In recent years, I’ve become a huge fan of the writings of the late W.G. Sebald. Not that I always understand what’s going on in them, you understand. Sebald blends fiction, biography, memoir, and a bunch of other genres in a prose style which is frankly breathtaking. Although he lived in Norfolk, and had a command of English better than most, Sebald wrote in his native German, working closely with the translators of the English editions of his books.
Such a Sebald-groupie have I become, that I thought it was about time I read some of his poetry. I’m not very good with poetry. I don’t get most of it. But I thought I’d give it a shot, and have just finished reading Sebald’s Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964–2001.
What can I say? I found Sebald’s poetry utterly incomprehensible. I’m sure it’s fantastic, but, as I read it, I stared open-mouthed at each page, wondering, ‘What on Earth is he on about?”
Why am I telling you all this on a blog which is supposed to be dedicated to the history of science in general, and Charles Darwin in particular? Well, because one of Sebald’s poems, Barometer Reading, begins as follows:
Nothing can be inferred
from the forecasts
are ignoring their ladders
Do you see what I mean? What on Earth is he on about?
At the end of the book, Sebald’s translator, Iain Galbraith, includes some brief notes about the poems. A note about Barometer Reading, reads:
ignoring their ladders: weather-frogs (tree-frogs) were kept in preserve glasses with some water in the bottom and a small ladder. If the weather was changing for the better the frog would climb the ladder; if rain was imminent the frog descended the ladder.
Weather-forecasting frogs. Now that’s more like it!
I’ve done a bit of Googling, but haven’t been able to find out an awful lot about these weather-forecasting frogs. From what I can tell, they seem to have been mainly a German/Swiss phenomenon. Sebald was brought up in the Bavarian Alps, near to the Swiss border, so that’s almost certainly where he heard about them.
I did, however, discover one wonderful etching on Wikimedia from page 385 of the journal Die Gartenlaube, 1887 (it’s worth clicking through to the full-sized version):
A few things I haven’t been able to establish:
- who first thought up the idea for these weather-frogs?
- were they a serious attempt to forecast the weather, or where they just a bit of harmless fun?
- did they actually work?
Any information gratefully received in the comments, thanks.
Hmmm, thinks… I’ll bet Thony C knows something.