The Weather of Words

Published : Sunday, January 09, 2011 | Label:

In the days after Christmas—floods moving in on Rockhampton and Emerald, snow falling in Hobart, hail lashing me on the GIb, gales gnashing the Sydney-Hobart Fleet, sun falling on the MCG as we lost the Ashes—I sat at my desk in the cowshed, working right through my birthday, and wrote a long lyric essay on the weather. It’s a lyric piece about the weather, and it’s made of the weather it was written in, but it’s an exploration of the weather (what it is, how we get it, what “Australian weather” might mean, how we get the weather inside and out, how it makes us and our places what we are) to accompany a beautiful selection of photographs of the weather from the National Library of Australia’s collection. The NLA will publish the book, untitled so far, in October 2011.

It’s the second in a kind of series they are doing, the first of which, Australia’s Wild Weather, with words by Roger MacDonald, came out eighteen months ago. I’ve gone about it very differently to Roger, though.

It was exhilarating and healing, as writing often is for me on the other side of the pain threshold. And I was running late with it, so I’m glad to have it done, but missing it already. I’ll get to see it on and off quite often, of course, over the next few months as we got through editing and design.

The weather’s going on, I notice, as it will. And I sit here in the wake of my words for it.

Here are a couple of pieces of the larger essay.

8. Inside the temperate greenhouse, where the weather grows
And all this weather, the work of the sun’s energy and the earth’s response to it, operates the way it does—this updrafting and downdrafting, this eddying clockwise and anticlockwise, this troughing and ridging and pooling and fronting, this blowing hard and falling still, this spiking and plunging of temperature—because there’s an atmosphere wrapping the earth, and it’s composed of gases in a mix that both invites and perpetuates this kind of thing. The atmosphere mediates the sun’s influence, letting enough heat in, but not too much; letting enough heat out, but not too much. And, by reason of its vertical structure and its chemical makeup, it choreographs the three-dimensional dance of air, the embodied, invisible physics that is earth’s weather regime. And for all the turbulence the weather story seems to tell, our weather’ s pretty placid. Wild is a relative concept in the universe; there’s a wide band of normal out there, and we’re right down the mild end of it. On Jupiter, there’s a storm more violent than anything we can begin to imagine, and it’s been going on for four hundred years. Now, that’d be a storm. On Neptune, winds on an ordinary day travel at 1200 mph.

On the other hand, life, at least in the kind of diversity we know on earth, thrives on change, variability, fluctuation, diversity, irregularity and circularity of exactly the kind our weather regime embodies. 

Without the atmosphere we have, earth would be too hot or too cold, its weather way too violent and turbulent, or on the other hand, too unchanging, for us, or any life at all, to be here. Look at the planets either side of us. Venus, the same mass as earth, but closer to the sun, has an atmosphere way denser—96 per cent carbon dioxide—and its mean surface temperature is 460 degrees Celsius. Mars, farther from the sun, and too small to exercise any gravitational hold on anything like an atmosphere, has a surface temperature of -50 degrees.

Our atmosphere is a greenhouse, in which the weather grows. The bands of unsubstantial stuff that wrap the earth—the troposphere, in which the temperature decreases with altitude, and in which most of what we know as the weather and nearly all the clouds that articulate and perform it, occur (13 kilometres high); the stratosphere, in which temperature increases with altitude (up to 50 kilometres); the mesosphere, in which, again, temperatures drop with altitude (up to 80 kilometres); the thermosphere (up to 500 kilometres); and the exosphere, the thick interface with outer space (up to 10,000 kilometres)—conspire, like a complex curvilinear sheath of laminated virtual glass, ten thousand kilometres thick, to keep enough of the sun’s intemperate radiation out and enough of the earth’s reciprocal radiation in, to maintain a liveable band of temperature incite and moderate the kind of weather patterns life depends upon and maintain a liveable band of temperature. Weather—which is to say, the lower atmosphere (troposphere)—has a chemistry, and our lives depend on it. Most of it is nitrogen (78 percent) and oxygen (21 percent). That only leaves one percent for the rest of the gases, but they make all the difference. The temperate turbulence of the weather our lives depend upon, depends, in turn, on the water vapour (which varies from 0 to 2 percent) and carbon dioxide (.035 percent) mixed into the atmosphere, in particular in the weather zone, below the troposphere. It seems these gases (and a few others, in particular, methane) are the thermostat in the weather system. They govern how much of the earth’s radiation—the infrared radiation it gives off in response to its warming under the sun—is retained and recycled in the weather system, and how much is given off into space.

