Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Weather

Weather is always in the news. Back in the day when we used to read newspapers, it was as frequently considered as the comics. Now almost everyone has a link to some sort to weather information. Even I, who refuse to be overly “connected”, check at least a couple of weather sites on a regular basis.

And the weather that we learn about is usually unpleasant. In fact with the sophistication and prevalence of communication technology it’s easy to get the impression that natural weather-related catastrophes are increasing in frequency. And it’s possible that they are.

In the 1990’s I remember learning about major flooding in the Dakotas, in California, and in Chicago. It seemed that there was one weather-related catastrophe after another – to the extent that Mother Nature’s malcontents almost became expected. I’m not sure that they have lessened very much since then. If we believe meteorologists, we have more to look forward to as the climate continues to change in coming years.

So we find ourselves in the odd situation of taking newsworthy catastrophes for granted even as we take all the other more typical weather events for granted too. Maybe we think differently when our own local weather is out of sorts. But this is not an every-day event. Weather has become so quotidian that we usually ignore it altogether. Our more serious conversationalists think of weather-talk as a subject for lesser mortals. Few people really love the weather and appreciate it for what it is: a veritable force of nature.

Or maybe we do have a few pleasant weather memories, like flying kites on a windy March afternoon. Perhaps we are genuinely interested in watching the evening weather report to see what the weekend will offer. But weather has a lot more potential than this for the genuine nature enthusiast. It is one of the great ways available of experiencing the natural world. One of the saddest effects of our cloistered work environments and over-crowded cities is the partitions we put between us and the weather. There is much that we are missing when we stay inside.

I grew up in the high deserts of Utah and summer rainstorms were a real treat. They weren’t very common but it seems we had at least a couple every year. When they did come, I experienced a thrill and an inexplicable urge to go out and get drenched. One sunny day I remember driving past a field where horses were jumping up and down, swinging their necks about, and otherwise having a great time. Not knowing the language of horses, I could still tell that they were very happy about something.

I asked my Dad what the excitement was all about. He told me that some animals often behaved that way right before a rainstorm. I could empathize with the horses. Summer rain made me feel the same way. But I was also surprised because I could only see a few clouds on the horizon. It certainly didn’t look to me like it was going to rain.

But rain it did. It took maybe half an hour to come and the storm didn’t last all that long, but it was enough to cool things down and leave that refreshing smell of pluvial pine and moist desert soil that lifts my mood to this day, just thinking about it.

Most of us, however, go to great lengths to avoid the weather. Maybe we do this without thinking about it. Most of the time we hurry inside just to be comfortable – to avoid the heat or the cold. And of course, we grew up with our parents telling us that we would get sick if we stayed out in the cold. And we were constantly being reminded of how terribly the sun could burn our skin.

But not everything is as it seems. More people do, in fact, get sick during the cold months than at other times of the year. A great deal of this, however, comes from the fact that we’re not as active in the wintertime. It is true that over-exposure to cold weather can compromise our immune system, but the larger reason for more sickness in the winter is because germs stay viable for a longer period of time in the cold than they do when it is warm. It’s like a pathologist keeping a culture of germs alive by putting a Petri dish in the refrigerator.

This doesn’t mean that being outside in the cold is dangerous. It does mean that germs might stay alive under your fingernails or on the doorknob a little longer. The best advice is to wash your hands more often, keep your hands away from your face and try to avoid germy atmospheres as much as possible.

As far as being out in the cold, it can make you feel a whole lot more alive. You might want to try a little experiment if you find yourself on a cloudy day unable to warm up. Put on a coat and go for a walk outside. Take your binoculars and notice what the creatures in your neighborhood are doing. Some of them will be sleeping and not visible. Others, however, will be out despite the weather. Notice the plants that stay green all year. You will probably be cold at first but then your body will warm up as you go. Soon you will find yourself enjoying the walk. When you get back inside you’ll take your coat off and say, “it sure is warm in here”. And you’ll feel a lot better.

And what about the sun? It gets overly maligned too. We love it on vacation at the beach, and are careful to use sunscreen. We could be just as careful when we’re not on vacation and get out a bit more. Some of us are so worried about getting skin cancer, that we’ve talked ourselves out of enjoying the sunshine. In fact, our bodies are made to utilize the sun’s energy. They need sunshine to make important life-sustaining molecules. Sunshine is a very important part of our health. We just have to avoid getting burned too much.

