Tempestuous Wind

There was quite a windstorm that blew through here yesterday.  It reminded me rather forcefully of Weathering the Psalms.  Firstly, it blew loudly enough to wake me up a few times in the night.  When I finally climbed out of bed, listening to the blustery concussions beating the house, I remembered that the first chapter of Weathering was about the willful wind.  That’s not just a poetic phrase—according to the Psalter, the wind does the will of God.  Like much of the weather, it’s weaponized by the Bible.  Seeing what the wind can do, the reasons for this should be obvious.  Hurricanes are tremendous windstorms (although unknown in the land of the Bible), but they are also known for their tremendous rain.  Tornadoes, however, are pure wind and are among the most destructive forces on the planet.  (Before people came along, anyway.)  Wind commands respect.  We’re a very long way from taming it.

When thinking of meteorology, it’s easy to forget wind.  Rain and snow are pretty obvious.  Even desert heat is impossible to ignore.  The wind, invisible and powerful, is perhaps the most godlike of weather’s many features.  To the ancient way of thought, it was also inexplicable.  We understand the earth’s rotation and temperature differentials between water and land and the uneven heating between the surface of the ground and air aloft.  The ancients understood it more to be a pure act of God.  The wind certainly can seem spiteful.  It’s not difficult to attribute agency to it.  Such things go through my mind when the howling is loud enough to wake me.

Invisibility suggests power.  It wasn’t so much the “monotheism” of Israel that made it distinctive as it was the inability to see its deity.  That lack of visual confirmation not only necessitates a kind of faith, but it also veils a threat.  We humans tend to be visually focused.  We fear the dark.  Foggy, misty settings can give a story an atmosphere of foreboding.  Placing the divine out of site only enhances supernatural powers.  So it is with the wind.  As is to be expected, the windstorm has mostly blown itself out by now—moving on to another location until the temperature differentials even out and its howl becomes more of a whimper.  It will have done its work, however, for even as it passed through it brought to mind the proper respect for that which cannot be seen.  

Last Call

The alarm that wakes you in the middle of the night.  There’s something primal, something visceral about that.  We humans, at least since our ancestors climbed down from the trees, have felt vulnerable at night.  If our sleep is constantly interrupted we don’t think clearly.  We build secure houses. Lock our windows and doors at night.  Say our prayers before we go to sleep.  Last night I discovered that the homeowner has even greater concerns than the humble renter.  While 11:30 may not be the middle of the night for some, for early risers it is.  And there’s nothing to strike terror into the heart of a homeowner like a tornado warning.  Especially here—our realtor laconically told us that they never have tornadoes in eastern Pennsylvania.  The weather warning system disagreed with him last night.

Getting up as early as I do, first light is hours away.  Hours before I might check for damage with the light of old Sol.  My wife had to work, no less, at a venue some distance away and we both had to rise early and wonder what the damage might be.  We knew, of course, that the pointless ritual of changing our clocks would occur tonight, but that does alleviate concerns about whether the roof was still on the house or not.  You can’t take anything for granted, not even the continuity of time.  Thus my thoughts returned to Weathering the Psalms.

Severe weather led to that book.  If I were to rewrite it now it would come out quite differently, of course.  No one would write the same book the same way after a decade and a half.  Still, there may have been some things I got right in it.  The weather is a cause of awe and fear.  The sound of the wind roaring last night was impressively terrifying, even in a technological world.  Especially in a technological world that relies on an unwavering power grid and constant connectivity.  In the midst of a wakeful night, alone with thoughts too haunting for the day, the weather has a power with which we’re foolish to trifle.  Global warming is a myth if it gets in the way of profits.  Then darkness falls and we realize just how very small we are.  In the light of dawn, the damage was not too bad.  A frightened car meeping its mewling alert.  And a strange justification that perhaps my book contained some truth after all.

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.

Weather for the Birds

As Christmas nears so does a warm front, dashing hopes of a white Christmas in New Jersey. Well, at least there are no tornadoes coming. The weather, as my readers know, has long been perceived as a divine barometer. In a time when patience is wearing thin with religion, and weary headlines ask if it will ever finally disappear, our animal cousins seem, as usual, to pick up on clues more readily than we. An article on the BBC science page describes how a set of tagged golden-winged warblers vacated their nest a day before a tornado struck. Scientists suspect that the birds—and likely other species of birds as well—picked up the infrasound of the tornadoes that is well below human hearing range. Sensing the danger, they flew nearly a thousand miles, stopping just south of the storm’s track.

