One of the many ways the The Dark One attempts to unmake the world in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is by influencing the weather. When the series begins an unnaturally long chill has pressed itself over the land, and it is broken only by the emergence of the series’ savior, The Dragon Reborn. Later on in the series, the world (or at least the part of the world that we see) is beset by an endless summer. Heat pervades, drought persists, and there is no doubt that The Dark One is doing so in an attempt to smother the denizens of the world into submission. The threat is considered so great that the advancing plot of the entire series is eventually called to a halt so that this “endless summer” can be thwarted.
Last year, New York City, and really the entire northeastern United States, experienced the hottest summer in recorded history. This endless steamroom of a season was probably what Rand, Mat, Egwene, and company had to suffer through in The Wheel of Time. As we gear up for another potential four month-long heatwave, I got to wondering: how long did the world of Jordan’s Wheel of Time have to hold out?
The beginning of The Wheel of Time’s heatwave has no exact start date, but we know that Book 3, The Dragon Reborn, starts in late winter. From the Prologue chapter “Fortress of the Light”:
Twin fires on the long hearth at either end of the room held off the late winter cold.
The Dragon Reborn largely concerns itself with Rand scampering off to Tear as Moiraine, Perrin, Mat, and company follow behind. Rand starts his journey near the beginning of a calendar year, but how long does it take for him to get to Tear?
Steven Cooper’s Chronology of The Wheel of Time provides an exact answer, tracking the character’s movements by the phases of the moon and (at this point in the series) the length of time it would take the characters to travel by foot/horse/boat. Cooper’s chronology then appends that data to our 12-month calendar since the events of The Wheel of Time actually take place on an Earth in the far future/distant past.
Cooper’s chronology notes the events of The Dragon Reborn as starting in January or February, and concluding on May 20th. If The Dark One has implemented its “endless summer” stratagem then its effects are not yet apparent on account of it still being late winter and spring during the events of Book 3.
Book 4, The Shadow Rising, obfuscates the issue by setting two of its three plotlines in A.) The equivalent of the Gulf of Mexico and B.) A vast desert. The only setting where it is possible to find evidence for the onset of the “endless summer” is in Perrin’s plotline, which takes the character back to the temperate woodland climate of Emond’s Field on June 9th. Not long after the arrival of the characters, the narrative gives an indication of the summer’s heat. From Chapter 30, “Beyond the Oak”:
[Mistress Al’Vere to Loial] “I do wish there was something we could do about your height, Master Loial. I know it is hot, but would you mind wearing your cloak, with the hood up?”
The events in The Shadow Rising extend to mid-summer, where Book 5, The Fires of Heaven, begins. Chapter 1, “Fanning the Sparks” gives the reader the first direct evidence that The Dark One is causing an unnatural lengthening of the summer heat, accompanied by drought:
South and west it blew, dry, beneath a sun of molten gold. There had been no rain for long weeks in the land below, and the late-summer heat grew day by day. Brown leaves come early dotted some trees, and naked stones baked where small streams had run.
While summer naturally begins in The Shadow Rising, it is The Fires of Heaven that makes it clear that summer is being unnaturally extended. (How The Dark One is pumping that much energy into the atmosphere is unclear, and a bit beyond the scope of this article. Maybe The Dark One is cheating and just diverting global jetstreams around the Westlands continent, naturally creating a massive dome of stagnant high pressure air?) Cooper’s Chronology can now be used to find how long the summer lasts. Nynaeve, Elayne, and Aviendha use the Bowl of Winds in Book 8, The Path of Daggers, to fix the weather. The first indication that they have succeeded is in Chapter 20, “Into Andor”, when a light rain begins to fall. Cooper pegs Chapter 20 as occurring on January 20th.
June 20th (sometimes the 21st) is the summer solstice, marking the beginning of summer on Earth’s northern hemisphere. Therefore, the “endless summer” in The Wheel of Time lasts almost exactly seven months. That is a long, dangerous stretch of what are most likely 100 F/37 C+ days, especially when coupled with an absence of rain.
But in a roundabout way, did this “extra” summer actually help the forces of Light?
Heatwaves are dangerous. Over time they disrupt the body’s ability to thermoregulate, making a person heat-sick and eventually causing permanent organ damage. (At a certain threshold the body is storing more heat than it is emitting, so a person’s internal temperature rises and the organs start cooking slowwwly.) Heatwaves also shove out cloud cover, and the constant direct sunlight hastens drought conditions. This dry vegetation is essentially tinder for naturally occurring wildfires, which can wipe out large swaths of forest and usable farmland. (This land recovers but is unusable for habitation until it does.) Heat also disrupts the pollination and growth process of plants, leading to lesser, or even negated, crop yields. An unending heatwave can eliminate water, food, and the animal and manpower required to harvest it.
