Summer 2001

Our Weather: A Selection

Some meteorological observations

Compiled by Jeffrey Kastner and Sina Najafi

While researching this issue, we of course came across many weather-related items of interest that did not feature in any of the commissioned essays. Though modest, these meteorological tidbits do illustrate the variety of ways in which the weather has been understood and used across history in a variety of contexts, ranging from science and literature to colonial-racist discourses. Given the number of entries in the compilation, we were only able to publish the selection here in the print edition of the magazine. The full compilation is available here.

­First, then, the reason why the blue expanses of heaven are shaken by thunder is the clashing of clouds soaring high in the ether, when conflicting winds cause them to collide. A thunderclap does not issue from a clear stretch of sky; the normal source of that terrific crash and roll is the point where the advancing columns of cloud are most densely serried. Clouds cannot be composed of such dense bodies as make up stones or logs, nor of such flimsy ones as mist and drifting smoke. In the one case, they would be forced to fall like stones by the drag of their dead weight; in the other, they would be no better able than smoke to cohere or to contain icy snow and showers of hail. The noise they make above the levels of the outspread world is comparable to the intermittent clap of the awning stretched over a large theatre when it flaps between poles and cross-beams; or to the loud crackling, reminiscent of rending paper, that it makes when riotous winds have ripped it. You can pick out the former sound in thunder, and you hear it again when hanging clothes or flying scraps of paper are whipped and whirled by the wind and swished through the air. At other times it happens that the clouds cannot so much collide head-on as pass side by side on different courses, scraping their bodies together protractedly. That is when our ears are rubbed by that dry crackling sound, long drawn out, until the clouds have drifted out of close quarters.
—Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, c. 50 BC, trans. Ronald Latham (Hammondsworth & Baltimore: Penguin, 1951)

I reverently believe that the maker who makes us all makes everything in New England but the weather. I don’t know who makes that, but I think it must be raw apprentices in the weather-clerk’s factory who experiment and learn how, in New England, for board and clothes, and then are promoted to make weather for countries that require a good article, and will take their custom elsewhere if they don’t get it. There is a sumptuous variety about the New England weather that compels the stranger’s admiration—and regret. The weather is always doing something there; always attending strictly to business; always getting up new designs and trying them on the people to see how they will go. But it gets through more business in spring than in any other season. In the spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of four-and-twenty hours. It was I that made the fame and fortune of that man that had the marvelous collection of weather on exhibition at the Centennial, that so astounded the foreigners. He was going to travel all over the world and get specimens from all the climes. I said, “Don’t you do it; you come to New England on a favorable spring day.” I told him what we could do in the way of style, variety and quantity. Well, he came and he made his collection in four days. As to variety, why, he confessed that he got hundreds of kinds of weather that he never heard of before. As to quantity—well, after he had picked out and discarded all that was blemished in any way, he not only had weather enough, but weather to spare; weather to hire out; weather to sell; to deposit, weather to invest, weather to give to the poor.
—Mark Twain, “Speech on the Weather,” 1876, in The Family Mark Twain (New York: Harper, 1935)

It works out very neatly: The climate shift reduced the salinity [levels in the Baltic Sea in the 15th century], the lowered salinity reduced the herring, the lost herring weakened the Hanse towns, the weakened towns failed to unify Germany, German disunity led to religious war, which led to foreign intervention, which led to devastation and worse disunity, which led to militarism and the compulsion toward discipline and order, which led to Bismarck, “Blood and Iron,” and, ultimately, Hitler.

Do I believe this climate fantasy? Well, a little.
—Robert Claiborne, Climate, Man, and History (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1970)

Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to this particular school of Art. At present people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fog for centuries in London, I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist until Art invented them.
—Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying,” 1889, in The Writings of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989)

The tests they gave me were the ones routinely given in the first hours after a lightning injury: another CAT scan to check for cerebral bleeding, X-rays for broken bones, blood panels to monitor kidney function and cardiac enzymes, EKGs for the late onset of arrhythmias and changes that might indicate tissue damage in the heart or lungs, and an overdue EEG to make sure my blackouts weren’t epileptic seizures. Lying on a small bed with wires attached to my skull, I watched white printouts of brain waves stack up on a table beside me and wished the motions of the mind, the hieroglyphics of imagination, were as accessible to me…

Direct hits by lightning can cause unconsciousness and coma, cardiopulmonary arrest, or ventricular fibrillation, which is cardiac arrest, and automatic nervous system damage. As millions of volts of electricity pass through the body, brain cells are burned, “insulated,” or bruised, which can result in cerebral edema, hemorrhage, and epileptic seizures. Passing down through the body, electricity hits the soft tissue organs—heart, lungs, and kidneys—causing contusions, infarctions, coagulations, or cellular damage that can lead to death. Tympanic membranes in the ear sometimes burst from the explosion of thunder, and cataracts develop if the flash has been intensely bright. Cases of leukemia have been recorded, and when pregnant women are hit, either spontaneous abortion occurs, or else they carry the baby to full term but after delivery the infant dies.
—Gretel Ehrlich, A Match to the Heart (New York: Penguin, 1994)