As you learn more about the living things where you live, you will get a better feel for their periods of activity. In warmer areas, the afternoon might be too hot for most species and they will be waiting for the cooler times of the day to be active. In other areas, the afternoon warmth is the most active time of the day.

Another way to enjoy the weather is to watch clouds. I know this sounds a bit dreamy, but it can be addicting. As I write this, the sky outside my window is filled to capacity with cumulous clouds pushed up against each other from horizon to horizon. They are the medium kind building to the tall stormy cumulonimbus clouds. They are bottom-heavy with water and each one weighs more than a small herd of elephants.

This may surprise you. How can something so heavy float through the sky? Is it magic? Not really. But it is a powerful force of nature. Water first gathers into the air from the moisture-rich ocean and earth. As warm air currents carry the humid air higher into the cool atmosphere, the moisture combines into microscopic specks that interfere with light rays. These specks reflect the image of a fluffy cotton ball and give away the presence of all the water. When these specks join together into larger droplets they give off heat of their own (a reverse process somewhat like sweating which cools us down, when water is given off).

If enough water accumulates in big enough droplets, it begins to fall to the bottom of the cloud – like the border of gray outside my window. When this happens a storm is brewing. Somewhere close by a landscape is going to get a big drink of water.

It is truly awe-inspiring to realize what is happening in the air around us. Sometimes this is dangerous. Yet even something as powerful as a bolt of lightning is also beautiful. There is a reason that the ancients – from Moses on – saw the works of God in the clouds, in the rain, and in the air around us. Atmosphere is part of a living planet. We should enjoy it for what it is.

Have you ever been out in a snowstorm when nobody else was around? The falling crystals reflecting light from a distant street lamp or farm house? It’s as if the snow itself muffled everything and enforced a widespread silence – a soft and sleepy silence.

Such a storm sends most people inside where it is warm. But if you really want to get warm inside put on some mittens, some warm shoes, a knitted cap and a good coat and go for a walk in the snow with a friend, with your dog, or with your lover. If you’re really courageous, try sleeping outside in the midst of it all.

You might think I’m crazy (maybe I am) but let me explain. When I was young we lived in a house with electric heating that was regulated in each room. My bedroom was in the corner of the house and I had two windows opening in different directions. On stormy nights I loved opening both windows, letting in the moist air and cuddling up under warm blankets. I just had to make sure I turned the heat off so my parents wouldn’t get mad.

Then one evening I had the bright idea of sleeping outside near my grandfather’s woodshed in a storm. I knew a place I could put my sleeping bag that would be protected from the snow. It was up next to the shed where Grandpa had placed dozens of old boards. There was a long wide shelf that was covered by a piece of plywood. Grandpa used to lay down there himself on sunny days and rest in the shade.

So I found a foam pad, gathered my sleeping bag and pillow together and prepared my bed. By the time I was situated, snow had already begun to fall. It came floating down in undecided spirals. I captured hundreds of their delicate frozen patterns on my outstretched hand before they melted and I licked them up.

It was a mesmerizing moment to be in bed and only inches away from a snowstorm. And even though I exhaled a small cloud of my own with every breath, I was as warm as could be. I will never forget the night as long as I live. Experiencing nature so intimately has that effect on my memory.

It does happen that weather-watchers develop a refined sense of our human frailty. Compared to the forces of nature, we very seem so helpless. Nature on a grand scale is no match for our puny presumptions. And yet this universal magnitude that seems to diminish us can also have a very contrasting affect. It can (and should) inspire us with awe.

Our ancestors knew this feeling well. They lived close to the land and experienced the torments of nature as well as her exceeding beauty. They understood their place in the universe because they felt the presence of the divine in this power. We are the ones missing the point when we fail to experience the same thing.

The Nature Company Guides, Weather by William J. Burroughs et al. (published by Time Life Books, 1996) is a fun handbook for things weather. Also valuable is Gavin Prestor-Pinney’s The Cloudspotter’s Guide (Sceptre, 2006). You might also visit the photo gallery of the Cloud Appreciation Society at

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