I bit into a ‘mater sammich, a favorite late summer treat. The sweet smooth mayonnaise flowed around my tongue and teeth. I savored the moist meaty ripeness of a fruit that just moments earlier had been part of a plant-drooping cluster in our garden.
What would summer be without the fruits and vegetables ripening in our gardens?
Back in 1816, the folks in eastern America and western Europe found out. That was the infamous “Year without a Summer.” It was caused by the planet-chilling eruption a year earlier of a volcano in far-off Indonesia.
That eruption from Mount Tambora was one of a chain of eruptions in 1808-1815. They shoved incredible amounts of dust into the atmosphere. Most of it swirled around unnoticed until Tambora’s blast increased the density of the clouds, blocking sunlight.
Other countries suffered as well. Floods and famine wracked China.
The first effects noticed in our neck of the woods were called the “dry fog.” Normal wet fogs usually burn off by midmorning. The 1816 fogs stayed all day, turning the usually white-hot daytime images of the sun an eerie red, and dimming its rays to all-day-long twilight.
That wasn’t so bad in itself. People just kept their winter clothing on further into summertime.
But gardens just did not grow. Frosts persisted into June and July. Nighttime temperatures hovered in the 40s all summer long. Tomatoes do not bear fruit until nighttime temperatures rise above 50 degrees. Corn yields fell by 75 percent. It wasn’t just the low quantity. What did grow soon turned moldy when harvested. Wheat did not ripen. Inhabitants of cities found themselves scavenging for the remaining clusters of forest herbs and browse that usually sustained wild animals.
Even in July, crops did not grow. By that month, the seeds that had been planted in spring had been drenched by rains and rotted in the ground.
In Massachusetts, snow fell in July. By September, when corn was in milk, the kernels froze on the cobs and never ripened.
Right here, along the valleys of the Allegheny and Clarion rivers, ice rimmed the banks each morning. Ice never fully left nearby Lake Erie. The winter sheets broke up, but the bergs floated all summer long.
South of us, in Norfolk, Virginia, the American Beacon newspaper reported that, “It is now the middle of July, and we have not yet had what could properly be called summer.
“Easterly winds have prevailed for nearly three months past ... the sun during that time has generally been obscured and the sky overcast with clouds; the air has been damp and uncomfortable, and frequently so chilling as to render the fireside a desirable retreat.”
Every cloud has a silver lining. “The lack of oats to feed horses may have inspired the German inventor Karl Drais to research new ways of horseless transportation, which led to the invention of the draisine or velocipede,” according to a 2006 article about the history of bicycles published in New Scientist magazine.
In 1816, New England was heavily populated by farmers.
By 1820, many of them had moved westward to the Northwest Territories. Some stopped in western New York State. Others who were detoured south by the need to get around Lakes Ontario and Erie, settled in Meadville, Titusville ... Brookville? Not quite. Brookville was not laid out until 1830. DuBois had settlers around as early as 1812, but was not laid out until 1872, long after Brookville.
In that half-decade, Vermont’s population dropped by 15,000. Lord Byron, the British poet, noted in the poem “Darkness” that “the fowls all went to roost at noon.”
Here is Byron’s further explication:
I had a dream, which was not all a dream. The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars did wander darkling in the eternal space, rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth swung blind and blackening in the moonless air; Morn came and went — and came, and brought no day
So that was then, the “Year without a Summer,” but it is long ago and no concern of ours, right?
Forbes magazine reported last year that “Yellowstone’s Supervolcano has had enormous eruptions, more than 1,000 times more powerful than the 1980 eruption at Mount St. Helens. Past eruptions were capable of burying Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Colorado in three feet of volcanic ash and spread a thin layer of ash across the entire Midwest.”
Another eruption “has the potential to dramatically alter Earth’s climate for decades and significantly impact animal and plant life in North America.”
Another eruption is due ... at any time.
Savor the taste of that ‘mater sammich while you can.
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Denny Bonavita is a former editor/publisher at newspapers in DuBois, Brookville, New Bethlehem and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: email@example.com