I’ve always loved storms wherever I have been, but there is something more stirring about them when in open country. Here at Manor Bottom today, there was no thunder or lightning but there were strong gales, and I was out in the fields to enjoy them. I went up to the old quarry and stood under our biggest oak. It is probably the oldest tree here, I’d guess around 300 years old, though I cannot know its age for sure until it falls. As I was standing under it, I was hoping that was not going to be today. I stood directly next to its formidable trunk, looking up at the boughs swaying in the 47 mph wind. They were moving significantly and chaotically, and, closing my ears to the sounds of the gale, it was impossible to tell from which direction the wind was coming – each bough swayed at its own rhythm depending on its span and its own contorted form, not in unison with the others. It was quite a surreal spectacle, as if the oak was trying to explain something to me and was frustrated that I couldn’t understand. It seemed angry and I was grateful for drops in the wind, when it seemed to calm, its fury abated for a moment or so. Though I was conscious that if at any point a branch fell onto my head that would have been it, I had utter faith in this oak’s strength and just enjoyed the sight and the sound (plus, I knew from a study I’d read that it would take a wind of around 90 mph to buckle a tree like this – in fact, a tree’s size, girth, type, is of not much importance in wind that strong, 90 mph is the critical wind speed at which almost all tree trunks break).
The display was amazing but so too was the sound. Psithurism is the word used for the sound of the wind blowing through the trees. Some Psithurism experts actually claim that different trees sing different songs. Liu Chi (1311-1375), a scholar in the time of the Yuan and the Ming Dynasties, wrote that: “Among plants and trees, those with large leaves have a muffled sound; those with dry leaves have a sorrowful sound; those with frail leaves have a weak and unmelodic sound.’ Today, as it is early spring, the oak was largely leafless except for a few of last year’s leaves that were still clinging to it. In this state it was pretty unmelodic, though I thought the song rather more defiant than weak.
Whilst we would always hope for the best of weather for our guests here at Manor Bottom, I hope that those who do have days like this won’t be afraid to get out there and enjoy them. Coastal storms are another matter still. There are many great places on the Island to watch a storm at sea but one of my favourites is along the ‘back of the Wight’. There you can walk, the tide being favourable, several miles along the beach just meters from waves that would easily drag you off the shingle and out to sea. Fighting them would probably be futile.
One of the most enjoyable storms I remember was actually in Croatia. On a pleasant, calm early evening, I was standing on a promontory by an old lighthouse gazing out to sea, when I noticed that all the fishing boats seemed to be hastily making for the harbour. I thought maybe they were rushing in to sell their catches, but this seemed unlikely – the restaurants would have already drawn up the specials on their menu boards. Anyway, I watched them into harbour then turned my gaze back out to sea. What I saw there was tremendous – thunderous dark clouds on the horizon in all directions. And they were moving in quickly on this little town, with me on its promontory. I decided I was going to meet this storm head on. In minutes rain was tapping on the stones in front of me, soon it was hitting me hard at right angles, my clothes were soaked in seconds, then there was roll of thunder that seemed to be meters above my head, followed by a second, a third,until it seemed to be a continuous bellow. The sea, which minutes before had been like a lake, was now rolling as if the bay was being shaken from side to side. The skies lit up, the rain came down, the thunder boomed, and I smiled from ear to ear amidst it all. And then, in what seemed a few minutes, it all passed, as quickly as it had come in. The last of the summer sun came through again, the stones started to dry, and the water turned pacific again. I took my wet clothes off and dived into and under the calm surface.