But a heatwave needs time to affect crop yields to such an extent, even when coupled with a supernaturally maintained drought. (In the 1930s it took three unceasing years of drought–and bad plowing practices–to turn the farmlands in the U.S. plains into dust. The extended drought experienced by California this decade took a similar length of time to reach a point where the effects became widespread.) While a summer that is a little hotter and a little drier than usual will affect crop yields, it is safe to assume that food production in The Wheel of Time could function as normal through the seven months that comprise The Dark One’s “endless summer”.
That the heatwave lasts only seven months is key. Even though conditions worsen as the heatwave sticks around into the fall and deep winter, farmlands and food crops in the Westlands could remain viable until the following summer, when lack of water would be severe enough to trigger widespread crop loss, with famines following. However, since the “endless summer” sticks around for only 4 months after the onset of autumn, does this mean that the Dark One’s machinations actually ended up giving farmers an extra growing season?
When considering what could be grown in a temperate climate that was given an extra (though dry) summer, there are three groupings of food crops that should be taken into account.
- Biennials, which need two years, and a “cold period” in the middle, to grow to maturity. In essence, they begin growth in one summer, continue through an altered cycle of growth over the winter, then finish growing the next summer.
- Annuals, which take one year to grow. They begin growing in the spring and reach maturity in the late summer or fall of the same year. (There are also “winter annuals”, which start growing in the fall and finish in the spring.)
- Perennials, which grow on a constant rapid cycle, regardless of the time of year, if the climate is favorable.
An endless summer would seriously hinder biennial crops like spinach, certain onions, carrots, some lettuces, and assorted herbs, since a portion of their growth cycle is being directly disrupted by the loss of a cold season.
Wait, spinach, onions, carrots, lettuces…
THE DARK ONE HATES SALAD.
While biennials would struggle, annuals, since their growing season is three to four months, would suddenly have an entire extra summer in which to be planted and harvested. These crops include much of the mass-produced food that forms the basis of our diet, like wheat, corn, rice, and soy. Perennials don’t quite receive an entire extra growing season, but they would most likely be a go-to choice for farmers taking advantage of the warm weather thanks to the necessity of “crop rotation”.
As plants grow they extract nutrients–specific minerals and elements like nitrogen–from the soil in which they are planted. That soil typically needs a growing season to refresh the store of those nutrients. Crop rotation also controls fungi and other pests that feed on particular crops. For example, if a farmer rotates their potato crop to a new field in the next season, then any potato bugs lingering in the first field lose their food source and die out, making the field fit for replanting of that crop.
Crop rotation can be as simple or as complex as the farmer needs it to be. Better Hens has a handy overall chart explaining one possible order in which to plant and rotate crops, and here’s a crop rotation schedule from Ukraine Farming that specifies rotation of grains over land-type.
Essentially, the extra growing season provided by the “endless summer” would result in more grains and fruits for the Westlands continent. And while the fruits wouldn’t keep past the following spring, the grains would be able to last 1 to 2 years, which easily encompasses the time between the events of The Path of Daggers and the end of the series.
While the weather and the soil remain amenable to an extra growing season during this period of endless summer, it’s an open question as to how many farmers would be willing or able to take advantage of it. A farmer is not going to break from their annual rhythm and replant just because of a warm September. But what about a warm October? A warm November? Winters are a struggle for farms, both in terms of finances and food, and while farming is a cautious and practiced profession, it’s quite possible that crop farmers would at least take advantage of the warmer weather to plant perennials. Those with larger estates would most likely consider reseeding for wheat, as well, instead of leaving perfectly temperate fields inactive.
Farmers and estate owners who do decide to replant during this extra growing season could face issues with labor shortages and possessorship of land. During the events of The Fires of Heaven, certain lands would be too war-torn to be able to plant new crops. The Shaido tear through large swaths of Cairhien during this point in the series, the Two Rivers has just been through hell, and Andor’s leadership is in absentia. These three territories hold vast tracts of farmland, and it can be surmised that a significant portion of it is abandoned or damaged, since the Dragon Reborn orders grain to be shipped north from Tear after stabilizing Andor and Cairhien.
These conflicts are settled by the end of The Fires of Heaven, but is that in time for the survivors to return to their farms and begin a new crop? Would the destruction of their lands actually motivate the farmers to plant anew so they can get back on their feet? Or would there simply not be enough manpower to plant again?
There isn’t enough detail to determine a reliable answer to that question, but the advantage of an additional growing season remains for the forces of the Light (and really, thanks to the forces of the Light. If Aviendha, Elayne, and Nynaeve hadn’t ended the summer when they did, farmlands would have quickly started to become unviable.) Even if only 15% of farmers in the Westlands are able to take advantage of that extra growing season, that is still a massive amount of extra food. Considering that crops begin to fail in the following summer (around Books 10 and 11), and that Rand himself spoils food up to the end of Book 12, The Gathering Storm, it is possible that this additional 15% is the only thing that prevents the people of the Westlands continent from being starved out by the time that The Last Battle arrives.
Which means that the only reason the forces of the Westlands number large enough to win Tarmon Gai’don is because of The Dark One’s own intervention.
With every turn of the Wheel, the Shadow’s hatred of salad leads to its own undoing.
This article was originally published in September 2016.