It’s hard to think of a culture that doesn’t keep an eye on the weather, yet we imagine it to be a thoroughly British habit. The painters are among the best observers, and Turner the grandest. Shortly before he died he was discovered on the floor of his sickroom in Cheyne Walk, having tried to reach the window and a view of the Thames. His doctor recalled how ‘the sun broke through the cloudy curtain which for so long had obscured its splendour, and filled the chamber of death with a glory of light.’ Writers, jotters, naturalists and intellectuals contend with the weather in other ways, though they borrow from the painter’s repertoire. In 1784 Gilbert White wrote of a freezing, clear December day that ‘the air was full of icy spiculae, floating in all directions, like atoms in a sun-beam let into a dark room.’ The Farnham diarist George Sturt recorded the end of a winter’s day in Victorian Surrey with a tactile fascination, and a note of dismay: ‘towards dark, a colourless fog, snow almost gone, and ground soft –oozy underfoot, as though the earth’s skin slipped as you trod.’ Ruskin was a stickler for the record and so on 19 April 1873: ‘Entirely Paradise of a day, cloudless and pure till 5; then East wind a little, but clearing for Twilight.’ Yet, storm-tossed by his inner weather, he had already begun to witness ‘plague winds of a diabolic aspect’ over the Lakes and recorded the ‘utterly hellish’ onset of night as a black pall lowered without the reassuring interval of dusk.
Richard Mabey stands admirably within this tradition, not only as a naturalist and writer on British flora and fauna, but as an expert on inner and outer weather: his Nature Cure (2005) records a bout of severe depression and a re-emergence two years later. He’s written with elegance and attention about the natural world for forty years and does so once more in Turned Out Nice Again (Profile, £8.99), a little book coinciding with a series of essays broadcast in February on Radio 3. He remembers following in Turner’s footsteps and delving precariously deep in Weathercote Cave in the Yorkshire Dales, where the spray from the waterfall creates a spectacular sequence of rainbows: he edged onto a fallen block of limestone, leaned forward slightly and found that one of the rainbows had ‘flipped over on its side and formed a circle … surrounding me at chest level, like a fallen halo’. He looked up to see ‘flycatchers … swooping down into the cave and hawking for midges in the sunbeams’.
On internal weather, Mabey notes that Seasonal Affective Disorder is both too narrow and too generalised a diagnosis to account for the beckoning depression to which he finally succumbed a few years ago. ‘I know the kind of events that act as triggers now,’ he says: when the swifts ‘fail to arrive on time’ or bumble bees are ‘frozen to the crocuses on the first day of spring’. ‘Seasonal affective disorders may be biochemical in part’ – the human organism has a raw susceptibility to changes in pressure – ‘but they are also cognitive.’ When a low front settles in, hospital admissions rise. Schizophrenia and phantom limb pain among the disabled are some of the complaints that flourish and multiply under a long low, while ‘the increase in strokes is so marked that in Germany there is a “Metalert” to warn doctors of approaching pressure troughs.’
To Mabey it’s obvious why the British rabbit on about weather. ‘Because of where we live, on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Storm Belt, just offshore from a huge, breathing land-mass, our meteorological lot is messy and erratic, whether we like it or not.’ Spared the extremes of tropical weather, the British are prey to ‘a whimsical climate’, which can be ‘tougher to cope with than knowing for sure you’re going to be under three feet of snow every December’. Perhaps it’s this uncertainty that makes our collective memory of big events so patchy. It’s mostly the bad ones that stay with us. Mabey cites the summer of 1975: at least as long and as hot as the summer of 1976. We only recall the second because it came with a drought – and the destruction of the England cricket team, on dusty wickets from Scarborough south to the Oval, by the West Indies’ pace bowlers. ‘Ball lightning’ is a spectacular, destructive force, in nature as in cricket. In 1577, ‘a horrible shaped thing’ – in Mabey’s explanation, ‘a vaguely spherical ball of electromagnetic energy capable of moving through the air, breaking windows and entering buildings’ – shimmied down the aisle of the parish church in Bungay, Suffolk, snapping the necks of two worshippers and shrivelling another like ‘a peece of leather scorched in a hot fire’. No one forgot that in a hurry.
In the new century local weather is read for signs of global climate change – it’s understandable: we’d like some confirmation at first hand of the big phenomenon we’re told about – and severe weather, which used to be exciting, provided it didn’t get out of hand, is now seen as portentous. But we can’t assume that local droughts and floods are reliable pointers to global warming. The best measure of change is out of view, at the poles: the effects of melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica for the allotment, the large farm and the seaside resort are barely visible, even though they haunt us, as severe weather events in the past cloud our memory of halcyon days. Mabey resolves this contradiction convincingly. Once the weather has become erratic – more erratic than ‘whimsical’ – for long enough, we can think in terms of a trend, at which point our local descriptions and the Olympian overview begin to coincide. Mabey feels the trend is under way: we will be right, in other words, to ascribe extreme local weather to climate change as time goes on.
He senses that the struggle to slow down global warming is already lost; and though he counsels against pessimism he is sceptical about massive geo-engineering schemes of the kind put forward by James Lovelock and the eccentric Stewart Brand. Can-do projects on a grand scale have been dreamed up before: draining the Mediterranean into the Sahara, for instance, or diverting warm Pacific water into the Arctic Sea and turning Siberia into a vast orchard. Gibbon, who ‘yearned for global warming’, thought that if all the earth’s forests were cleared, the weather was sure to improve. Mabey enjoys this sort of nonsense in a downbeat way. Having trodden the British countryside for most of his life and plotted the complex role of humans in landscape, he believes that the best we can do is to prepare for a rough ride.
Adaptation and accommodation are his watchwords: he finds a model in East Anglia, where ‘inundation by the sea has been a constant’ for millennia and communities have worked around it. On his boat in Norfolk in autumn, he sometimes sees a harg, or sea mist, blown ‘back and forth across the coastal boundary between ocean and broad, so that churches and windmills are continuously appearing and disappearing and we scarcely know if we are at sea or inland’. To lose one’s bearings at these blurred margins is to grasp how makeshift human settlement can be.