Friday, February 25, 2011

Time's Telescope

Sounds sufficiently poetic, doesn’t it? The term is actually the common title for an annual publication in London during the nineteenth century, and a volume that was consulted by many households. Time’s Telescope or a Complete Guide to the Almanack provided information on annual events, holidays, lifecycles of flora and fauna, weather, and astronomy. In fact, the full title of the 1826 edition reads: “Time’s Telescope or a Complete Guide to the Almanack: Containing an Explanation of Saints’ Days and Holidays; With Illustrations of British History and Antiquities, Notices of Obsolete Rites and Customs, Sketches of Comparative Chronology, and Contemporary Biography; Astronomical Occurrences in Every Month Comprising Remarks on the Phenomena of the Celestial Bodies: and the Naturalist’s Diary; Explaining the Various Appearances in the Animal and Vegetable Kingdoms.” And some people think The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation is a long title!

Time’s Telescope was one of several almanacs available in the nineteenth century, but it tended to focus more on the scientific than the amusing. While other almanacs included household hints, puzzles, games, and riddles, Time’s Telescope tended to discuss observations of nature, whether physical nature in the outdoors or human nature. Unlike some scientific literature, however, it wasn’t dry. In fact, the writers even waxed poetic from time to time. Take the opening of the “Naturalist’s Diary” for February of 1817:

“The green moss shines with icy glare;
The long grass bends its spear-like form,
And lovely is the silvery scene
When faint the sunbeams smile.

Reflection too may love the hour,
When Nature, hid in Winter’s grave,
No more expands the bursting bud,
Or bids the flowret bloom.

For Nature soon in Spring’s best charms
Shall rise revised from Winter’s grave,
Again expand the bursting bud,
And bid the flowret bloom.—Southey.”

But you opened Time’s Telescope for more than poetry. Children opened it to learn about cultural oddities; teens opened it to learn about the important figures of their day; parents opened it to remind themselves what to expect from weather and when to think about planting and hunting. Again from the “Naturalist’s Diary”:

“In February, the weather in England is usually variable, but most inclined to frost and snow. The thermometer is often down below the freezing point, but is generally found at noon between 36 degrees and 46 degrees; towards the end of the month it sometimes rises to 50 degrees, or even 52 degrees or 54 degrees. The severe weather generally breaks up with a sudden thaw, accompanied by wind and rain; torrents of water pour from the hills, and the snow is completely dissolved. Rivers swell and inundate the surrounding country, often carrying away bridges, cattle, mills, gates, &c., and causing great injury to the farmer. But so variable is the weather in this month, that frequently ‘frost again usurps the year.’

In the course of this month all nature begins, as it were, to prepare for its revivification. God, as the Psalmist expresses it, ‘renews the face of the earth;’ and animate and inanimate nature seem to vie with each other in opening the way to spring. About the 4th or 5th, the woodlark, one of our earliest and sweetest songsters, renews his note; a week after, rooks begin to pair, and geese to lay; the thrush sings; the yellow-hammer is also heard. The chaffinch sings; the green woodpecker makes a loud noise; and the redbreast continues to warble.

Turkey-cocks strut and gobble. Partridges begin to pair; the house pigeon has young; field crickets open their holes; missel thrushes couple; and wood owls hoot; gnats play about, and insects swarm under sunny hedges; frogs croak, and the stone curlew clamours. By the latter end of this month, the raven has generally laid its eggs, and begun to sit. Moles commence their subterraneous operations.”

In case you were more interested in the domestic side of nature: “The husbandman is now eager to commence the work of ploughing, which business is finished in this month, if the weather permit. In this month, early potatoes are set, hedges repaired, trees lopped, and wet lands drained. Poplars, willows, osiers, and other aquatics are planted.”

And if you favored the sporting variety: “Pheasant-shooting usually terminates about the 1st, and partridge-shooting about the 15th of this month.”

Nice to have a book tell you exactly what you should be doing and observing, eh?

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