“My inkpot thawed spontaneously about noon”

January 21, 2010
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A poem by August Kleinzahler appearing in the January 7 issue of the London Review of Books recently caught our eye. We were charmed by not only its title, “The Exquisite Atmography of Thomas Appletree, Diarist of Edgiock,” and its unforgettable lines (such as “BALSAMIC PANSPERMICAL PANACEA JUICE OF HEAVEN”) but by its purported source: the 1703 of weather diaries of Thomas Appletree. A young and educated man, Appletree recorded, in meticulous detail and unique poetic style (a “speciall Language” which Kleinzahler honors in his poem), descriptions of the weather over Worcestershire in western England every day throughout the year 1703. The diarist aspired to great renown, writing “I should think my name as immortall” as astronomer Johannes Hevelius, whose maps of the moon had been published in 1647. Alas, he failed to even include his name on his great contribution. But recently historian Jan Golinski, in researching Enlightenment attitudes about the weather, rescued the diary, identified its author, and set out to subject the document to its first serious scholarly study since its creation.
Appletree and his weather diary feature prominently in Golinski’s 2007 book British Weather and the Climate of Enlightenment. In it, he reveals how a new sense of the national climate emerged in the eighteenth century from the systematic recording of the weather, and how it was deployed in discussions of the health and welfare of the population. Enlightened intellectuals hailed climate’s role in the development of civilization but acknowledged that human existence depended on natural forces that would never submit to rational control. Reading the Enlightenment through the ideas, beliefs, and practices concerning the weather, Jan Golinski aims to reshape our understanding of the movement and its legacy for modern environmental thinking. With its combination of cultural history and the history of science, British Weather and the Climate of Enlightenment counters the claim that Enlightenment progress set humans against nature, instead revealing that intellectuals of the age drew characteristically modern conclusions about the inextricability of nature and culture.
Though the “obstinate” cold which “begins to pinch my fingers in writing” is history, Appletree lives on in Golinski’s pages and in Kleinzahler’s poetry. And more than three hundred years on, we’re still talking about the weather, albeit less colorfully than the diarist of Edgiock.

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