Hal Borland notes that on July 4th 1776, the day the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson bought a thermometer and noted the temperature was 73.5 degrees at 9 pm. Though weather watchers and historians now wonder how to reconcile this seemingly cool reading with the sweltering heat often noted on that occasion, Jefferson’s simple purchase began a lifetime of recording weather patterns. Borland also notes that Jefferson bought a barometer 4 days later to take home with him.
On a day that Jefferson was focused on independence, his purchases ratified the idea that an independent man is dependent on nature. Of course, today’s dependence on all manner of technology, while making us ‘independent’ of nature, might arguably be said to interfere with our independence from other men.
I think this same Jeffersonian understanding is evident also in the writings of Thoreau. A weather watcher himself, he moved into a cabin hand-built on land owned by Emerson on Walden Pond on the 4th of July 1845. Thoreau embarked on a journey (chronicled in Walden) to find out what was really essential in life, and to eliminate from his own that which was not essential. One assumption he began with was that dependence on other men for the means to live was not essential (though companionship certainly did turn out to be handy occasionally).
And thanks to Jefferson, we know the work of two other great weather observers and naturalists, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. July 4th 1803 brought Lewis the news of the Louisiana Purchase, his signal to depart for Pittsburg, which he did the following day. July 4th 1805 found the Lewis and Clark expedition at the Falls of the Missouri. They celebrated Independence Day with the last of their whiskey. But a thunderstorm ended the celebration around 9pm.
So what better day than the 4th of July to start a habit of observing and recording the weather? What better day to embark on a study of phenology? What better way to celebrate our independence?
To read more:
Henry David Thoreau
Lewis and Clark