Category Archives: Weather

Posts that connect weather to the divine

Blizzard Warning

The dangers of prognostication were well known in antiquity. Most prophets, who didn’t so much tell the future as warn about probable outcomes, weren’t the most popular of people. They knew that feeling of walking into a crowded room and announcing their career had something to do with religion only to have the place fall silent. Cricket chirps. We all have our secret sins we’d rather not have some stranger judge. So it is with the weather. Something like this must’ve been in the back of my mind as I was trying to write Weathering the Psalms. I lived in Wisconsin in the days before Paul Ryan and, like said Ryan, tornados could strike at any time, unannounced. My family and I spent an anxious afternoon or two in the spider-infested basement based on the inherently uncertain predictions of how a nearby tornado might move.

Those of us in the northwest are sitting here wondering about this monster nor’easter. It’s been in the making for several days and the forecasters, unlike the prophets of old, have been hedging their bets. If this massive cold front from the midwest fails to meet up with the intense storm off the east coast we could end up with only a smattering of snow. If the two collide, well, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel together can’t help us. It’ll be like the book of Revelation. Only colder and with far more snow. Oh to be able to predict the future! It would certainly help when it comes to deciding whether to climb onto that bus or not. I mean a simple rainstorm can add two hours to the homeward commute without the threat of a meteorological Trump coming our way. I thought Punxsutawney Phil didn’t see his shadow.

Although predicting the future wasn’t really what prophets did, it didn’t take long before people thought that’s what they were up to. People have always wanted to have the advantage of being able to see disasters before they arrived. Wouldn’t it have been helpful to know the results of 11/9 before Thurston Howell the President was elected? We could’ve bought our Russian grammars and dictionaries before there was a run on the local Barnes and Noble. At the same time I politely dispute the saying that hindsight is 20/20. If we could see anything that clearly we would be such Untied States at the moment. Right now the glass seems to be falling and the wind’s picking up from the northeast. What does it mean? Nobody really knows.

Seeing Thinks

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a dude! What what is it? It’s actually a cloud. I enjoy the entries on Mysterious Universe, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It seems like decades since I laid down on the ground and looked at the clouds, seeking shapes. The sky is nature’s cerulean canvas and although they’re just water vapor, clouds take on endlessly fascinating shapes. Since religion has historically been projected onto the sky, many people take signs in the sky as somehow divine. The photo on Mysterious Universe is of a cloud that some thought was Jesus and others thought was Mary. Herein lies the rub of pareidolia. You see what you want to see.

There is, in traditional Christian thought, a world of difference between Jesus and Mary. You really don’t want to mix the two up. I mean one is divine and the other is only venerated. Don’t want to cross that line into worship because idolatry leads to all kinds of trouble. So who’s in the sky? Someone that we should perhaps think sacred: water. In a world quickly running out of fresh water (of course since now, officially, there is no global warming we’ll have to find another way of explaining our disappearing ice caps) we should all perhaps worship our clouds. The harbingers of fresh water. It won’t last forever.

I, for one, complain when it rains too much. I suppose that’s because I’ve lived most of my life in the rainy climates of the eastern United States and Scotland. Days can pass without a glimmer of sunshine. I get depressed and truculent. Yet the freshwater falls. Water tables are replenished. In much of the world—indeed, in much of the United States—it is not so. Water shortages are bad and are growing worse. We use far too much and when the ice caps are gone, the largest reserves of freshwater on the planet will be empty. Then again, capitalists have never been too keen on saving up for the future. Most of us alive today, at least in the rainy climes, will have our lifetime supply. The future, however, looks pretty hot and thirsty. So who is it in the sky? Could be either gender—wearing robes makes it hard to tell at this level of detail—but whoever it is, let’s hope they’ve brought plenty of friends with them.

Look like anybody you know?

Look like anybody you know?

Samaritans, Good and Otherwise

It’s the coldest day of the winter so far. I’m noticing this because I’m standing on the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike counting the NJ Transit buses that are flying by at highway speed. It’s been a morning of irony so far, which explains why I’m standing out here instead of sitting inside the broken down, but still warm bus right next to me. I felt the cold while waiting at quarter to six for my bus to show up. Thankfully on time. It’s very empty this morning; I’m maybe the fourth passenger. Somewhere along Route 22, miles later, the bus gives a distress cry. Ironically, the engine is hot. The temperature outside is in the single digits. Also ironically, the radio on our bus isn’t working, so the driver has to call dispatch on his smart phone. Meanwhile, the engine cools down enough for him to try it again. We’re fine until we pass exit 15 on the Turnpike.

