Bonchurch through Time

Bonchurch, Isle of Wight
G.H. Thompson, 1920

My great grandma bought this watercolor by a minor artist of an Isle of Wight scene a century ago. It has hung in our family homes ever since.

A housemaid carrying a basket is walking up a winding lane scoured by cart tracks. The English Channel peeps above trees and shrubbery turning gold in autumn. Although I know most corners of the Island where I was born, I couldn’t identify the scene and began to doubt it existed except in the artist’s head.

But walking up Bonchurch Shute with my cousin, she turned back and exclaimed, “This is it!”

Bonchurch Shute
Bonchurch Shute, Isle of Wight

Her artist’s eye matched the scene to the remembered painting—the angle of the bend and old walls on either side, although the sea is now obscured by vegetative growth. The revelation stirred questions. Who was she? Did she work as a servant for local gentry? Was she known to my family?

If the maid came back to life, I doubt she would notice much change in the scene. Grand Victorian villas still grace a road previously the residences or lodgings of great literary figures. Charles Dickens wrote part of David Copperfield in Winterbourne House, the poet Algernon Swinburne lived in East Dene, and Tennyson visited from his Farringford home. John Keats and Lewis Carroll had local associations too.

I’m sure they all visited the ancient church nearby, supposed to be founded by St. Boniface in the 700s. Outside the church, a noticeboard announces to the occasional tourist who ventures down the road that it was rebuilt in 1070 and still serves the community. Yes, Rebuilt!

Old Church, Bonchurch, IOW
The ancient Church of St. Boniface, Bonchurch

Standing alone in the churchyard, I only heard a gurgling stream and the murmur of the tide working pebbles on the shore beyond a screen of trees. It’s a place to feel cast back in time in a setting that has hardly changed in a millennium. Even the stone church looks resolute against decay, although the Norman frescoes inside have faded, as happens to every human artefact.

Forty generations have passed through the porch, from anonymous medieval peasants to a Stuart king to local gentry and their servants up to the present day. There is satisfaction in knowing where you belong, or at least in sharing a scene known to generations of family and friends.

In another century, I expect the old church will look much the same because places of great antiquity or rarity deserve strenuous preservation. If my descendants visit they might find the setting helps to imagine us.

But elsewhere the world rushes ever faster, transforming landscapes and rebuilding ‘better.’ The acceleration seems unstoppable. Although sometimes grumbling about development, we are reluctant to oppose progress, knowing how it has benefited prosperity, health, and security. But there is always loss in gain.

If in a hundred years family members turn the scrapbook of photos we took at the Shute last month I guess the location will be harder to pinpoint than when we identified where a maid posed for an artist in 1920. I guess the old houses and expansive gardens will be gone, the seashore crept closer, vegetation altered by a warmer climate, and traffic we can’t yet imagine. There won’t be the same moment of revelation for a great, great grandchild to exclaim, “I know where they took that photo! Let’s see where our ancestors stood and what they saw.”

The loss of that kind of connection seems trivial, but an example of a broad and common experience. A poverty of belonging. We become strangers, even in our own land.  

Pepysing back at the 1665-66 plague of London

I aimed for a weekly post about the health of the natural world, but here I am dwelling on coronavirus again. Is anyone undistracted by this pandemic?

This time I dusted off my copies of Samuel Pepys diaries in which he recorded the bubonic plague in the city I grew up in. Londoners were familiar with the scourge. The Black Death carried off most of the population across Europe in the 14th century and made other appearances. Although believed to be carried in the air (‘miasma’), human contact was a known agency too. Inbound merchant vessels had to rest at anchor for 40 days before disembarking (a number straight from the Bible). Plagues then took months to sweep across the known world in merchant sailing ships as we became more connected by trade, but it only takes a few hours or days by air travel today.

Pepys wrote in August 31, 1665: “the plague everywhere through the kingdom almost. Every day sadder and sadder news of its increase. In the City died this week … 6,102 of the plague. But it is feared the number of the dead this week is near 10,000”. He had little confidence in statistics because the poor were often unrecorded and Quakers forbade tolling the bell for their losses. Nor will the true number of coronavirus deaths be known for a long time.

Two weeks later: “To hear that poor Payne, my waiter, hath buried a child, and is dying himself. To hear that a labourer I sent but the other day to Dagenhams is dead of the plague and one of my watermen …” Epidemic is merely numbers until its meaning is wrought in suffering people you know and care about. Willful ignorance and denial of science we currently witness in the news will surely be tested with the fire of personal tragedies to come.

Church on the hillA shipment of cloth from London to a tailor in Eyam, a small village near Sheffield, carried infected fleas in 1665. Dreaded buboes erupting with pus appeared on the skin of villagers. The Eyam community led by an Anglican priest is hailed as an example of self-sacrifice where quarantine was imposed to avoid spreading the contagion outside.

