1816 ~ The year without a summer
What do Frankenstein and a volcano have to do with each other?
A lot, as it turns out.
We are all weary of this seemingly endless pandemic. We recognize that we have lived through a trying time these last two years.
It has been a time of social distancing, whether or not to take vaccines, and the deaths of family and friends – young and old, black and white.
The pandemic has been politicized, further splitting our already troubled country.
Just following our own sensibilities concerning our health and that of our families has unwittingly forced us into opposing camps.
All the while, more than 800,000 of our fellow Americans have died of COVID.
The apolitical virus continues to mutate and increase its viability. It is only concerned with its own evolution.
But the human race faced much greater hardships in earlier times; and did so without such hostile behavior as we have witnessed of late.
There have been events in the past that were much more trying than this pandemic. One cannot help but wonder how we would deal with a disease on the scale of the Bubonic Plague today?
Has technology, and all that comes with it, served to make us more fragile than those who came before us?
The people who first settled in these Appalachian Mountains, our ancestors, would they even recognize us as peers when it comes to hardiness and adaptability?
Likewise, have our comparatively easy lives made us more vulnerable to conflating mere inconvenience to the level of hardship?
Americans do not live in the face of famine or the constant threat of violence. Nor do we experience diseases that claim most of an entire population in one fell swoop.
Most of us have never gone hungry for so much as a day in our lives, let alone experience a famine.
So, what might happen if we should face a real existential threat?
The Earth has witnessed five major extinctions of such magnitude that humans would not likely survive if they happened today.
A threat to our survival as a species could come in the form of extreme volcanic activity, the result of an asteroid impact, global climate change, a virus, or heretofore unknown menaces.
We, humans, live within a thin membrane of security. One that is vulnerable to limitless threats. We do not have dominion over all, as we may wish to believe. Such is just an illusion.
We would be powerless to counter some of these threats. But, others may be survivable if we worked together.
If faced with such a threat, could we not only survive it, but demonstrate the better side of our humanity in the process?
With this question in mind, For Your Consideration will focus on a large-scale historical event that tested the mettle of humankind.
Yet, some discovered and shared creativity in the face of despair.
“The year 1800 and froze to death.”
On April 5, 1815, the largest volcanic eruption in more than 10,000 years plunged the entire Northern Hemisphere into a winter that went on for a whole year.
Mount Tambora in present-day Indonesia ejected some 50 cubic miles of volcanic ash and other material into the atmosphere. This prevented much of the sun’s heat and light from reaching the Earth.
The Mayon Volcano in the Philippines a year earlier only exacerbated the climatic effect of Tambora.
We know this today thanks to modern science. But in 1816, there was no way to connect the volcanic activity on the other side of the globe with the sudden change in climatic conditions.
Snow was experienced in every month of the year. Persistent frost decimated crops, causing severe food shortages throughout Europe, China and the Maritime provinces of Canada.
Interestingly, there are reports of foraging throughout Europe and China during 1816. This may demonstrate how quickly we humans fall back on survival skills that predated the development of agriculture.
If we can’t have shallots and potatoes, we can always fall back on ramps and squirrels, right?
The effect on crops in the U.S. was mainly limited to the northeastern states.
The summer of 1816 was brutal on the people of Eastern Canada and New England. The following story attests to this fact:
The Pocahontas Times, in its May 26, 1921 edition, reprinted an article from the New York Sun. It was a story about a 14-year-old in Vermont who lived through the Year Without a Summer. James Winchester, in his nineties at the time of the interview, recalled a snowstorm on June 17, 1816 that took the life of his uncle.
The snow was falling hard when Winchester’s uncle announced that he was going out to the pasture to make a shelter for the sheep. When he failed to return that evening, the boy and his cousin were sent to a neighbor’s farm to get help.
This is how Mr. Winchester describes the tragic loss of his uncle.
“The search was taken up by others the following day and all of the next night, without any trace of him being discovered, except that he reached the pasture and built a shelter of boughs in one corner of the lot, under which the sheep huddled. On the forenoon of the third day, the searchers found my uncle buried in the snow a mile from the pasture in almost an opposite direction from home. He was frozen stiff.”
Keep in mind that this is just one of many accounts of people dying of acute hypothermia during this ruthless summer.
You can readily imagine that many people in that year thought that doomsday was well upon them. The literature and poetry of the time reflected this sense of imminent annihilation.
As with most large-scale calamities of earlier times, the blame was placed squarely on God’s wrath. It is not surprising that church attendance in Europe increased dramatically in 1816.
As well, the doomsday-sayers were out in full force on every corner.
One Italian stargazer predicted the end of the world would occur precisely on July 18, 1816. Adding, “The sun would be extinguished and all life would be destroyed.”
While many prophesized the end of all life, others created literary treasures as never before.
Lake Geneva, Switzerland, 1816.
A small group of young poets and writers assembled at Villa Diodati in 1816. Their original intent was to spend the summer sailing upon the waters of Lake Geneva.
This group included several literary stars of the romantic period. Most notable were Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. Additional members of this talented group were the personal physician of Byron, John Polidori, and Mary Shelley, wife of Percy.
Their sailing plans were scuttled by the unexpected and deplorable weather in the summer of 1816. Instead, at the behest of Lord Byron, the young writers conducted a contest to see who could write the scariest ghost story.
Out of this impulsive challenge came several literary gems that continue to frighten us even today.
Mary Shelley went to work on a story about reanimating the dead and introduced the world to Frankenstein. This horror novel spawned countless movies and stage plays, not to mention the millions of Frankenstein Halloween costumes sold over the years.
The first Frankenstein made for the silver screen was a 1910 silent film. Many more “talkies” followed, including the hilarious 1974 parody of this particular genre, Young Frankenstein.
Perhaps you remember the whinnying of a horse every time Frau Blucher’s name was spoken. And who could forget Marty Feldman’s “What hump?” scene.
Mary Shelley could never have envisioned her macabre novel reinterpreted as a comedy.
(I was tempted to say that she would have rolled over in her grave, but I detest such cheap humor, so I kept it to myself.)
As unlikely as it may seem, another horror classic was born out of Byron’s challenge. When the stories were presented to the rest of the group, Polidori had composed the very first vampire tale, Vampyre.
Lord Byron produced a poem that perfectly expressed the gloom and the trepidation of thinking that the world was about to end.
It starts with these words:
“I had a dream, which was not at all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space”
I urge you to find this poem online and imagine believing, as most did in 1816, that the sun was about to go out like a pinched candle flame.
(Just in case you are wondering: If the sun were to shut off like a burned-out light bulb, you would have just a little over eight minutes to get a final dose of vitamin D and work on your tan. Then – lights out!)
Now, what about you? Have you learned anything new during this pandemic?
Maybe you learned to play an instrument, discovered a new mushroom species, learned to speak Esperanto, or just learned how to make sourdough bread.
If you have used this downtime to be creative, please share your newfound skill with our readers at my email address below.
Until next week,