While I try to think of others before myself, I sit near the front of the bus—the first or second row. That way when it’s time to get off I don’t have to wait for dozens of people to wake up, stretch, and slowly shamble into the aisle. (If you think that’s an exaggeration, you don’t commute by NJ Transit.) “The first shall be last,” the Good Book says, and I believe it. I lost count of how many of the company’s buses have zoomed past, but when one finally stops, I’m person number 8 off the bus. The Good Samaritan driver stops me outside his bus. “Sorry, no more seats. No more standing room.” No room in the inn. My driver urges the long line behind me to get back on the bus, where it’s warm, to wait. I was first, now I’m last. That’s why I’m standing out here in the cold. As I approach the bus I see all the first several rows are filled by those first back on the disabled bus. They will be the first to be offered a ride by the next driver along this road to Jericho.

winter

The guy behind me, now in front of me, comes to the same conclusion and waits outside too. At least we both have beards. I’m thinking of Jesus’ words about the end of the world. “Pray it won’t come in winter.” Out here, all prayers are frozen. At least thirty NJ Transit buses buzz by creating their own wind chill before another stops. I want to be first because I paid more for my ticket than those who sat further back on my bus. In fact, I could rent a small apartment in many places in the country for what I pay a year for a bus pass. I wonder if that’s what it means that the first shall be last. Or maybe my brain’s just frozen, since it’s the coldest day of the winter so far.

My Stranger’s Keeper

img_3106

He was a bearded young man, maybe in his twenties. He kind of reminded me of my own youth, only cooler. I was at a stop sign on a snow-covered hill with tires honestly a little more worn than they should’ve been. Three times I tried to get some traction only to have to reverse and give it just a touch more gas. He walked by and called out “On the count of three, okay?” I shouted my thanks. It took him a couple of minutes to get me moving and as much as I wanted to stop and give him something for his efforts I knew that if I did I’d be right back where we’d started. Once I got moving, I had to keep going. I’ve driven in snow since I earned my Pennsylvania license in the snow belt of Lake Erie and I’ve helped drivers stuck in snow a time or two, but I was touched by this young man helping an older guy in a neighborhood he didn’t know get out of a jamb. That’s what I think of Americans as being like.

Seeing the utter selfishness of those “elected” officials posturing over the last few days I say to myself they didn’t grow up in the snow and cold. Nothing compels a young man with better things to do to help a frazzled older guy except for common human decency. Those who grow up with hardship know the value of their fellow human beings. We help each other because that’s what people do. Those born to wealth and power help themselves and only themselves. They need to learn the message of snow. Nature is our most natural teacher.

I don’t know his name. He didn’t have any idea that I had four hours to drive through snow, sleet, and freezing rain, but he helped me despite that. He didn’t ask for any money and I’m sure he expected nothing so coarse. I’m old enough to miss such kindheartedness and to cherish it deeply when I encounter it. Snow and hills and bald tires aren’t a winning combination, but the human capacity for goodness mixes well with any conditions. On a cold winter’s day I encountered the warmth of human concern for a guy in trouble. I need to listen to what the weather is saying more closely. More than that, I need to step out of my car more often and throw my shoulder against a stranger’s hatchback. It’s what makes us human.

God’s Meteorologist

weatherexperiment“To understand the weather is somehow to glimpse the divine.“ I honestly don’t remember writing those words. A friend of my drew them out in a quote last year (perhaps the only time my book has every had such an honor) and they resonate with what a much better known writer has said. The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future was a book I bought upon first sight. Peter Moore’s story, like the science of the atmosphere, is only a small part of the whole. I glanced through the index for Increase Lapham while still in the bookstore, but despite his absence bought the tome anyway. I’m glad I did. Throughout this account of how meteorology developed in the nineteenth century religion and science are continually at play. As Moore points out, when faced with a violent storm, before any means of grasping the sheer enormity of the atmosphere existed, the only reasonable explanation was God. And it wasn’t just the clergy who believed this. Those we now recognize as scientists thought so too.

There are several key players in the drama of how we’ve come to our current understanding of the weather, but one that surprised me most was Robert FitzRoy. Everyone knows that FitzRoy was captain of the Beagle on Charles Darwin’s voyage that revolutionized science for ever. Some are even aware that FitzRoy, especially after his marriage, because a staunch evangelical Christian, parting ways with Darwin so far as to wave a Bible over his head at a public debate on evolution. I, for one, had no idea that FitzRoy almost singlehandedly invented the weather forecast. And that he did so as a government employee and doing so brought the ridicule of the scientific establishment because predicting was considered the purview of unscientific minds. It was as if the world I recognize had been whirled 180 degrees around by some unseen storm.