9. When the weather changes its mind about us
The greenhouse gases vary over time, and as a consequence earth’s climate hasn’t always been the same. It’s been much colder, and it’s been at times a little hotter and wetter. There have been several ice ages, and, in fact, we are in one. At its height, though,18 000 years ago, sheets of ice covered a third of the earth (they cover only 11 percent now). Earth’s mean temperature then was 9 degrees Celsius; it’s 15 degrees now. And rising.

We know that levels of carbon dioxide and methane co-vary with temperatures: when the earth cools, CO2 levels are down; when it warms, they’re up. We know that the earth is currently warming, and we know that levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have risen dramatically since the industrial revolution, and continue to rise and that there has never been more CO2 in the atmosphere than now. The worry is not just that things will heat up a bit, but that because of the change in the chemistry of the weather and the rising temperatures that follow and the exaggerated greenhouse effect that will produce, the weather will turn violent. The weather will move outside the band of normal instability and turbulence in which it’s operated just about forever, and life may get close to unliveable for most of us. Not to mention the inevitable downstream effects of straight warming: rising sea levels, inundation of low-lying areas, the drying up of glacier-fed river systems, as the poles and the glaciers melt.

Climate has always changed, but it’s changing around us now like it may never have changed before. It’s hard to tell with weather; it is by nature so long and so variable. But the world is seeing bigger storms and cyclones very much more often than it did; southeastern Australia and other dry temperate parts of the world are getting bigger and hotter fires more often; the polar ice caps are receding and the glaciers are melting faster; flooding, most recently, in Pakistan and elsewhere in other parts of the world under the influence of increasingly erratic and heavy-handed monsoons, is happening on a scale we haven’t seen much, certainly as often, before.

The cause of all this may not be carbon, and we may not be the cause of the carbon: though both propositions seem absurd to me. But the weather is not what it was. Someone’s turned up the thermostat, and the finger’s pointing at us.

We’re all guessing what will happen and how bad it will get. It’s clear the wet are getting wetter and the dry are getting drier, but it’s a whole lot more complicated than that and you can bet it’ll get a whole lot messier yet.

For me, the awareness that the weather may be changing so radically around us induces not only a low level, nagging fear, especially for one’s children and their generation, but also grief and shame.
It’s frightening to contemplate the havoc already at play, and terrifying to think about how much worse it could all get, and not merely for oneself. If one’s ethics extends beyond one’s self and even beyond the merely human realm, it’s chastening, it’s mortifying to think that how one has lived one’s life, how one has fuelled one’s prosperity and ease, has induced a change in the weather the consequence of which could be massive species extinction, including our own. (We are already living through the sixth mass extinction event we know about in the history of the earth; much of it is caused by how immoderately we have thrown our weight around, how many habitats we’ve rendered unliveable, how many food chains we’ve cut; some of it also, and most of it in the years ahead, is caused by the changing weather, much of which we seem to have caused, too.) It’s fearful to think that the weather won’t stay liveable forever, maybe not even for too much longer, even though few of us in our current incarnations will be here to watch it fall apart. But there’s a grief that runs deeper than this.

It may be sentimental, but I feel it. Regardless of who’s to blame—and the smart money’s on you and me—this beautiful organism, this intelligent system—the climate of the planet—has been, it seems, compromised. Profoundly. The weather we have known—the weather that gave rise to the vivid and teeming, immaculate world in which the human species evolved, and all that it has dreamed and learned and lost and made—is passing away. The weather of the Holocene is dying out; the weather of the Anthropocene is turning ugly. We have diminished the world that spawned and sustained and inspired us. Not excluding, it seems, the weather, our first and only home. And where will we be without it?

