With many thanks to Raymond Chandler and a tip o' the hat to Dashiell Hammett.
This is the time of year when folks like to complain about the heat, how tough it is on them, discuss how to cool off, or discourse on their favorite frozen concoction or confection.
Oh dear! How frightful! Well, as far as I’m concerned, fuggedaboutit.
And I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I
grieve over them during the long winter nights, and they’re a lot of
long cold nights in the story I’m laying out. Some days I feel like
playing it smooth. Some days I feel like playing it like a waffle iron. Today's an iron day.
Let’s talk about a really chilly summer, one that would have made
sure you complainers didn’t get an AC bill as big as my hangover this
morning. Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is
intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes
And I’m not even talking about 1816, the Year Without A Summer, after
Mt Tambora blew its lid like mine blew when I saw that mug on the
street last night. He thought he had the drop on me but even on Central
Ave. he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel
food cake. Wait, where was I? Oh yeah . . .
I’m talking about real chill; I’m talking about 536 AD.
So quit your yapping, put on your big boy pants, and listen. And
remember, there are two kinds of truth: the truth that lights the way
and the truth that warms the heart. The first of these is science, and
the second is art. This truth isn’t gonna make you feel toasty, so you
better make do with science.
It started on a night with the desert wind blowing. It was one of
those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and
curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights
like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the
edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can
happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.
Well, it may have not exactly been that type of night. Maybe it was a
night when all around was soft and quiet, the white moonlight cold and
clear, like the justice we dream of but don’t find. Or, it might not
have even been night. Other than that it’s probably how it happened.
It was a volcano that started it. Maybe in Iceland where the land is as hollow and empty as the spaces between stars.
But, before we get to that . . .
We’ve always known something went seriously wrong with the
climate in 536. For much of the Northern Hemisphere a strange cloud or “veil of dust” appeared making the sun noticeably dimmer during the day. The Byzantine historian Procopius wrote “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year“.
In China, snow fell during the summer causing crops to fail and people
to starve. Korean documents record massive storms. Irish chronicles
mention “a failure of bread from the years 536–539.” Michael the Syrian recorded “[T]he
sun became dark and its darkness lasted for one and a half years […]
Each day it shone for about four hours and still this light was only a
feeble shadow […] the fruits did not ripen and the wine tasted like sour
grapes.” The following winter in Mesopotamia was so brutal a chronicler wrote “from the large and unwonted quantity of snow the birds perished.”
Dust fell from the sky. The wet air was as cold as the ashes of love.
The streets were dark with something more than night. It was as cool as a
cafeteria dinner. Most contemporaneous documentation states these
conditions continued for years.
More recently confirmatory evidence of those terrible times has been
uncovered. Tree ring studies in the 1990s confirmed the years around 540
were unusually cold and it is now calculated that summer temperatures
fell 2.5 to 4 degrees F, beginning the coldest decade in the past 23
centuries. Archaeological evidence from Scandinavia shows that up to 75%
of settlements were abandoned during those years.
Some places had it even worse. The Byzantines chose that year to
invade Italy, trying to resurrect the glory days of the Roman Empire.
Justinian’s general Belisarius landed in Naples that fall and marched
into Rome unopposed on December 9. The Ostrogoths, after several years
of chaos following the death of long time rule Theodoric, had retreated
and the Byzantines thought the war was over. It wasn’t and what followed
was two decades of battles, sieges, looting, famine, and devastation
across the peninsula, on top of the horrible weather conditions. It was
the Gothic War that spelled the real end of the classical city of Rome
and of the traditional way of life in Italy. It makes you think maybe we
all get like this in the cold half-lit world where always the wrong
thing happens and never the right.
Some medieval historians say 536 was the worst year ever to be alive. I say that’s why they’re medieval historians.
For an agricultural society in which most people lived on the edge of
survival the events had a terrible impact, shortening growing seasons,
causing starvation, and weakening those who survived. After several
years of cold, a new terror came to the Middle East, the Eastern Roman
Empire, and western Europe with its origin in central Asia or China.
Today it is known as the Justinian Plague, after the Byzantine Emperor
of the times, the first confirmed outbreak of the bubonic
plague. So many died so quickly the bodies were often left where they
lay. Killing perhaps a quarter of the population, some believe its
arrival and the high death toll are linked to a population already
living on the brink of disaster. On the other hand, the problem with
putting two and two together is that sometimes you get four, and
sometimes you get twenty-two.
Living on the edge reminds me of another mug who complained to me yesterday about how tough things were for him. I told him, “You’re broke, eh? I been shaking two nickels together for a month, trying to get them to mate.” Some people.
More recently, ice core data from Greenland and other evidence has
given clues as to the origin of the deluge of cold. While some thought
it lay in a meteor strike, it now appears there was a massive eruption
in 536, likely from a volcano in Iceland, and another huge eruption
in 540 or 541 though its location is more uncertain.
So while you’re whipping up your favorite frozen concoction, or
whatever it is you people do, take a moment to think about all those
souls, living on the margins back then and how they chilled out.
As for me, after this, I need a drink, I need a lot of life
insurance, I need a vacation, I need a home in the country. What I have
is a coat, a hat and a gun. I’m putting them on and getting out of here.