"Living weather" for survival: cultivating local climatic knowledge in New Brunswick, circa 1790-1870

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University of New Brunswick


Settlers of British American descent farming in the Wolastoq/St. John River Valley of New Brunswick in the late 18th and 19th centuries learned to ‘live weather’ – to negotiate variable and changing local weather conditions, moment-by-moment, day-by-day, season-by-season, and year-by-year. ‘Living weather’ is conceptualized as a way of being-knowing, which recognizes that settlers learned through constant multisensory awareness while undertaking the daily tasks of farm life, attentive to various opportunities and challenges, with the weather framing the context in most instances. Farmers cultivated their own Local Traditional Knowledge (LTK) of weather by integrating experiential knowledge of the local effects of weather on physical and social landscapes, with the traditions of Euro-American agriculture. These included crop and livestock choices, as well as methods and practices of observation, communication, and record-keeping. Settlers’ LTK was central to their success as farmers in the River Valley because of the highly seasonal climate and consequent narrow margins for error in agriculture. This study reconstructs the learning processes of late-18th and 19th-century farmers through analyses of their household journals. It uncovers their adaptive strategies in response to the variable timing of seasons, diverse seasonal weather patterns, potentially devastating freshet floods, and the subsistence imperatives of settlement in colonial North America. Farmers were also influenced by an improvement imperative, which was often trumped by the ecological limits of their new homes. Farmers cultivated resilience in the face of vulnerability through strong relationships with one another, with plants and animals, and with place. This study recognizes the significant cultural influence of literary media and methods on a predominantly rural society that continued to be steeped in orality. As we contend with contemporary climate change and other ecological realities of life in the Anthropocene, works of climate history such as this one offer insight into practices of locality that can support the sustainable communities of the future.