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.

George Washington’s Stars & Stripes

On hearing an organ playing inside a church last Sunday as I strolled along Trumpington Street in Cambridge, England, I felt drawn inside to listen. It was Little Saint Mary’s Church which sits tightly between the Fitzwilliam Museum and Peterhouse College, and is as old as Peterhouse, the first Cambridge college.

Little St. Mary’s Church, Cambridge UK

The church was empty apart from a young man practicing at the keyboard in the organ loft. A clergyman appeared from a side door to check the lectern, and when he passed along the aisle I stopped him to ask about the church’s history. It was Anglo-Catholic, meaning its loyalty was stretched between Canterbury and Rome, and it had an interesting plaque on the wall. I had to check it out.

It commemorated a former vicar of the church, one Godfrey Washington of York (1670-1729) who, according the man in the black cassock, was the great uncle of George Washington. Yes, that George!

Memorial for Revd. Godfrey Washington

But what captured my attention was the coat of arms above the inscription. It was rendered in red five-pointed stars and stripes on a white background. When I checked the heraldic history at the House of Names I found it was indeed the family crest of the Washington family, who came to England with the Norman Conquest. [Check your own family emblem at houseofnames.com].

Was this the origin of the American flag we have today? The one whose origin was declared at the 2nd Continental Congress in 1777: “the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white, that the Union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field …” Only the blue is absent from Washington’s coat of arms.

The history of the American flag is shrouded in mystery. There is an old story, often dismissed as fanciful or apocryphal, that George Washington sketched a design with stars and stripes for Betsy Ross, an upholsterer he knew, to make a cloth flag from it. Scholars argue about the authenticity of that homey story, but the similarity between Washington’s coat of arms and the Union flag is surely more than coincidence?

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