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Of course, tornadoes don’t last an entire day. If the birds fled that long in advance, they couldn’t, I suspect, have heard a tornado that hadn’t formed yet. Since I’m no scientist, I’m not really qualified to offer an explanation, but I do wonder if such behavior isn’t related to consciousness. Several books that I’ve read recently have explored the concept of animal consciousness, and although we are reluctant to admit them to the realm of the self-aware, I wonder how long we can deny it. No doubt, if the birds fled (and returned after the danger had passed) there was an intentionality to their actions. Jealous of our intelligence, we must find a way to explain that animals can predict natural disasters of many kinds long before humans detect their more obvious traits. Our technology gives us seconds, or minutes, of warning. Dogs, cats, and birds know well in advance. But we are the superior beings here.

One of the problems with consciousness is that we can never get outside our own. Other people act in ways similar to us, and describe similar mental states, so we assign them the same kind of consciousness we have. Animals, not using human language, also act in similar ways to us. We call it “instinct” and continue on to the truly important stuff. I have no idea if birds can detect infrasound; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they could. Without the ability to place it in the context of danger, however, I doubt they would take a thousand mile vacation just after their annual migration. We could learn a lot from our fellow creatures, if only we’d admit them to the conscious club and not the food club. And perhaps they might be able to explain to us why, despite all we know, religion never seems to go away.

Jonahado

SharknadoSome movies are so bad that they become classics. Some are just plain bad. The jury in my head is still out on Sharknado. The story, obviously tongue-in-cheek, is so far-fetched as to be pretentious, and anyone who knows something about either sharks or tornadoes, or both, will likely find credibility waning from the first scene. For those sensible among my readers, who’ve not seen the movie, the title gives it all away. A global-warming-induced hurricane hurries toward Santa Monica with its forever young sun-worshippers. The hurricane floods the California coast, bringing sharks to the city streets. As our protagonists drive around somewhat pointlessly, the sharks attack their car, eventually eating everyone who’s not family. At one point the family tries to buy rations at a liquor store, only to have the news announce that this is the apocalypse. The store owner scowls that it’s the government, not God, that’s bringing this upon them. Then the waterspouts appear, morphing into tornadoes carrying sharks, still hungrily chomping at everything as they fly through the air.

Ironically a biblical theme comes about with the swallowing of Nova. As she falls from a helicopter (don’t ask), a great white shark snaps her up in mid-air, and since she’s about the only character you can care about, the movie seems to have reached its nadir. As the tornadoes dissipate and the sharks coming raining down, the eponymously named Fin is swallowed whole by a huge great white, while still holding his chainsaw. We already know that this latter-day Jonah will make his way back out, and we are supposed to be surprised that this is the very same shark that holds the reborn Nova, who admits her real name is Jenny Lynn. Like Neo in The Matrix, she is the convert to a new faith, this time in the family of Fin, whose only fault, it seems, is that he cares too much for others.

While a made-for-television B movie (although C or D might be more appropriate), Sharknado demonstrates the popular conception of the apocalypse. Not that it will involve flying sharks and destructive wind-storms, but that the end of the world is somehow inevitable. We have convinced ourselves that its a matter of when, not if, the world will meet its demise. Global warming, clearly our fault, is blamed by the movie (as is the government), but the story is that the flimsy culture we’ve constructed is subject to utter ruin by a hurricane and maritime predators. Or I could be reading far too much into this. Religious tropes may be picked and chosen at will. And when things really go wrong, like accidentally switching on Sharknado, we have a ready arsenal of religious ideas at hand to blame. And the apocalypse may be the least of our worries.

