Oscar Wilde once wrote that conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative. Not worth having.
Tell that to the friends and family of retired poultry and dairy farmer Richard Hendrickson, who died recently at 103 after having spent 85 years as a volunteer weather watcher. Twice a day since he was 17, he gathered data from his small weather station on Long Island, recording high and low temperatures, wind speed and direction, rainfall, and snowfall. These daily tasks, which he called taking the weather, had practical roots. You don’t cut hay today, he told a newspaper reporter, and let it dry in the field, if you know it’s going to rain tomorrow. It was a necessary duty, he would have argued, but it must have been more compelling than that.
He was not alone in his fascination with, perhaps even obsession with, weather. He had famous company. Ben Franklin published his Poor Richard’s Almanack, filled with weather news and prediction, and Thomas Jefferson kept records of the weather for 40 years, still less than half as long as the New York farmer.
Richard Hendrickon’s personal life was all bound up with memories of weather, including the spring day when his first wife died, when there was a violent storm, a storm that ended as she died, with the sun setting below the hills. In the midst of her dying, he had taken the weather 10 times in 12 hours, so extraordinary a weather event was that storm.
Perhaps Oscar Wilde was blessed with benign weather, or at least predictable weather, the overcast and drizzle of London and then Paris where he was self exiled. Perhaps there really was little to talk about.
But I grew up in California, which despite what Hollywood or our imaginations might portray, is not blue skies all the time, but full of weather, especially during El Niño, which when capitalized ironically means Christ Child, when warming of the Pacific Ocean waters around South America every few years dramatically changes the weather worldwide.
In California, this can mean that on the heels of months and years of devastating drought, there can be months and months of heavy downpours. A freaking mess, as one climatologist has described it.
Which looked like what was happening here in Georgia beginning late last year, when, if you recall, we had a string of wet, wild days, which meteorologists attributed to the beginnings of a new super-charged El Niño, no doubt escalated by climate change, a month that turned out to be globally both the warmest and wettest on record. Elevating predictions that this El Niño of 2016 could be the Godzilla of all El Niños. The stuff of a great deal of conversation.
While this weekend turned out, ironically, to be one of those mid-winter respites from cold and soggy that draws people South, the early or false spring temperatures that coax crocuses out that should have waited until March, and propels diehard gardeners into nurseries in futile search of annuals to plant in the still unready soil, El Niño is out there, doing its extreme weather thing, wreaking havoc, causing massive floods and mudslides in Southern California even as the Eastern seaboard dug out from one of the worst and most treacherous blizzards ever, a rare January hurricane struck the Azores and another rare tropical storm formed near Hawaii.
Doing its deadly, costly external damage. And doing its emotional damage as well.
While here and there, we can find odes to downpour, valentines to umbrellas, even movie musicals like Singing in the Rain, but more frequent and more likely are the complaints and angst:
Hence: from writer Susanne Colastini: “The rain fluctuates between drizzle and torrential. It messes with your mind. It makes you think things will always be like this, always letting you down right when you thought the worst was over.”
Or from a novel by Ray Bradbury: “I went to bed in the middle of the night thinking I heard someone cry, thinking I, myself, was weeping, and I felt myself, and it was dry. Then I looked at the window and thought, why yes, it’s just the rain, the rain, always the rain, and turned over sadder still, and fumbled about for my dripping sleep, and tried to slip it back on.”
Sad and sadder still. SAD. Seasonal Affective disorder, a very real kind of depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern, often in wet sunless fall and winter months.
Or El Niño years when the monstrous rain does not stop falls. Especially in what climate and weather scientists have labeled very strong El Niño years.
I had already left California when the last big one stuck in 1997-98, when the skies opened up in Orange County in what meteorologists described as the biggest rainstorm in a century. More than seven inches fell in parts of south Orange County in one day. Mobile home parks in Huntington Beach flooded, forcing rescuers to use inflatable boats and a catamaran to rescue residents. Mudslides destroyed hillside homes. Neighborhoods flooded. Major roads were made impassable by debris.
And that was just the beginning. Over the next few months, a series of powerful storms caused havoc, washing away roads and railroad tracks, overflowing flood control channels, causing 17 deaths and more than half a billion dollars in damage in California.
When friends called and described how dismal day to day living had become, inside and out.
But I was there for the previous El Niño in 1982-83, now described as, up to this potentially Godzillian year, perhaps the worst in recorded history. It caused weather-related disasters on almost every continent, blamed for nearly 2,000 deaths and more than $13 billion in damage to property and livelihood.
