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Friday, April 13, 2007

Should we talk about the weather?

Slate has a slightly mocking piece about the awesome oddity that is Top 100 Weather Moments on the Weather Channel. Fine, fine, have Harry Connick, Jr. host the show. I would have been a better host, though. The other day I ran into someone who remarked on the April rain that was just this side of sleet: "I heard somewhere that April is the cruelest month!" I said I was from the desert, and even after several years in New York, I still get a certain delight out of gray days. Albuquerque once held the record for consecutive sunny days (I know this because my mom or step-dad clipped this weather fact out of the weather section one day and posted on the refrigerator, where it remained for years), and there are very few days as spectacularly gloomy as it was, say, yesterday in New York. "Then you're congenitally optimistic," the person said. That's one of the few times I'll ever be called optimistic. This Weather Channel show looks great! I'm very optimistic about it.

I have strong memories of a tornado watch in Austin when I was five or six years old. We had to sit in the closet in my bedroom for half an hour or so--the tornado never came--but the fear carried over to the next day, when the front that had caused the storm had become stationary over the area and there was torrential rain. I spent the day at daycare drawing macabre pictures of floods. For months afterwards, I'd get upset even upon seeing a puff of smoke from a bus.

My parents wisely realized that the way to handle the fear was to turn it into a curiosity: if I could master the information, I wouldn't be so scared of it. That trick had already worked for spiders: I have another vivid memory of finding a black widow and her egg sac in the garage at the same time that my kindergarten class was studying spiders. This memory has been distorted, surely, because I remember the spider being as large as a grape, and I don't think black widows are that big, but something in that moment of finding it, identifying it, and, um, being right about the identification completely transformed my fear of spiders into something more manageable. That something wasn't necessarily safer--I found the occasional black widow in the years to come, and I'd always trap them to wait to show them off--but it was better to be obsessively curious than scared. The same trick worked for earthquakes; many of my science reports in elementary school were about building my own crude seismograph, and my second favorite exhibit in the Albuquerque natural history museum was the seismic map of the current seismic activity all over the world.

My very favorite exhibit at the natural history museum was the mural of every cloud formation. The mural started on a cloudy storm and wrapped around three walls to show the cumulonimbus clouds drift into cumulus clouds, which became cirrus clouds, and so on.

But I had only this painting of extreme weather to whet my passion when I was growing up. Thunderstorms in New Mexico are beautiful in their own way: they build up spectacularly almost every afternoon during the summer "monsoon" season, but they often evaporate in the atmosphere, creating what are called virgas. It often rains while the sun is shining because the storms are isolated, and there are frequent double rainbows (I've seen only one rainbow in New York).

I got my wish for extreme weather the week or so after I moved to New York when there was a hurricane watch (Hurricane Floyd). The hurricane didn't make it here, of course, but I was very impressed by the tempestuous winds and rain and stayed outside for much of the storm. I called my dad, who also loves extreme weather, to tell him about it. "Open your window and hold the phone out the window so I can hear it!" he said.

Unsurprisingly, weather classification was a big eighteenth-century organization of knowledge project. Richard Hamblyn's The Invention of Clouds is a great account of Luke Howard's work to classify clouds into the names we give them today; it takes up some of the same information as Scott Huler's Defining the Wind, which I also liked a lot. One of my favorite things about Hamblyn's book is his inclusion of so many poems from the eighteenth century and the Romantic period about clouds and cloud classification. I get such a kick out of these kinds of poems. Here's James Thomson from The Seasons (1748):
Oft, as he travers'd the cerulean field,
And mark'd the Clouds that drove before the wind;
Ten thousand glorious systems he would build,
Ten thousand great ideas fill'd his mind;
But with the clouds they fled, and left no trace behind.

(I still remember Anna's vocal dislike of The Seasons from a class we took together in college, but something about the poem cracks me up every time I read it--possibly for the same reason that Anna was so exasperated by it. I do love the anecdote from Henry Hitchings' Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary about Johnson's assessment of The Seasons, which, as I'm typing it out now, turns out to be even more germane to the post than I thought it would be. As Boswell tells it (and Hitchings retells it), Johnson discussed The Seasons with one of his Dictionary assistants, Robert Shiels, who was an admirer of Thomson: "'His fault, is such a cloud of words sometimes, that the sense can hardly peep through. ... Shiels ... was one day sitting with me. I took down Thomson, and read aloud a large portion...and then asked, --Is not this fine? Shiels having expressed the highest admiration. Well, Sir, (said I) I have omitted every other line.'")

The best chapter of Hamblyn's book is about Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's poetic interpretation of Howard's classification system. Goethe was so excited by Howard's work that he dedicated a poem to him and rendered the descriptions into verse (1817). (The Nimbus fragment is my favorite, but its effect is heightened when you read a sequence of them). These are from Hamblyn's book:
Stratus

When o'er the silent bosom of the sea
The cold mist hangs like a stretch'd canopy;
And the moon; mingling there her shadowy beams,
A spirit fashioning other spirits seems;
We feel, in moments pure and bright as this,
The joy of innocence, the thrill of bliss.
Then towering up in the darkening mountain's side,
And spreading as it rolls its curtains wide,
It mantles round the mid-way height, and there
It sinks in water-drops, or soars in air.

Cumulus

Still soaring, as if some celestial call
Impell'd it to yon heaven's sublimest hall;
High as the clouds, in pomp and power arrayed,
Enshrined in strength, in majesty displayed;
All the soul's secret thoughts it seems to move,
Beneath it trembles, while it frowns above.

Cirrus

And higher, higher yet the vapors roll:
Triumph is the noblest impulse of the soul!
Then like a lamb whose silvery robes are shed,
The fleecy piles dissolved in dew drops spread;
Or gently waft to the realms of rest,
Find a sweet welcome in the Father's breast.

Nimbus

Now downwards by the world's attraction driven,
That tends to earth, which had upris'n to heaven;
Threatening in the mad thunder-cloud, as when
Fierce legions clash, and vanish from the plain;
Sad destiny of the troubled world! but see,
The mist is now dispersing gloriously:
And language fails us in its vain endeavour--
The spirit mounts above, and lives forever.

Later, Goethe also wrote introductory stanzas to the versified classification:
But Howard gives us with his clearer mind
The gain of lessons new to all mankind;
That which no hand can reach, no hand can clasp,
He first has gain'd, first held with mental grasp.
Defin'd the doubtful, fix'd its limit-line,
And named it fitly. --Be the honour thine!
As clouds ascend, are folded, scatter, fall,
Let the world think of thee who taught it all.

Finally, there's an obvious title pattern re: classificatory systems in the eighteenth century to the books cited in this post ;the fourth title to continue the pattern is Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything, which I've written about previously.

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