feet above the water.

“Not over the light, surely?”

“Over the roof, at least.”

Much damage?”

“Oh yes.”

I mention the first time Tony and I came to Mendocino, in 1970. In Navarro River Redwoods State Park, through which you drive to reach the coast, we were fascinated to see a plaque high up the cliff on the side of the road, marking how high the waters had come in the big flood. The date was 1965, I think. The plaque is gone now, but you can still see evidence of that flood. A whitish fungus covers the trunks of the redwood trees up to the waterline. It is particularly visible at night, illuminated by car headlights, a ghostly presence in the blackness of the forest.

The Navarro River still floods in major storms. Everyone who lives here on the coast quickly learns the alternate routes to reach inland destinations. Tree limbs fall. Mud slides. Sometimes all the roads are closed. Sometimes the power goes out for days. We learn how to hunker down. And afterward, we will have more stories.

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