I did not know from El Niño; do not recall reading about or hearing anything about the direct link between the record-breaking heat of surface sea waters off the coast of Peru and the endless storms. But with the exception of one friend who was living and working in a ski area near Lake Tahoe and recalls welcoming the robust amount of good snow that fell that wet, wet year, most of the people I know recall the hardship and the impact on their mood. My husband remembers taking the last ferry allowed to cross the Golden Gate Bridge during a particularly ferocious rain, being stuck in his apartment for days in those years without smart phones and endless connectivity.
I remember the mixed feelings I had — and still have — once the weather shifted from drought to overflow, having had a child in the midst of a long rainless period a few years back. Writing a poem to her titled “Covenant”:
Drought’s baby you have never heard
A storm define our roof,
Or watched a rainbow inscribe God’s Covenant in the sky.
So complaining about precipitation was not considered good form where I was living, even as it went on and on — like Noah’s flood — with nary a biblical rainbow to break up its waves and waves.
A corduroy-bound journal I kept has miraculously survived from that year. There are remarkably few entries that actually record the surrounding weather — one about how the rains had kept me awake that night, that and the news of flooding in the nearby town of Alviso and the basement of my workplace.
One that actually documented a day of sun on March 15, followed, apparently by more rains, so that by March 23 I wrote that on the second day of spring in the year of the flood — there was no sun again, just rain and whole swatches of the coastline gone forever — while where we were the clay just went on absorbing the inches and inches with just a few spots of standing water. But that we were all growing sloggy and irritable and restless and longing to hike and bike and to all those sunny California pursuits.
But as a testament to the adage that indeed when it rains, it pours — that bad begets more bad — the journal contain page after page of woe: an ill fated experiment in sharing a rental house with my mother, broken romantic relationships, hard times as a single mother, tough times in the world.
My poems that year, first scrawled in that notebook, are filled with real images of murky pools, muck, drowned possums, and abandoned bird eggs.
An El Niño year in my life, in my heart. And despite some efforts at positive New Age affirmations about being a radiant being filled with light and love, it is clear from revisiting that single mother in her 30s having a very bad year in a very bad year for the world climate, that my approach to life was and is not very much aligned with the relentlessly up-tempo Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds splashing in a fake torrent on a movie set or Dorothy conjuring up a land somewhere over the rainbow where bluebirds fly. That faced with the fallout of actual bad weather — or season of personal turbulence — my response, my way of coping is remarkably aligned with that of the donkey Eeyore from the tales of Winnie the Pooh by A.A.Milne.
Hear (once again) how he describes a weather situation:
It’s snowing still, said Eeyore gloomily.
So it is and freezing…
However, he said, brightening up a little,
We haven’t had an earthquake lately.
Eeyore is often analyzed/diagnosed as not only a hopeless pessimist but also a stand-in for a classic major depressive. At the same time, there have been some academics that have seen him as a model existentialist, albeit an existential depressive, seeing the world as it is: refusing to find and report false good, and create bogus meaning.
He wouldn’t be persuaded, as I have not been persuaded, by the words of one writer who pronounced that life is like Mother Nature, unpredictable. There’s cloudy days and sunny days, but you have the power to decide the weather of your life.
The unpredictable moodiness of life, yes. That we can or should only choose one forecast: clear and sunny — is both impossible and even more so unhelpful.
Or so say a growing number of psychological Eeyores in the face of what one of them, therapist Matthew Huttson, describes as the relentless American quest for a blue-sky state of mind. The pursuit, as he wrote in a piece last year for Psychology Today magazine, of “permanent residence on the spectrum between contentment and ecstasy.”
He argues that what we view as negative emotions — anger, guilt, shame, envy, and regret are crucial to feeling good. He points to fear, for example, an emotion that is coming up as millions of people face the prospect of both cyclical and climate change produced extreme weather, as morphing into deep anxiety. Which actually stimulates information gathering. It makes us more energetic and vigilant. Anxiety can point to ways us as individuals and as a larger global society, he tells us, are not being true to ourselves.
It can, he believes, serve a major corrective purpose.
He is joined in this Eeyore thinking by author Barbara Ehrenrich, who in her book Bright-Sided: How Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America makes the case for how unflappable positivity is failing us. How enlightenment Realism and the kind of defensive pessimism practiced by that seemingly morose donkey is not only, as she maintains, “a prerequisite for human survival but for all animal species. And indeed the future of the planet. The imperative to see the real threats, foibles and dangers.”
As weather is teaching us. It is not, despite what Oscar Wilde declared, the last refuge of the unimaginative. It is a conversation that must be held: not about umbrellas and rainbows and any-day-now sunshine, but about fossil fuel and greenhouse gases: real causes of climate disruption.
That may well destroy this one and only finite home of ours as one weather blogger warns.
In this El Niño year may we be more aware than ever of weather.
With vigilant realism — and an authentic search for meaning.