The Shepherd of Banbury

“It is certainly a curious and a useful Thing to understand the Nature of the Weather, and to know how the Changes that happen in it come to pass. The Business is to find out the true Way of coming at this kind of Knowledge, and upon the Principles that I have advanced, it is very evident that the only certain Way of coming at it is by Observation.”

My grandmother lived at Fairmilehead, at the southern edge of Edinburgh in a house which looked out at the Pentland Hills. She was a gardener. She might not have known what to make of what we now call climate change, but she had a keen eye for Edinburgh’s uncertain weathers, and a constant desire to know what was coming. Every so often she would drive her little Austin Seven down to the beach at Longniddry and collect a bag of seaweed. She would hose the seaweed down to remove the salt, and then she would spread it on her vegetable garden. All except for one piece of the big, flat Phaeophyceae, which she would hang in the open, stucco porch outside her front door. The brown algae Phaeophyceae was the best seaweed of all for foretelling the next day’s weather she said, even sometimes for forecasting two or three days beyond that.

Granny probably didn’t know that there was money in her seaweed too; that it could be found in her toothpaste, her bath soap, in her ice cream and tinned meats, even in some of the printed fabrics that she wore. The Rhodophytas, or red seaweeds, can be worth even more. The Japanese passion for Nori, which is cultivated and eaten, nets their economy more than a billion US dollars a year. The carrageen moss, packed as it is with iodine and sulphur, is an important ingredient in many beers. It is also found in yoghourt and puddings—and in the Caribbean it’s made into a concoction that’s believed to have aphrodisiac qualities.

Near Clifden on the Connemara coast, I once met an Englishman called Smith who lived in a cottage by a long, curved beach. The carrageen moss had made him a rich man, although not a happy one, since he had taken to drinking his profits. As a result his wife had left him and he lived alone, and spent his days supervising—when he was fit enough—the activities of the small group of seaweed gatherers he employed on his picturesque beach.

“It is one thing to observe, and another to reason upon observations, and it very rarely happens that both can be taken into the compass of one man’s Life.”

So begins ‘The Shepherd of Banbury’s Rules’—a treatise on the natural order of things compiled in the latter part of the seventeenth and early years of the eighteenth centuries. This small, and all-but-forgotten, book is full of the kind of worthy insights that might have been compiled by Chance, the simple gardener who wound up becoming an influential advisor to the President of the United States in the nineteen-seventies Peter Sellars’ film ‘Being There’.

“Men of great Reading are as apt to fall into a . . . mistake, that of taking the Knowledge of Words for the Knowledge of Things. THE Shepherd . . . spends all his Days and many of his Nights in the open Air, and under the wide spread Canopy of Heaven, is . . . obliged to take particular Notice of the Alterations of the Weather . . .

“The Shepherd compares signs to events, and relates this knowledge to just about everything that falls beneath his gaze, or enters his mind—the sun, the moon, the stars, the clouds, the winds, the mists, the trees, the flowers, the herbs . . . and almost every animal with which he is acquainted. These observations, the effects of one on another . . . become to such a person Instruments of real Knowledge.”

The Shepherd of Banbury pointed out that the ancients—thinkers and writers like Pliny, Aristotle and Virgil—who took the time to observe these things, understood well that the cawing of ravens, the chattering of swallows, and something as simple as a cat washing her face were not mere superstitious signs. They saw that they could be natural tokens of changes in weather; that they were behaviours of beings more sensitive than man to the subtleties of pressure and humidity.

On Vancouver Island, the house we built stands at the edge of the forest, far from city lights. An ocean inlet lies in front of it, and beyond that, the Straits of Juan de Fuca and the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula in the United States. When we built the house we gave our bedroom two big skylights, so we could lie in bed at night and watch the boreal rotation of the stars, the movements of the spheres, the passage of satellites. We could tell the time at night from the way the stars sat in the skylight overhead. With 25 square feet of skylight over our heads, we were conscious of wind patterns, changing weathers, disappearing migratory birds, the altered behaviours of resident animals, of late—and then accelerated—growth on our tall Douglas Fir trees, and of other elemental things. Two years ago there were no swallows; the first summer that we hadn’t seen them since we’d built the house thirty years ago. Climate change was a subject of deep interest to us there, on the edge of the western world.

A swarm of bees in May

Is worth a load of hay;

A swarm of bees in June

Is worth a silver spoon;

A swarm of bees in July

Is not worth a fly.

