Whether or Weather

It was a self-inflicted double feature.  I’d been pondering movies about the weather.  Tons of movies have the weather in them, sometimes even as a significant plot element.  Few films, however, take the weather as their central thesis.  These movies verge on horror as the weather is something much larger than we are and which is deadly.  Let’s face it, a film about sunny skies and light breezes doesn’t have much of a hook.  I began by watching The Perfect Storm.  I’d seen it before, of course.  Not much like its book, which is nonfiction, it follows the loss of the sword boat Andrea Gail in the eponymous storm of 1991.  Not all members of the crew get a backstory, and since nobody knows what really happened, it was a chance for special effects to drive the story just as massive waves drive the boat.  The weather, while central, is seldom commented upon.  The characters are motivated by trying to make a living but there’s not enough time to give all six of them adequate stories.  Add to that another boat with no backstory and the movie become disjointed and smoky.

The next feature was The Day after Tomorrow.  Again, I’d seen it before, but you know how one thing leads to another.  Like The Perfect Storm, The Day after Tomorrow introduces more subplots than the movie can handle, even bringing a Russian freighter up Fifth Avenue in order to have a wolf-chase scene that is simply dropped after it’s discovered that wolves can’t climb ladders.  Still, the latter story has an environmental message.  Aware that human activity does lead to global warming, it tries to picture what would happen if it were speeded up into a matter of weeks rather than years.  No  matter how long it takes, the weather will get you.

As I’ve contended before, the sheer scope of the weather practically makes it divine.  Although we live in different climatic zones we’re all tied together under a single, volatile, powerful atmosphere.  Early humans realized that their survival depended on the weather.  Drought kills as readily as sudden ice ages.  The key, it seems, is balance.  Nature isn’t kind to species who assert too much dominance.  One of the means of nature’s control is the weather.  Until the development of meteorology, and even after its first tentative steps, the weather was considered a divine bailiwick.  We may proclaim it entirely natural, but it still commands its share of awe and majesty.  And it can easily claim a few weekend hours searching the skies for some kind of meaning.

Tomorrow Ever After

Last night as we said goodnight to Irene, my family decided to watch The Day After Tomorrow. Beyond The Perfect Storm and Twister we didn’t have any other weather-related disaster movies on hand. I became convinced long ago that weather was somehow key in the conception of divinity. Working at a seminary that required attendance at chapel twice daily where we would lugubriously and laboriously recite every verse of every Psalm according to the unforgiving schedule of the Book of Common Prayer, I began to notice the weather. Among the more common images used in the “hymnal of the second temple,” weather was seen as an essential aspect of divinity. Religions with celestial orientations frequently view the sky with a sacred aura. I began to compile all the Psalm references to the weather and eventually brought them together into a book, still unpublished. What became clear at the end of this exercise was that ancient people had no way to interpret the weather other than as a divine phenomenon. Listening to all the hype about Irene, it still seems to be the case.

In The Day After Tomorrow, our ill-fated teenagers are trapped in the New York Public Library as a super-chilled tropospheric wind freezes New York City. They build a fire and when you’re in a library, naturally, you burn books. I kept looking at all the furniture they spared as they consigned the books to the flame. A minor character called Jeremy is shown clutching a Bible. A girl named Elsa asks if he thinks God will save him. Replying that he is an atheist, Jeremy says that this is a Gutenberg Bible, “This Bible is the first book ever printed. It represents the dawn of the Age of Reason. As far as I’m concerned, the written word is mankind’s greatest achievement. You can laugh, but if Western Civilization is finished I’m gonna save at least one little piece of it.” This little dialogue represents the full circle of the celestial god. Jeremy doesn’t believe in this god, and the Bible requires human protection. Instead of being the instrument of war and political badgering and tea parties, it is seen as a symbol of enlightenment. It represents the first steps toward reason.

As Hurricane Irene still gusts outside my window, dropping rain as if New Jersey were a desert receiving its first drink in a century, the Tea Party is busy crafting ways of getting the Bible back in the White House. Their Bible is the antithesis to the Age of Reason. It is the symbol of superstition and prejudice and authoritarianism. It is the means of political power. The god of the Tea Party is a white-bearded man living in the sky, sending his fury against the liberal cities of the East Coast in a mighty wind. He is the punishing god of the Psalms. As the helicopter lifts off over a frozen Manhattan, the teenagers saved by a flawed father who walked from Philadelphia to New York to find his son, the camera pans across Jeremy as he hugs the Bible to his chest. I was in Boston for Hurricane Gloria back in 1985. Watching the waves crash on the beach at Winthrop I felt the power of fierce nature at the beginning of my own journey to, I hope, enlightenment. When it was over, however, there was not yet a Tea Party threatening an even worse, unnatural disaster to follow.

Irene, the early days

Weather the Psalms

Among the academic detritus cluttering my desktop is a book I wrote while employed at Nashotah House. Not being a native Midwesterner and finding myself where severe thunderstorms are a blasé fact of life for much of the year, I was captivated by and terrified of the weather. At the same time, daily recitation of the Psalms was a major part of our required, twice daily worship. With the thunder louder than I could ever imagine it outside, we’d calmly read the Psalms, at our stately pace, confident that he who rides upon the clouds could protect us, his humble servants. After many years of recitatio continua I noticed the plenitudinous mentions of the weather in the Psalms. After a painstaking five years of reading and rereading the entire Psalter, I had translated every verse with a weather reference and had written commentary on them.

Publishers showed no interest, this despite the enormous success of Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, and Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm (both of which I eagerly read) and the recent release of Twister. One publisher deigned to make comments as to the great problems of my thesis, so I sat down to revise this behemoth of a book. The very day I was called into the Dean’s office and fired was the last time I looked at the material. I had been revising the book that very morning. The one sad aspect of this entire episode is that every colleague to whom I mentioned the book was excited to read it when it came out. There was a real interest, but no publisher willing to take on the project, this side of vanity publishing.

Some days I think I may go back to that dead beast of a project and try to resurrect it. My academic publishing has slowed to a tortoisene pace without full-time institution support or interest (independent scholars are not worth investing in, I have learned), especially under the weight of teaching nearly a dozen classes a year. Nevertheless, the idea seems sound to me. I keep a weather-eye on the academic horizon and I have yet to spot a book like mine anywhere within the publication catalogues. Considering the importance of storm gods in the ancient world, perhaps we’ve simply moved beyond this interest, tucked away in our interior settings. Nevertheless, when a rare thunderstorm comes to New Jersey, I still remember the majesty of the weather and a forgotten book on the Psalms.

Even the NWS recognizes Noah