Virginia Woolf, On Climate Change

A painting by Thomas Wyke of a Thames Frost Fair, held in the winter of 1683 and 1684.

In “Proofiness,” Charles Seife identifies a phenomenon that we see all around us: an obsession with data. Numbers are everywhere, from gauging public opinion to bolstering a product’s efficacy. If you’d like people to believe something, just stick a number on it.

It’s the same with climate change. Environmental groups, who wish to jolt those out of their denial about global warming, hire creative studios to make attractive data visualizations that spew numbers.

Eco-conscious corporations sponsor “carbon counters,” mounted on the walls of office buildings, which spin out, in real-time, the concentration of carbon dioxide particles in the air.

If everyone could only see the volume of greenhouse emissions, they’d be motivated to shrink their carbon footprint. So the thinking goes.

But to what degree do these tactics stir us to action? Do they provoke us enough to change our profligate ways? Possibly, reading literature can help better.

Virginia Woolf’s novel, “Orlando,” published in 1928, isn’t remotely about the environment. But it has an evocative passage on a great weather event, known as the Great Frost. The lushness of the prose gives the reader a far greater sense of the state of the air than would a thermometer.

Birds froze in mid-air, and fell like stones to the ground. At Norwich, a young countrywoman started to cross the road in her usual robust health and was seen by the onlookers to turn visibly to powder and be blown in a puff of dust over the roofs as the icy blast struck her at the street corner.

The mortality among sheep and cattle was enormous. Corpses froze, and could not be drawn from the sheets. It was no uncommon sight to come upon a whole herd of swine, frozen immovable on the road.

The fields were full of shepherds, ploughmen, teams of horses, and little bird-scaring boys, all struck stark in the act of the moment: one, with his hand to his nose; another, with the bottle to his lips; a third, with a stone raised to throw at the raven who sat, as if stuffed, upon the hedge within a yard of him. The severity of the frost was so extraordinary that a kind of petrifaction ensued.

Historians inform us that the Thames froze solid several times between the 15th and the 19th centuries, to the extent that it was transformed into an arena for carnivals called Frost Fairs, the first of which was held in 1608.

This is an account of the river during a winter, sometime in the 17th century:

[King James] directed that the river, which was frozen to a depth of twenty feet and more, for six or seven miles on either side, should be swept, decorated, and given all the semblance of a park or pleasure ground, with arbours, mazes, alleys, drinking booths etc., at his expense.

[…] here and there, burnt vast bonfires of cedar and oak wood, lavishly salted, so that the flames were green, orange, and purple fire. But however fiercely they burnt, the heat was not enough to melt the ice, which though of a singular transparency, was yet of the hardness of steel.

So clear indeed was it that there could be seen, congealed at the depth of several feet, here a porpoise; there a flounder. Shoals of eel lay motionless in a trance, but whether their state was one of death or of suspended animation, which the warmth would revive, puzzled the philosophers.

Near the London Bridge, where the river had frozen to a depth of some twenty fathoms, a wrecked ferry boat was plainly visible, lying on the bed of the river, where it had sunk late autumn, overladen with apples.


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