Weather and Emotion in James Barry’s Diary, 1849-1906

Detail from James Barry Diary, 30 June 1869, Public Archives of Nova Scotia, MG1, volume 1218.

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Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in “Soundings,” a series of articles jointly published by The Otter ~ la loutre and the Acadiensis Blog that considers new approaches to history and the environment in Atlantic Canada. The entire series is available here on the Otter and here on Acadiensis.

Anyone who’s ever read a farmer’s diary knows that weather figures heavily. Farmers care about the weather and so that’s what they record. Millers had similar concerns, and thus it’s not surprising that James Barry (1822-1906), a miller on Six Mile Brook (off the West River of Pictou County, Nova Scotia) also spent much space in his diary recording the weather. As this Voyant Tools output shows, weather and weather-related topics (warm, cold, beautiful, fine) competed with work-related terms (grinding, working, sawing, kiln) and his employees (Murdoch McKay, Donald Gunn, and his house-servant Barbara) for the most common terms in the diary.

Voyant Tools, Cirrus output, James Barry Diary, 1849-1860 (95 terms)

Weather influenced all Barry’s saw and grist mill operations. It was his friend, and his foe. Mills need a steady supply of water to keep its wheels turning.  Thus every day for 56 years Barry wrote about the weather, and the water level in his millpond. So what does one do with 56 years of historical meteorological data? To be clear, this is not “measured” data, but rather experiential data. He observed that some days were cold, and some were hot, that it rained, snowed, stormed, and that the wind blew from the east or the south.

There is, no doubt, lots of data there and following the work of Liza Piper and others we could use Barry’s “colloquial meteorology” to reconstruct a model of local weather for inland Pictou Township in the second half of the 19th century.[1] Such information is useful, especially when situated beside other regional measures from New England and the Canadas. The patterns of climate change often miss the local, and that’s important in a region like Nova Scotia – a hugely uneven topography protruding out into the North Atlantic, not really continental, but not in the Gulf Stream either – where the volatility of weather can be enormous. Local patterns matter.

There were some objective measures. Barry usually noted, for example, the first snow of the year, the first frost, the first deep frost, the first ice on the millpond, when the snow was melting, when the leaves were appearing, when crops were being planted and harvested, and so on. None of these is instrumentally precise, but aggregated such observations offer patterns for seasonal markers.

He also commented often on unusual departures from established patterns. Numerous times over the 56 years of the diary he noted that this was the coldest spring, or the hottest summer, he or anyone around could recall. “This is a very backward spring”, he noted on 4 June 1851. What exactly did that mean? The few preceding days he had described as raw and cold. What did “cold” mean in early June? And if this data is to be meaningful for historical climatological purposes what did it mean in 1851? Was Nova Scotia still in the Little Ace Age? Probably,[2] but barely and what does that mean? Was 1851 as backward as 1816, the famous year without a summer? That year from Boston to Halifax, complaints of the cold were cast, as Barry did, as “backward”.[3] We know much more about 1816 because that year continued cold, and crops failed all across Europe and northeastern North America. That kind of calamity didn’t follow the “backward” Pictou spring 1851, but such observations offer context for us to think about the subjective assessment of one place at one time.

Sample page from James Barry Diary, 30 September 1868, Public Archives of Nova Scotia, MG1, volume 1218.

I’m reading Barry to understand a rural 19th-century man’s life. Weather, and to some extent climate have become important to me because it was important to him. I do hope to develop some sort of database on weather. But I’m really wondering what made Barry tick, and weather was part of that. Not only was it important in shaping his work-life, it was important in shaping his emotional well-being. Reading his diary, one is immediately struck by how curmudgeonly he was. Few things ameliorated his mood. While his marriage was not a happy one, his courtship with Bell McLennan in the spring of 1859 marked one of the few sustained periods of lightness in his tone. And his affection for their eldest daughter Josephine was always clear. Fine weather, too, could lighten his mood. Spring freshets and rain after a dry spell, particularly in summer, brought moments of relief, and occasionally elation.  And while he dreaded a dry spell, his language for sunny warm days, though not sunny hot days, usually elicited a brighter tone.

Barry’s more ambiguous language offers insights into his moods and his emotional condition. Barry hated the heat, and often noted that he preferred spring and fall. And while he sometimes complained of winter cold, he rarely noted it as debilitating in the way that he often experienced the heat. These middling days were often described as “soft”, a term that is both fairly obvious (not hot, not cold, not harsh) and yet completely ambiguous as it was used in winter and summer, sunny and rainy days. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that “soft” is a more complex word than we might imagine, the adjective alone running to 10 different senses. The heart of the term points to “not harsh” and “somewhat pleasant”. Even limiting definitions to weather references, the OED entry indicates quite subtle uses, made more complex by Scots and Irish variants (see sense 4 a, (b)) – a notable detail in a county settled mostly by Scots.[4]

As a meteorological term, “soft” isn’t especially precise. It tells us little more than what wasn’t happening. But as a way of understanding one man’s relationship with weather, how he experienced weather, it allows us to get some glimpse into how it affected Barry’s temperament. Soft days were good days, free of the extreme heat, the bone-chilling cold that brought on his rheumatism, and the atmospheric changes that caused him headaches. But what are we to make of 6 February 1880, which was “somewhat soft”, or the day earlier in January that he described as having “a soft tendency”? The language seems to say as much about him as about the weather.

