I am always seizing upon things people tell me, parking the statements in my memory, and only years later learning they are untrue. It is not merely urban myths, (such as the myth about crocodiles living in the sewers of New York,) which I must discard, but all sorts of tidbits of history and quotes by famous people.
Of course, until I stand corrected, I am a purveyor of misinformation. I hate to admit it. After all, I love Truth, and do my best to be honest. However there is no filter you can clamp on your brain, as you wander through life, which automatically screens the false from the True. If you are eager to learn and ask many questions, your openness and honesty can also make you naïve and gullible, and you ingest all sorts of balderdash. After you have ingested this crud, the best (and sometimes only) way to be rid of it is through embarrassment. It is rough on the old ego, but, having something you honor as “fact” publically proven to be claptrap, and cringing in the consequential embarrassment, is a way to the beauty of Truth.
In my experience, (after roughly 56,257 of these embarrassments,) you eventually start to develop an ear for Truth, and also to recognize balderdash when you hear it.
One thing that I often used to say is, “Harry Truman once said, ‘The only thing new under the sun is the history you haven’t read.’” Recently I had the sense this quote didn’t quite ring true. After all, the atomic bomb definitely was a new thing, when Harry Truman used it.
After searching, I found that Truman died in 1972, and the first reference to him saying that quote was in a book about him published in 1974. Not that the writer fabricated the statement, but Truman may have been quoting Mark Twain, for I found an even earlier reference attributed to Mark Twain. (As I recall, it was in a Washington financial journal from the 1940’s.) However, to further confuse matters, I could find no evidence Mark Twain himself had ever actually written what was attributed to him.
Mark Twain’s attitude towards history was more relaxed, and a little cynical, more along the lines of his famous quote, “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable.” He was well aware people bend the truth when telling a tale, and felt history was no different. In fact, if he had actually written the quote, it likely would have been, “The only new thing under the sun is the history you haven’t yet invented.”
We all like to be knowledgeable, and to strut with authority, even in situations when we perhaps should be more humble. Sometimes it simply fattens our already fat heads, to think we are smart and the other person is not so smart.
Mark Twain tells a tale of meeting a person on a steamboat who had no idea he had ever captained a steamboat, and instead mistook him, (due to his clothing,) as a rube from the east. This person then began explaining to Twain how a steamboat worked, making up absurd and outlandish facts, and Twain simply nodded, as if he was extremely gullible. After the fellow was done he walked down the deck, and Twain later saw him helplessly leaning on a rail, convulsed with laughter. The prankster felt it was the funniest thing that he was so smart, and the rube from the east was so stupid, or he felt that way until the actual captain of that steamboat came down the deck and loudly hailed Mark Twain, speaking to him as one steamboat captain to another steamboat captain. Then the joker abruptly didn’t feel so smart. He suddenly realized he’d been speaking absurd and outlandish untruths to a person who knew exactly how absurd and outlandish his statements were, and who was in fact smarter. The humor then escaped the prankster, and he stopped collapsing in laughter, and instead slouched about with a garlic face.
I know how that man felt. However it is not Mark Twain who puts me in my place. It is life.
However I try not to wear the garlic face. Life is too short.
Recently life played one of its jokes on me, involving my skills as a forecaster.
I too like to be knowledgeable, and to strut with authority, and in this case I simply noted that the first half of our New Hampshire winter had been quite open, and the second half very snowy.
When the winter is open there is no blanket of snow to insulate our earth, and it can freeze as solid as permafrost down to a depth of five feet. (Such rock-like earth should have a name. It can’t be “permafrost” because it isn’t permanent. Perhaps it should be called “tempafrost?”)
In any case, this rock-like layer of earth keeps water from draining downwards, and being absorbed into the earth beneath, in the manner a summer rain is absorbed. The water instead pools atop the rock-like layer, turning the upper soil to mire, and making a messy situation called “Mud Season.”
During the time before the rock-like layer melts, and water can again drain downwards, we can have terrible floods in New Hampshire. A warm spring rain falling on, and melting, a deep snow cover can create a foot or two of water, which cannot drain down into the earth, (even if the water table is low in a drought,) and instead must run off into the brooks, steams and rivers.
The worst-case scenario occurred in the spring of 1936, when two warm and drenching rains fell on a deep snow pack. The man-made flood control reservoirs had not been built yet, and the natural flood control reservoirs, (namely beaver dams,) were greatly reduced because beavers had not yet made their amazing come-back, (after their population was reduced to nearly zero by the fashion for beaver top-hats, such as the one Abraham Lincoln wore.) The tremendous 1936 spring freshet likely will never be matched.
