Category Archives: Weather

Posts that connect weather to the divine

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

Sundog

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Spring has been taking its time to arrive here in the northeast. Just when things seem to have set on a course of identifiable progress, the temperature drops twenty degrees and the rain sets in again. It’s been great weather for toadstools. There are bright patches, however. I read on the bus, but one day last week as we were trundling toward New York City I glanced out the window. The sky was mostly clear and a sundog shone brightly to the north like my own personal star of Bethlehem. Sundogs feel like good omens. I’ve read enough about meteorology to know that they are merely a refraction of sunlight due to ice crystals high in the atmosphere. Depending on your angle of view, they might appear as a halo all the way around the sun, at which point they’re no longer dogs, or, at certain times of day they may appear as a solid beam coming down to earth in the form of a sun-pillar. It’s only ice and light.

Those of us who stare long at the sky know that the weather is merely a metaphor. The earth spins. It revolves. It rotates. It’s cold at the tips and warm in the middle. The laws of physics—unbreakable they tell us—state that all bodies seek equilibrium. A constant California temperature. If humans should survive long enough we might find our globe of uniform temperature, smooth as a billiard ball, and utterly lifeless. We need the variations of our weather. The chill of a spring that just won’t warm up. The heat of a summer that wilts down to the roots. Ice and light.

I’m heading into a large city. It’s a quotidian trip that some might suppose to be void of meaning. The sundog follows us for a while until it’s lost in the skyscrapers of human devising. Towers that over-reach but which the gods have to bend down to see. Nobody knows the origin of the term “sundog.” My favorite explanation is from Norse mythology where wolves pursue the sun and moon to consume them. This feels so appropriate to me as I enter the artificial canyons of hubris, glass, and concrete. As the day progresses the sundogs appear to disappear. Towers continue to grow. Beyond them, high in the sky, ice and light will continue their play, even if the dogs never do reach the sun. Refraction of light may cause things to manifest as other than they truly are.

Do the Twist

TwisterA used book sale is like a box of chocolates, if I may abscond with a simile that fits many scenarios. After all, you are there to buy books that others have discarded. Some of them show their age rather blatantly. Keay Davidson’s Twister: The Science of Tornadoes and the Making of an Adventure Movie is one such title. Those who know me well know of my fascination with weather—I wrote a little book on the subject based on that obsession. Although the weather informed and formed me long before I was ever near a tornado, these particular terrors were so exquisite that I couldn’t help but look. Although I grew up in Pennsylvania—not exactly tornado alley—one night when I was away from home a tornado swept by less than ten miles from where my family was. It toppled trees down one side of a hill and up another. It was eerie and uncanny and in many ways shook me out of the feeling that I never had to worry about them. Then when I went to Ann Arbor for a weekend with my fiancee the sky turned bronze. Rain was whipping past horizontally. Later we learned that a tornado had passed maybe four miles from where we were. Living in Illinois and Wisconsin, we experienced many tornado warnings. I never saw a tornado, but somehow thought I should.

It goes without saying that if I see a book on tornadoes that is reputable and cheap, I can’t pass it up. Davidson is a journalist whose work appears (as of the two decades ago when the book came out) in National Geographic. Some of you may not have been living in tornado alley twenty years ago, and therefore may not have felt the excitement that Twister, the movie, promised. By the time it came out I had already been thinking about Weathering the Psalms, at some level. I was a bit disappointed in the film itself, but it does mention that an F5 tornado is “the finger of God.” Davidson’s book picks up on this as well. At several points witnesses, and even scientists, lapse into divine language to describe tornadoes. One person even says that a tornado is an image of God, or that the storm is God. That’s a very natural way for people to think. The power of a Midwest storm has to be experienced to be believed.

The divine represents the highest echelon of language. The tornado fits because it is the most powerful wind on the planet. Concentrated, raging, and fickle. One can’t help but think: I was raised Protestant, what if the Catholics are right? Substitute any religion in either half of the equation. The weather simply does not do what we want it to do. It reminds us that humans can’t comprehend our own atmosphere that we so blithely pollute. The book may look dated—who remembers Twister anymore?—but it is a forceful reminder. When you need a metaphor for the most intense experience the weather will always be waiting.