It is a fact that several times in the summer there comes a wind from the direction of the sandy wastes that lie around this plain, a wind so overpoweringly hot that it would be deadly if it did not happen that, as soon as men are aware of its approach, they plunge neck-deep into the water and so escape from the heat. To show just how hot this wind can be, Messer Marco gives the following account of something that happened when he was in these parts. The king of Kerman, not having received the tribute due to him from the lord of Hormuz, resolved to seize his opportunity when the men of Hormuz were living outside the city in the open. He accordingly mustered 1,600 horse and 5,000 foot-soldiers and sent them across the plain of Rudbar to make a surprise attack. One day, having failed through faulty guidance to reach the place appointed for the night’s halt, they bivouacked in a wood not far from Hormuz. Next morning, when they were on the point of setting out, the hot wind came down on them and stifled them all, so that not one survived to carry back the news to their lord. The men of Hormuz, hearing of this, went out to bury the corpses, so that they should not infect the air. When they gripped them by the arms to drag them to the graves, they were so parched by the tremendous heat that the arms came loose from the trunk, so that there was nothing for it but to dig the graves beside the corpses and heave them in.
—Marco Polo, The Travels, c. 1300, trans. Ronald Latham (New York: Penguin, 1958)

Summoned by the creaking of utensils, by their fulsome chatter, there arrived the powerful caravans of wind that dominated the night. An enormous, black, moving amphitheatre formed high above the city and began to descend in powerful spirals. The darkness exploded in a great stormy gale and raged for three days and three nights…

I ran barefoot to the window. The sky was swept lengthwise by the gusts of wind. Vast and silvery-white, it was cut into lines of energy tensed to the breaking point, into awesome furrows like strata of tin and lead. Divided into magnetic fields and trembling with discharges, it was full of concealed electricity. The diagrams of the gale were traced on it which, itself unseen and elusive, loaded the landscape with its power.

One could not see the gale. One could recognize its effect on the houses, on the roofs under which its fury penetrated. One after the other, the attics seemed to loom larger and to explode in madness when touched by its finger…

The gale blew cold and dead colours onto the sky—streaks of green, yellow and violet—the distant vaults and arcades of its spirals...

Night came. The wind intensified in force and violence, grew immeasurably and filled the whole area. It had now stopped visiting the houses and roofs, and had started to build a many-storied, multi-level spiral over the city, a black maze, growing relentlessly upwards. From that maze it shot out along galleries of rooms, raced amid claps of thunder through long corridors and then allowed all those imaginary structures to collapse, spreading out and rising into the formless stratosphere…

We suddenly remembered that we had not seen father since the morning. He must have gone out very early to the shop, where the gale had probably surprised him and cut him off from home.

“He will not have had anything to eat all day,” mother wailed. The senior shop-assistant, Theodore, volunteered to venture into the windswept night, to take some food to father. My brother decided to go with him.

Wrapped in large bearskin coats, they filled their pockets with flatirons and brass pestles, metal ballast to prevent them from being blown away by the gale. The door leading into the night was opened cautiously. No sooner had Theodore and my brother taken one step into the darkness, than they were swallowed up by the night on the very threshold of the house. The wind immediately washed away all traces of their departure. From the window one could not see even the light of the lantern which they had taken…

We stood behind the front door of the house and listened. In the lament of the gale one could hear all kinds of voices, questions, calls and cries. We imagined that we could hear father, lost in the gale, calling for help, or else that it was my brother and Theodore chatting unconcernedly outside the door. The sounds were so deceptive that Adela opened the door at one point and in fact saw Theodore and my brother just emerging, with great effort, from the gale in which they had sunk up to their armpits.

They came in panting and closed the door with difficulty behind them. For a moment they had to lean against it, so strong was the storming of the wind at the entrance. At last they got the door bolted and the wind continued its chase elsewhere.

They spoke almost incoherently of the terrible darkness, of the gale. Their fur coats, soaked with wind, now smelled of the open air. They blinked in the light; their eyes, still full of night, spilled darkness at each flutter of the eyelids. They could not reach the shop, they said; they had lost their way and hardly knew how to get back; the city was unrecognisable and all the streets looked as if they had been displaced.
—Bruno Schulz, “The Street of Crocodiles,” 1934, in The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz, trans. Celina Wieniewska (New York: Walker and Company, 1989)

Thanks to Mats Bigert, Brian Conley, Kathleen Tobin, and Gregory Williams for their suggestions.

Jeffrey Kastner is an editor of Cabinet. He also writes on contemporary art and culture for the Economist and the New York Times. He lives in New York.

Sina Najafi is editor-in-chief of Cabinet and co-director of Immaterial Incorporated.

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