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When the Weather Puts Food on Your Table

A lot of industries are obviously weather-dependent — agriculture, tourism, etc. — but I hadn’t known that the traditional production of roofing slate in the U.K. was also at the mercy of the weather. Here is but one of many fascinating things you can learn from Simon Winchester‘s excellent book The Map That Changed the World, about the proto-geologist William Smith:

The quarry sap … plays a vital part in the making of Stonesfield slate — which, not being a proper slate, cannot be manually split along its bedding planes. Quarrymen would only remove the pendle … between October and Christmas, and then leave the rocks set in clamps until the onset of the first sharp frost. The moment that this frost came — invariably in the middle of some January night, and the church bells would have to be rung to summon everyone — the miners would dash out to their waiting clamps of pendle and see if the iced-up quarry sap had done its work, shattering the limestone into tile-thin slabs. If it had, then the men spent the summer cutting and shaping the slates — 120,000 of them in one Victorian summer at the Kineton Thorns pit alone. But if it had not, then the uncracked slabs of pendle would have to be buried in the cold earth to preserve their sap — for if this quarry water was allowed to leach out it could never return, the rock could never be split, the slates would go unmade, and the men would go unpaid. … The villages of Stonesfield and Collyweston, unique in the land, came to rely for centuries on the regular onset of bitter cold, just as a Punjabi farmer would rely, year after year, on the coming of the monsoon.

Having grown up on a small farm in upstate New York, the youngest of eight kids, I couldn’t help but recall our annual response to the first frost. For us, the stakes were just as high. As I once wrote in a family memoir:

Around late September, when the weather forecast was calling for the first frost, I would come home straight from school to help my mother strip the garden. We would haul rickety bushel baskets up from the cellar and stuff them with corn and zucchini and pole beans, all of which we’d can or freeze in the coming weeks. I’d lay an old blanket on the ground beneath the Seckel pear tree, then climb it to shake down the fruit. There were too many tomatoes to pick by hand, and the green ones might still ripen if given a chance, so we’d uproot the plants, haul them into the cellar, and tie them upside down from the crossbeams. As darkness unfolded, we’d use flashlights to pick the last of the cucumbers, our noses running, fingers burning with the chill, the clear black sky pushing its first kiss of winter upon our sacred soil, the two of us scrambling like some eastern cousins of Ma and Tom Joad, prying from the land every last bit God would allow. Too exhausted to eat supper, we’d just sit in the kitchen with a pot of coffee, leaning in toward the woodstove.

Would be interested to hear your examples of weather-dependent behavior.