Last year there were hardly any bumble bees at all.

For nearly two decades satellite photographs have shown blue patches scattered across the Greenland ice surface. It took scientists a while to figure out that they represent meltwater; ice liquefying at the surface of the ice cap and funnelling down thousands of metres in cascades of millions of gallons per minute to the bedrock that lies deep beneath the ice. From there the meltwater makes its way to the ocean, all the while eroding the ice at the base of the icecap; accelerating the flow of Greenland’s glaciers to the sea.

If the southern ice dome melts on Greenland, the level of the North Atlantic will rise, some say as much as three feet. The implications of this (and, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, many scientists consider this estimate conservative) are bad enough. Apart from anything else it will make low-lying cities like Stockholm, Amsterdam, New York, and even London and Liverpool, extremely vulnerable to tidal and storm surges. But far worse would be in the offing. Scientists say that if Greenland’s southern ice cap goes, then the northern ice dome will then be at risk, and it is much larger and deeper than the southern one.

Basic science tell us that the ocean cools when the ice melts, setting up what can be dramatic changes in the movement of currents and wind patterns. In other words, an initial cooling, followed by the real warming of the planet. Newspaper cartoons in recent poor summers have shown people wrapped in scarves and overcoats, saying that they could use some of this “so-called ‘global warming’ about now”. These cooler summers we’ve noticed are probably signifying that it’s well underway—and once the ice has gone things will warm up soon enough.

So what to do? Scotland has a bigger stake in all this than most places. Because if the Gulf Stream alters direction, Scotland’s climate will change, big time. In Turkey, Greece and some North African countries, they build hot water tanks on the roofs of their houses. Each tank is attached to a simple photovoltaic panel. It’s not a matter of economics or cost; the poorest houses have them. On the island of Paros in the Cyclades, I was told that you can’t get a building permit if you’re not prepared to put a photovoltaic panel on your roof.

In more northerly climes we can use a slightly different technology to similar effect. An evacuated tube system works with infra-red light rather than direct solar heat. It can absorb energy even through cloud. Such a system works well in a city like Edmonton Alberta, which has a mean winter temperature well below that of any city in Scotland. We installed one to pre-heat our own hot water, and it knocked at least twenty per cent off our electricity bills. A small step, but it wasn’t hard to take. Add it up for a neighbourhood, a town or a city, and cumulatively it would have an enormous impact. And more cooperative initiatives are not hard to find. A few miles down the road the T’Souk native band generates more than enough electricity for its whole village from photovoltaic panels. The T’Souk village is about the size of Carrbridge, or Evanton, which lies by the Cromarty Firth. The electricity the band generates is free—and it brings income, since the band sells its surplus electricity back to the power company.

If we are to change the ways we live our lives and utilise energy, the initiatives have to come not just from our national governments. They have to come from people; from you and me. They have to come as well from local politicians far down the political totem pole; from town councils and regional authorities. The Japanese fable about the hummingbird and the boundless forest fire puts it quite well:

One day a terrible fire broke out in the forest. Frightened, the animals fled their homes and ran out of the forest. They stopped at a stream to watch the fire, feeling discouraged and powerless, and bemoaning the destruction of their homes. None of them thought they could do anything about the fire, except for one little hummingbird.

The hummingbird swooped into the stream, collected a drop of water in its beak, then flew into the forest and dropped it on the fire. It flew back to the stream and did it again, and it kept going back, again and again and again.

The other animals watched. Some of them said, “Why bother? The fire is far too big. You are too small. Your wings will burn. Your beak is tiny, it’s only a drop. You can’t put out the fire.”

Another called out in a mocking voice, “You’re wasting your time. What you’re doing is pointless.”

Without missing a beat of its tiny wings, the hummingbird looked back and said, “I just do what I can.”

Observing, without taking the next step is what most of us, and too many of our governments, do. That next step is the first, perhaps the biggest, change we need to make.

So, what wisdom does the Shepherd of Banbury have for us? We need to dig deep to find it, and when we do, it sounds perilously close to lines from the Book of Ecclesiastes.

There remains nothing more for me to do in order to recommend these Observations, but to say . . . that they are governed in every Respect by the same unerring Wisdom that at first framed and constantly preserves the Universe.

How’s the conversation going in Westminster or Holyrood, in Ottawa or Washington?

Originally published in the Scottish Review in March 2016

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