canada · january blues · research

‘Tis the season

I’ve worked on weather and climate history, off and on, over the past ten years (it was the subject of my MA and is also the focus of an on-going research project). In that time, I’ve moved from an interest in how historians can contribute to past climate reconstructions, to curiosity about how our social and cultural experiences of weather, climate, the seasons, storms, droughts, floods, shape our lives and histories. I continued to be fascinated learning about the complex environmental consequences of past climate change (like the climate changes at the end of the last major glaciation that caused a shift in seasonality – shorter and more abrupt seasonal shifts – that likely contributed to global species extinctions) and horrified at the models of future climate predictions and their implications. Nevertheless, as a historian my interests in climates past and present lie not with what people can tell us as objective observation stations about the changes in climate and environment around them, but how we feel the weather, and what that makes us do, and more broadly how have we gotten ourselves into our current mess when it comes to unprecedented, and potentially catastrophic climate change. (As I argue elsewhere, the problem we face is not excess CO2, it’s ourselves.)

As an environmental historian, I also love the fact that where I live helps me to understand our relationships with the rest of nature, climate included. Close to a decade living in Toronto and Vancouver helped me to understand urban environments. Living in Edmonton? I now get the place of daylight in the seasons. (Note that I don’t say Edmonton helps me understand urban environments!) I used to find that February was my low point of the year, when I was tired of dirty roads, cold weather, my winter wardrobe, and always running out of time. Now, it’s December-January. December, I’m always surprised by how bleak I feel as sunlight becomes a precious commodity. This year, I was taken aback at one point at how dismal my mood had become, until I remembered that it was December, which cheered me up considerably. January is worse, even though the days start to lengthen (we now get to drop our son off at daycare with some daylight) because it’s also the start of a new semester which I’m invariably much less prepared for than the fall semester. This, of course, speaks to the intersection of cultural and natural seasons. My husband loves March and April, because it’s still winter in the mountains, and long sunny days make for great skiing. As part of my research I now understand why daylight and moonlight figure as prominently in historical experiences of climate in the North, as do cold and ice – the more conventional representations of northern climate. I also better understand why Olaf Eliasson’s Weather Project at the Tate Modern was one of the most compelling exhibitions I’ve ever been to.

So here’s to the end of the January! Good riddance.