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St. Swithun, the Internet, & Grandma’s Garden

Bill Meredith

St. Swithin’s Day, if thou doest rain,
For forty days it will remain;
St. Swithin’s Day, if thou be fair,
For forty days ’twill rain nae mair.
… English Nursery Rhyme

(August, 2015) My grandmother was born in 1868, two years before the U. S. Weather Bureau was established. I don’t think she was aware of this coincidence; in fact, I’m not sure she even knew there was a Weather Bureau. But she knew a lot about the weather, because in those days the lives of everyone who lived on a farm were governed by it. From her parents she learned the local mixture of factual knowledge and lore, as well as tales and legends of how it had been back in Ireland before they came over. All of that was mixed with "modern" information from the Farmer’s Almanac; she passed it on to me when I "helped" her in the garden as a child, and now it is a source of pleasure when it wafts through my mind while I tend my garden.

As I said in last month’s essay, the emphasis has been on rain this year. Records that have been kept in Emmitsburg since 1870 show that our average annual total is 41.37 inches per year. That would be an average of 0.11 inches per day, but of course it doesn’t come like that. In an ordinary year we might get one or two rainy days in a week, or perhaps one good, soaking rain every couple of weeks. But this year we were having three or more rainy days each week, and although the line on my graph for daily rainfall followed the average closely, the garden stayed wet all the time. But in mid-June the rains got heavier, and the graph shot upward; by mid-July we were more than six inches above average. I was beginning to wonder if the garden would ever dry out.

I was talking about this to a friend, and he noted that it had rained on July 15, which is St. Swithun’s Day; and he asked me what the chances were that it would continue raining for 40 days, as the legend predicted. I had heard St. Swithun’s name somewhere a long time ago, but couldn’t connect it with anything, and my first reaction was to put him in the same category of meteorological validity as Groundhog Day and forget about it again. But, since I had no other topic to write about, I went to my computer and looked him up.

To someone who started his education by having to look things up in dictionaries and encyclopedias, the internet is a source of unmatched amazement. In the 20 years or so that I have been using it, I can recall only one case where I could find no information on something I tried to look up… and I’ve forgotten what that was. Some people complain that inaccuracies occur in internet sources like Wikipedia, but that doesn’t bother me; I have learned that all of the things scholars call "secondary sources" …textbooks, reference books, dictionaries… contain errors. This is inevitable. Some are simply human mistakes by writers and editors, but most are because "facts" that we used to accept as true have been replaced after new discoveries were made. So I found St. Swithun on the first try.

Unlike many of the myths that I sometimes write about, St. Swithun was a real person. He was born around 800 A.D., and entered the priesthood as a young man; and because of his kindness to the poor as well as his administrative ability, he was soon made a Bishop. He was especially good at raising money for building new churches; and when he had banquets he invited common people from the community. Along the way, miracles began to be reported. The first was when an old woman, carrying a basket of eggs to market, dropped the basket while crossing a bridge. Swithun happened to be near by, and ran to help her; and when he picked up the broken eggs, they became whole again.

Swithun died in 682. In those days Bishops were usually buried inside their churches, but Swithun had asked that he be buried outside, so that the footsteps of the poor and rain dripping from the eaves of the church could both fall on his grave. And so they did, for the next 100 years. Meanwhile, miraculous cures were attributed to him, and on July 15, 971, he was re-buried inside the church. During the re-burial service a violent storm occurred. It was attributed to his spirit’s displeasure over the moving of his bones, and legend says the storm continued for 40 days. Although there is no actual record that such a storm ever happened then or any time since, the story grew that if it rained on July 15, wet weather would continue for 40 days. That became the origin of the nursery rhyme printed above. It still may be heard in England around St. Swithun’s Day.

Things are different now. In recent years, meteorologists have discovered that in mid-summer the jet stream tends to orient itself in a stable pattern either just above or just below the British Isles, where it stays for several weeks. If it is to the north of the Isles, it will pull in warmer air from the Atlantic, and the weather will remain pleasant. If it is on the south side, it will pull in colder air from the North Sea, bringing cool, rainy weather. Thus modern science has provided a possible explanation for the legendary origin of St, Swithun’s Day; but it has done bodily harm to the Nursery Rhyme. Some wag has now re-written it as follows:

St. Swithun's day if thou dost rain
For forty days, relatively unsettled there's a fair chance it will remain
St. Swithun's day if thou be fair
For forty days, a northerly jet stream might result in some fairly decent spells
But then again it might not

And now, back in the 21st Century, my own self-imposed pattern resumes. On days when it is dry enough and not too hot, I spend the mornings tending my garden, with intervening pauses for rest in my lawn chair in the shade. While pulling weeds and re-tying tomato vines, I review memories of Grandma and her garden. I see her sitting in the rocking chair on the porch, reading the Farmer’s Almanac. She died in 1948, having never seen a television set; and I wonder what her reaction would be if I could show her my computer. I just checked, and found that Google lists 10 pages of articles about the Farmer’s Almanac….

Read other articles by Bill Meredith