Beautiful myths grow up where facts are scarce. The priest sent his children away and the poor could not afford to go. But it is a fact that only a quarter survived, and maybe the odds in neighboring villages benefitted from ‘lockdown’. According to a math model, quarantine may have made matters worse for Eyam by prohibiting dispersal if closer contact led to a more deadly pneumonic (pulmonary) plague. If there is a hero in the story, it is the priest’s wife because she stayed and died.

We constantly ask how the current ‘plague’ will end, and when?  In Eyam it burned out by running out of victims (from herd immunity?), but no one imagined it would take a literal fire in London.

Pepys wrote on September 2 of the following year: “With my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant of the Tower (of London), who tells me that it began this morning in the King’s baker’s house in Pudding-lane, and that it hath burned down St. Magnus’s Church and most part of Fish Street already … and did tell the King (Charles II) and the Duke of York what I saw; and that, unless his Majesty did command houses to be pulled down, nothing could stop the fire.” It seemed perverse to add to the physical and economic destruction but in the end was the best policy.

Sometimes we have been lucky in history with leaders who rose to the challenge of crises with coordinated, compassionate and effective responses. This time we have seen dithering politicians scared that bold responses might dent their standing and blind to the bigger picture. This coronavirus emergency is terrible and a vaccine is an urgent goal, but unless its roots in careless stewardship of nature are acknowledged the ancient cycle of plagues will be repeated, because everything is connected.

My Neighbor's Maple Syrup Sugar Shack

There’s a family I know in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia that has made maple syrup for over a century. As they are now short-handed of youngsters leaving for city work and the retainers get older and frailer, I offered to help this year.

I sat down with Gary in his sugar shack. He is the older of two brothers who manage the operation. They had already checked the network of tubes tapped into sugar maple trees that crisscross the wooded slopes. The sap runs along the plastic channels toward a main line to finally reach a large tank outside the shack.

“In the past we tapped each tree separately,” he told me. “Before we left for school, while it was still dark, we had to bring down heavy buckets full of sap from the woods.”

“I guess winters were harder in those days,” I said. “This is another mild one.”

“Oh yeah. It started snowing in November and the ground was covered until March, even April. Blizzards piled snow high as fence posts.”

His brother Ronnie came inside. As first I didn’t recognize him in the dense steam filling the room.

“Hi. We need the extractor to clear the air,” he said, wafting a hand to clear the fog.

“I’m up for that,” I chipped in. “When your family started making syrup was it to supplement farm income in winter?”

“Not at all.” It was Gary who replied. “What our Granddaddy made was the only source of sweetness for the family. He never bought sugar at the store.”

“Nowadays, we only make it to keep the tradition going, and sales just about cover our costs,” Ronnie added.

Before we fixed the extractor on the tin roof, I brought in some logs from the huge pile they had cut and split last year. It’s cheaper to boil sap over wood fires than use electric or gas heaters. There’s no shortage of wood in and around the Monongahela forest.

Much of their equipment is homemade and looks antique. Harvesting sap doesn’t cost a penny when it runs by gravity and is boiled with local wood, but costly in time and effort. The fluid is fed into a large tank over the first fire which is kept alight around the clock. If it starts foaming Ronnie squirts from a proprietary bottle to raise the surface tension. In the old days they used a piece of bacon. The warmed sap passes to the evaporator, the most modern part of the system, where it bubbles over a second fire and generate clouds of steam. 100 gallons of sap is concentrated to about 2 gallons of syrup. We threw logs on the fires every half hour to keep them hot. Ronnie checked the specific gravity of the liquor with a hydrometer (looking like a long thermometer): the optimum is a narrow band.

sugar shack for making maple syrup in West Virginia

It’s obvious when a sugar shack is making maple syrup. While one chimney smokes from a log fire another belches steam from the evaporator. The process runs for up to a month.

I asked Gary to explain the daily cycle.

“Sap don’t flow at night cos of freezin, but starts when it warm up.”

When a tree gets warmer its interior pressure rises and sap flows up the xylem tubes to drip out of holes tapped through the bark, like blood oozing out of a wound. The sugar synthesized in the leaves by photosynthesis the previous summer has been stored in the tree as starch (a polymer of glucose). As spring approaches it is mobilized ahead of the season of growing shoots and leaves, and very slightly sweetens the sap. The yellow-bellied sapsucker knows this too as it drills holes in smaller boughs. When the bird returns it may find an insect in the sticky sap, and enjoy the protein morsel in a carbohydrate sauce in dead of winter.

During cold weather tree roots remain unfrozen and soil moisture is drawn into them by the process of osmosis to generate “root pressure.” Sap rises up the tree in the xylem. That’s the principle, although plant physiology is more complicated. I love to see a family honoring a time-honored process using equipment and principles I can understand in an era when the technology I use is beyond my comprehension. Besides, making maple syrup is a gentle art that does no harm to trees or wildlife.