Fortunately both natural and man-made flood control reservoirs were in place a decade ago, when a different worst-case scenario occurred. In this case the ground had frozen deeply, perhaps as deeply as five feet, and only the top four feet had thawed when the warm, drenching rains came. In this particular situation we had four feet of drenched earth on top of a sleek and slippery foot of frozen earth, and all of a sudden we were having California mudslides in New Hampshire. In Milford, New Hampshire an entire grove of sixty-foot-tall white pines slid down a hill and blocked Route 101, a major cross-New Hampshire highway. To this day one cannot drive to Greenville on “Greenville Road,” from New Ipswich, New Hampshire, because the southern shoulder of that road collapsed into the Greenville Millpond during those rains.
Knowing all this, I noted this winter that heavy snows followed our “open winter,” which had frozen our soil deeply. The snows included a couple of “NESIS” storms. Because our east-facing slopes do a very good job of gathering snow from east winds, we twice had more than three feet of snow laying on the level, and even as these depths shrank it made a gritty snowpack which contained a great deal of water. I knew what one drenching and warm spring southeaster might do.
I’m not exactly sure why I didn’t go into Alarmist mode. Knowing what I knew, I surely should have run about like Chicken Little. I didn’t. I would like to think I didn’t because I was old and wise, however it was likely due to the fact I was preoccupied by doing my taxes, and also had a bad case of the sniffles.
In any case what has happened is something I haven’t ever seen before. After a period where it seemed we got the worst of every storm, we have entered a period that is the opposite. Every storm misses us.
I suppose you could call it a “drought,” but it’s hard to call it that, when the streams are brimming and there are no plants in my garden to wilt. The only thing that has shriveled is the snow.
Roughly a week ago, out on my pasture, the back of a plastic version of an “Adirondack Chair” was totally covered by snow, (and the top of that chair is over three feet tall.) Today I shifted that chair three feet to the left, in an inch of corn snow, and sat down on it, in glorious sunshine and amazingly dry air.
The air pouring over us had low humidity even when it was over Canadian snows and was ten degrees (F). Warm that air to near fifty, and it has Arizona dryness. What then happens is that our snowpack does not melt. It “sublimates.”
Sublimation is a mysterious process wherein a solid doesn’t need to melt before it evaporates. The only time you see sublimation, in ordinary life, is if you boyishly put a snowball in your freezer, (so you can throw a snowball in July,) but then see that snowball shrink in your freezer, despite the fact your freezer is never above freezing. It happens because you have a “frost-free” freezer, (old-fashioned freezers had a problem with frost,) and your freezer’s frost-free option utilizes sublimation.
I have just lived through roughly a week of a frost-free New Hampshire. I’ve headed out in the morning, planning to scrape the windshield of my car, but morning after morning there has been no frost on the windshield, despite the temperatures being down nearly 20 (F.)
Just as a snowball can shrink in your freezer, our snowpack is shrinking. It is also melting, and streams are brimming, but not to the degree I would expect. In fact my expectations, and predictions, are all wrong.
This is a spring I have never seen before. Over three feet of snow are quietly and all but apologetically vanishing before my eyes. There’s hardly even a mud season, and at times the dry wind whips up a cloud of dust from the drive, or litters a crisp shower of brown leaves from the snowless south-facing side of my farm’s pasture to the still-snowy north-facing side.
I often say, “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst,” but in this case my preparations make me look like a bit of a dope. However to become garlic faced about looking like a dope would be foolish. It would be like building a bomb shelter, and then being disappointed there wasn’t a nuclear war.
Sometimes it is good to be wrong. I gaze about at the golden sunshine, breath deeply the dry, Canadian air, and don’t feel all that bad that all my past experience hasn’t amounted to a hill of beans.
But isn’t that the definition of spring? Something you have never seen before?
I think so. Spring is never, “The same old spring.”
When you have been sick, and again become well, it is never “the same old wellness.”
Even in the case of a womanizing rake, who is forever ditching fine girls he should be loyal to for his next fling, what he is forever seeking (and never finding) is not “the same old lady.”
When a bitter and cold night ends with the dawn, it is not the “same old dawn.”
Every day holds the promise of something fresh and new. And, if we truly value what is fresh and new, what value has that which is tired and old?
This brings me back to the fact we all like to be knowledgeable, and to strut with authority. Think twice about it. Face to face with springtime, could anything be more stupid?
To be truly knowledgeable is to be omniscient. IE: God. God is the only one omniscient. He has nothing left to know.
However we mere mortals have lots to learn. We should leap from bed thirsty to learn more. As much as we like to share what we already know with others, we should never rest content with that little, fanning the feeble fire of our ego, when we could instead venture forward into the sunrises and healing and springtime and new love of Truth.
The alternative is stagnation. It is to pretend you know it all, when you don’t.
It is to say, “The science is settled.” Science is never settled, unless and until you are God.
This post appeared on WATTS UP WITH THAT. http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/04/05/uninvented-history/
132 responses at that site (including my own.)
I am very Grateful to Anthony Watts. It is such an honor and wonder to be on a larger site, and to get so much feedback. For decades the only feedback I’d get for my labors in the world of writing was, “We are sorry but your submission does not meet the needs of our publication at this time.” Those rejection slips always made me want to roll over and die.