Sowing the Wind

F5On May 31 in 1985, I was working at a church camp outside Uniontown, Pennsylvania when some severe storms rolled through the area. I had trouble sleeping through the thunder and lightning. I awoke the next morning to hear the news, in groggy disbelief, that tornadoes had invaded the county where my family lived. Frantic for their safety I tried to phone, but lines were down. It turned out all right—the nearest twister had been about five miles away from my home. This event was a shock because I grew up believing we never had tornadoes in Pennsylvania. I have always been terrified of them. I suppose that’s why I wrote my little book on weather in the Psalms. I just finished reading Mark Levine’s F5: Devastation, Survival, and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the Twentieth Century. I’m not sure why I’m compelled to read about what scares me so much, but I suspect it’s because tornadoes have a whiff of the divine about them. Indeed, Levine’s book makes several reference to religious imagery when describing the utter destruction of Limestone, Alabama during the Super Outbreak of April 1974. It gives me little comfort that the storms that raked Ohio, Pennsylvania and Ontario eleven years later were the second deadliest outbreak following that of the book’s exploration, up to that time. There’s so much left to chance, with tornadoes.

Despite the complete lack of any intentionality behind the raw forces of nature, the phrase “finger of God” has become a fixture in the tornadic lexicon. Perhaps it is because the human perception of divine intervention has always been sporadically applied. One person’s miracle is another’s nightmare. Obeying only the complex rules of meteorology, the weather has ways of its own that even computer models cannot yet fathom. We still stand helpless in the face of the tornado. I have often thought, without a whole lot of data to back me up, that weather has played a major role in the human understanding of the divine. Quite apart from the obvious celestial orientation, the weather is easily forgotten until it turns bad, and when it does there is nothing humanly possible to do about it.

In April of 2011 a super outbreak of 358 tornadoes swept through the eastern United States and Canada, killing 348 people. In terms of damage, it was one of the costliest natural disasters in US history. And the capriciousness of the tornado stands at the center of it all. F5 is a hard book to read. The story practically turns its own pages, but the loss in human terms in the cold face of a planet that doesn’t exist for us is sobering indeed. Many religious people in the south were asking how God could allow children to be killed and hundreds of people maimed both physically and mentally for the rest of their lives. They prayed for answers that never came. And this may be the cruelest aspect of the apparently random nature of the weather. It maintains the right to kill, and prayers seem to bounce back from that brazen sky that comes just before a tornado strikes, and especially afterwards. Skies are silent. When they are not, it is time to duck and cover.

Blown Away

NovNationalGeoWith the weather that has dropped down over much of the US this past week, I can’t help but think of the religious implications of the weather once again. I’ve had a couple of discussions of my weather book, and perhaps it will be worth reviving; meanwhile the meteorological divine is alive and well. I recently had the chance to look through a November edition of National Geographic. We used to subscribe, but with the loss of too many jobs and the attendant moves, they became literally too heavy, and since the magazine is relentlessly prolific we finally had to donate our back issues to a loving home. In any case, this November’s issue proffers a cover story on Tim Samaras, the storm chaser who was killed by a tornado back in May. It was tornados that first led to my interest in the divine implications of the weather since the twister is often described as the symbol of an angry deity. The article on Samaras, however, took a different approach to the tornadic.

Describing the fatal May 31 tornado in El Reno, Oklahoma, Robert Draper, the article’s author, tends more toward language of the diabolical. Defining the terminal whirlwind as a “dense, moist leviathan,” Draper adopts the language of the chaos monster of antiquity. Over time leviathan came to be associated with evil (although originally it was morally neutral), even with the devil. That isn’t a biblical assessment but in a modern world swiftly becoming depleted of superlatives, leviathan has come to stand in for Satan. A few sentences later the trees are shaking “as if possessed by the devil.” Weather is often the provenance of the divine, but it can also be the tool of the devil. And since this was a fatal storm, one must be careful of blasphemy.

I have never witnessed a tornado first-hand, but I have been within a few miles of one or two. The utterly savage and random nature of the destruction translate to one of the most frightening atmospheric conditions imaginable. Reading about the growing storm, knowing that it will eventually murder the protagonist, reminds me of the stresses that led to my line of research at the very beginning. We have overcome so many of our natural predators that being completely vulnerable to the weather bestows a kind of metaphysical cast to it. We can still be frozen, washed or blown away, or overheated by the weather. It can desiccate us and begin wildfires to consume us. Its scale is immense. The origins may seem celestial, but the results infernal. Perhaps I will return to my book on the weather; it is clear that it remains one place where human power must bow before something so immense that it can only be divine or diabolical. Or both.