Another common emotive term was “gloomy”. This usage seems far less ambiguous – there were no gloomy sunny days! – though it was still, as a meteorological term, highly variable. There were gloomy days in all seasons, and the term seems to point mostly to light conditions: dark, cloudy days, sometimes including rain, sometimes not. The difference between gloomy and soft is not obvious. Soft days seem to have been cloudy, but not stormy, thawing in the spring, gently raining, sometimes foggy. And any of these too might have been gloomy, such as the days that were “gloomy and soft”. That same week one day was “dark and heavy looking”, but apparently not gloomy or soft. No doubt part of this was simply Barry varying his language. But what seems striking here is that most of this seems very much tied to his mood, and allows the possibility that the mood was describing the day more than the day was shaping the mood.

In James Barry’s world, there was plenty that might shape his emotional state. The year between late summer 1851 and the fall of 1852 illustrate Barry’s tortured and sometimes profoundly ambivalent relationship with rain. “No water, can’t grind”, he complained in August 1851 (and on many other occasions) after a long summer of heat and no rain. Winter too posed problems; the winter of 1852 was marked by little snow, mild temperatures, and plenty of water for the pond. This was a “soft” and sometimes pleasant winter, but no snow meant it was hard for locals to get their logs out of the woods, or their grain to the mill. Thus while there was plenty of water there was little wood to cut or grain to grind. Come spring, no snow meant less spring melt, and by May, Barry again found himself with low water. May remained unseasonably warm, and by the 23rd Barry now also had to worry about forest fires. Several were burning in the area, and one neighbour had already lost a barn. Some rain came, and the fires abated over the next few days. That rain was a blessing, but other times it could be a curse.  A heavy thunderstorm in mid-October produced a “dreadful freshet … the greatest I ever remember”. It flooded the brook, breaking part of the dam and smashing the flume.  After having spent much of the summer repairing that same flume, and the wall on the pond, Barry found himself almost back where he’d started. Small wonder the weather fostered strong emotional responses. It affected his well-being, on emotional, practical, and financial levels.

Much more could be said about other dimensions of Barry’s emotional make-up. The relationship between his radical Presbyterian theology, for example, and his observations of weather demonstrated a consistent pragmatism, and were thus grounded in the Enlightenment language of experience and proof.[5] This was neither a man endangered by an immoral wilderness, nor one who feared nature’s place in his life.[6] But that dispassionate position should not allow us to miss the volatile man whose work, body, and mood were every day affected by Six Mile Brook’s capricious weather. Barry’s diary is a window on dimensions of local climate history; local climate history allows us a window on dimensions of one man’s soul in which, reason, emotion, practicality, and finance all played compelling roles.  Perhaps James Barry’s emotions offer instructive lessons as the climate of our world changes.

[1] Liza Piper, “Colloquial Meteorology,” in Method & Meaning in Canadian Environmental History, Alan MacEachern and William J. Turkel eds., (Toronto: Nelson Education, 2009), esp. 109-17; and Liza Piper, “Backward Seasons and Remarkable Cold: The Weather over Long Reach, New Brunswick, 1812-1821,” Acadiensis XXXIV, 1 (Autumn 2004), 31-55.  See also the helpful overview in Teresa Devor, “The Explanatory Power of Climate History for the 19th-Century Maritimes and Newfoundland: A Prospectus,” Acadiensis XLIII, 2 (Autumn 2014), 57-78.

[2] John L. Brooke, Climate Change and the Course of Global History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 467-76; and Michael E. Mann, “The Little Ice Age,” in Encyclopedia of Global Environmental Change. Michael C. McCracken and John S. Perry, eds., (Chichester: John Wiley, 2002), 504-9.

[3] “Never … was a season so backward … on the beginning of June.” Acadian Recorder, 8 June 1816, p.2.

[4] “soft, adj.”. OED Online. March 2018. Oxford University Press. (accessed March 18, 2018).

[5] Catherine A. Brekus, “The Evangelical Encounter with the Enlightenment,” in Heath Carter and Laura Rominger Porter, eds., Turning Points in the History of American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 19-43.

[6] Denis McKim, “God’s Garden: Nature, Order, and the Presbyterian Conception of the British North American ‘Wilderness,’” Journal of Canadian Studies 51, 2 (2017), 398-433; and Mark Stoll, Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). Kindle edition.

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Daniel Samson teaches and writes about rural colonial Canada. He is currently writing a biography of James Barry, a miller, fiddler, printer, reader, and curmudgeon who lived in Pictou Township, Nova Scotia from 1822 to 1906.

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