When my late friend Captain Joe Small retired to his inland, hilltop farm after a lifetime at sea, his first order of business was to install a working weathervane and an anemometer atop his country log home which he had aptly named “Landfall”. Each day during his long, happy life ashore he would record in his daily log book such important pieces of information as wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, and other weather observations. In fact for Captain Joe, I think, his personal sense of balance and well-being was closely connected to this daily ritual of staying in touch with what was going on around him in the natural world he inhabited.
As a young student pilot challenged with cross-country navigation problems let alone the prospect of having to land and take off from unpaved, rural airstrips, I learned quickly to appreciate wind socks, blowing flags, and even the weathervanes turning on the steeples of the country churches I flew over. To this day, such objects have an allure for my photographer’s eye, and I often stop to capture one or two on film or mag. card.
Although such things as weather vanes have become no more than decorative pieces of art for most of us, they remind us of the historical importance of “knowing which way the wind blows”. In Medieval times, flags flying from castle turrets helped defending archers to know how to anticipate the trajectory of flying arrows as much as to announce the land of their loyalty. Pennants and “telltales” streaming from a ship’s mast told mariners how to set their sails as well as being a gauge of weather changes and the mood of the sea.
The first weather vanes are thought to date back to a Roman structure in early-day Athens known as “The Tower of the Winds” around 50 BC. Because they often took the form of a barnyard rooster in rural settings, they were often referred to as “weather cocks”. Today, farm livestock, fish, deer and sailing ships still seem to be favorites, although there is ample room for artistic creativity as my travels have revealed.
For a weather vane to function correctly, both sides of the pivoting object must be of equal weight, but unequal surface area; there is a degree of thoughtful engineering at play in every vane as there is also in its exact position atop the particular building and its relationship to the immediate surroundings.
As I reflect on the ever-changing vagaries of life itself, I am reminded that like my erstwhile friend and mentor Captain Joe Small, I find it is important now and then to look upward and check on which way the wind is blowing.
Carved by a famous European sculptor and covered in gold leaf, a one-of-a-kind bull presides over Furnace Brook Farm in Chittenden, Vermont.
Al Cooper Photos
When the proprietor of a nearby grocery store - himself the third generation of a family closely tied to the retail food business - built his home in New Harbor, Maine, a hand- crafted pig seemed entirely appropriate to top off a classic cupola.
One of the most unusual weather vanes I have encountered was fashioned by a Bucksport, Maine resident in proud honor of his thirteen grand children, the last of which, born after construction had begun, is shown as a late addition.
Island dwellers have their own idea of what ought to fly over their head and hearth, and this pivoting whale has seen its share of Nor’easters.
A barnyard cat rides the winds atop a classic New England carriage house.
Thought to be the world’s largest weather vane, and sensitive to a 4 mph breeze, a retired Douglas DC-3 transport plane greets visitors to White Horse airport in Canada’s Yukon Territory.