Any book on the weather, as I’ve learned, has to include a discussion of global warming. Climate change is real, and it is something we’ve done to our own planet. In a day when statistics can be produced showing that many scientific results are funded by companies with vested interests in the outcome of the experiments—even those at top universities—and we can see just how complex this web of financially motivated truth has become. Science is not pure rationality. It never has been, and it never can be as long as humans are the ones undertaking it. And we are beginning—just beginning—to see that there are some places where the wind blows freely through although those in white coats have assured us the room is sealed. This is a fascinating read and any book that makes me think I had the start of something profound to say is one I’ll buy on impulse any day.

Enter the Labyrinth

Trying not to think too much about Children of the Corn, I visited a corn maze over the weekend. This particular autumnal activity highlights just how much detail a human mind can pick out in a mass of sameness. You can tell if you’ve been to this particular juncture before—that oddly shaped leaf, or that peculiar stone, or that specific ear with the missing teeth will give you the clues. This particular maze, however, also uses printed clues. Before you enter the labyrinth, you may choose your species of guidance. There were 4-H clues, Girl Scout clues, history clues, and more. One of my companions handed me the scriptural clues. Although it may have been an obvious connection, I thought about it in terms of salvation. A corn maze is not unlike life in the real world; confusion, false leads, and aimless wandering. Having a guide—in my case, knowing the Bible—will lead you out.

corn-maze

Of course, the point of a corn maze is the fun of getting lost. This particular farm had eight acres dedicated to fall fun, and our party did get hopelessly mired in one location and had to ask for help from the corn cop who wanders like a friendly minotaur, or maybe a personal Daedalus or helpful Ariadne, directing those who’ve lost their way. The idea is that once you enter the maze, you look for numbered clues at various junctures—only a few crossroads have them—and answer the question for instructions about which way to go next. Even with the Bible in hand, or in head, we managed to lose our way. Baptized by a sudden cloudburst, we sought shelter in an open field. The only way ahead was to press on.

Those who’ve been with this blog for any length of time know that it is intentionally kind of a labyrinth, often using metaphor. In the case of the literal corn maze and its clues, minimal biblical knowledge was required to figure out the correct way to turn. The trick was even after getting all the hints, there was still some distance to go. Wet, confused, and having only our wits to go on, by trial and error we made it through. Our instructions—for we each had a different set of questions—only got us so far. My biblical guide was damp and see-through with the soaking we received. Metaphors were falling as fast as the rain. After all, the point of a corn maze is that you don’t get your money’s worth unless you get well and truly lost.

Moving Mountains

VolcanoWeatherJust 200 years ago, there was a “year without a summer.”  Well, that’s an exaggeration, but the name has stuck and is familiar to those of us with an undue interest in weather.  Although the coldness of that summer was far from universal, frosts came in New England in June, July, and August, killing off the staple corn crop for much of the region.  Snow fell even later than it usually does in the northeast, including a measurable fall in July.  My interest in this particular cooling episode was spurned by reading about the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883.  The connection?  Mount Tambora, a relative neighbor of Krakatoa, erupted in 1815 with an ejected debris volume of about ten times that of its later colleague.  The dust cloud from Tambora has long been a culprit for the dismal summer the following year.  Henry and Elizabeth Stommel researched and wrote a little book on this event entitled, Volcano Weather: The Story of 1816, the Year Without a Summer.  Although the book shows its age (it was written in the early 1980s), it remains a fascinating exploration of the many things that weather can do.  And has done.  Two of my favorites from this book were Napoleon’s adventures and the writing of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley during a rainy summer in Switzerland.
 
I should note, however, that the Stommels do not declare that Tambora was the reason for the year without a summer.  They tend to think the volcano had something to do with it, but the weather, that most protean of phenomena, can be impacted by the very small as well as the very large.  In fact, their description of the eruption includes the recognition that locals felt volcanic eruptions to be normal acts of the gods.  Many island cultures recognize the divine power of the molten earth.  The weather getting out of whack, we can be sure, leads to much prayer even today, thousands of miles from any eruption.  Something that hasn’t changed since the 1980s is that natural phenomena—especially powerful ones—evoke the divine.  Huge, impressive volcanoes, or even the very immensity and complexity of the atmosphere, suggest something we can’t comprehend.  Global warming will soon, however, bring this point home.
 

One of my takeaways from this book is the fact that the weather’s lack of uniformity emphasizes just how little we know.  The year without a summer mainly affected the northern hemisphere, and that only piecemeal.  Parts of northern Europe and North America felt it more intensely than other places.  It was not “the coldest year ever” and anyhow, is it even possible to know whether the coldest year would feel unnecessarily chilly where you are?  I’m pretty sure it’s snowing in some part of the world right now.  Human arrogance when it comes to global warming can be put into perspective by such acts of nature as Tambora.  From a human perspective, we live on a time bomb.  Volcanoes care not a whit for our bidding and wishes and dreams.  They can impact climate more instantly than our trite human efforts and thinking we alone are gods. To prepare for the future sometimes we need to look two centuries back.