15. A cloudburst on the Gib
Time has passed. The earth has spun on, and the days have lengthened. We’ve crossed the equinox and seen off the summer solstice. The earth has completed a quarter of its annual orbit around that great star—not so great in the larger scheme of things, dwarfed as it is by Pollux, Betelgeuse, Arcturus and the gang of mega stars in other galaxies—the sun, since I last sat down to this essay. It’s two days after Christmas, now, 2010. There has been weather, quite a bit of it, and not just here. There is a mardi gras of weather across the continent—across the globe—right now.

Where I live now, not far from the Shoalhaven where this piece began, there has been a lot of rain, and not just here. Ten-year dry runs are over across much of central and eastern Australia and rivers are in flood. Queanbeyan flooded for the first time since the early seventies; the Murrumbidgee rose and flooded Wagga Wagga. Bumper harvests of wheat were diminished by late rain; whole harvests of stone fruits were wrecked by hailstorms in November. Lake Eyre, which filled in mid-year, is still an inland sea, and there’s been so much rain up north, it’s sure to fill again in a few months. December broke all records for rainfall where I am; the dams overbrimmed; the Wingecarribee plumped up, and its brown waters are still running hard over the weir at the nature reserve where I sometimes go to recollect myself and count birds. Christmas Day, when it came, was dry and still and hot, the template from which every other Australian Christmas might have been cut. Yesterday, late on a humid, cloudy Boxing Day, I walked the track through the old quarry to the Gib. Halfway up I stoped for ten minutes to watch a rufous fantail flaunt its elegant aerial stuff above the blackwoods, sheoaks and garden escapees. I walked on, and as I climbed the stairs near the summit, some of them cut from the Bowral trachyte they mined here for a century till the late eighties, the weather turned. Against me, it seemed. For we always seem to take the weather personally; and, besides, I had just been mumbling to myself in my post-Christmas funk that this is country with which I don’t know how to get on.

I heard it first in the canopies of the peppermints and brown barrel gums—the roar of a thunderstorm climbing a mountain. The air temperature plunged. From the lookout I could see the dog this tail was wagging over the town: an aubergine front, trailing rainshowers over everything. For nearly an hour I stood on the table under the tin roof of a shelter on the mountain, keeping a little drier—but only a little—than I would have in the open, hugging myself against the cold, bracing myself against fierce wind gusts, waiting for the storm to pass so that I might go back the placid way I had come. The rain became hail and then rain again. My ears learned to hear again. The storm passed, but the rain stayed and looked likely to stay all night, so I set off down the track, a read and racing stream now, and I can tell you that the rufous fantail was nowhere to be seen and that I have never been gladder to open a car door and sit a while in a vehicle’s retained heat. Poetry, said Wordsworth, is high emotion—let’s call it wildness—recalled in tranquillity. I sat there, with my shirt off for ten minutes, in poetry. At the top of Ellen Street.

Today, near the end of December, I sit in a cowshed 130 kilometres southwest of Sydney, 700 metres or so above sea level, thermals on, a fire burning in the stove, the wind light and cool from the east, the sky a sheet of grey stratus—metamorphosing to nimbostratus, I see now, looking at the light rain dusting the poplars outside my window. Two days ago it was 30; today it’s 13. There’s a defused cyclone dumping more rain on North Queensland, and the centre of the mini-cyclone that hit me on the Gib is now part of a trough of low pressure that stretches, northwest by southeast, from Darwin to Dunedin (NZ). I sit here in its wake. So the weather goes. The system is circular, recursive. Boom and bust and boom… We run a trend line through its peaks and troughs and discover what we call the seasons, and every season contains pieces of every other. Most of the weather, for most of us, most of the time is relatively mild, like today. But it’s never still. The weather never stops. And, though it follows a pattern, it is not domesticated; it is not tame. And it’s the wild bits, like yesterday’s mountaintop storm, straight from the pages of The Romantics’ Book of Nature, is what we remember. All weather is wild, though, and everything depends on that—its variability, excess, and animation model and sustain and allow our own, and that of the living world around us. Weather is the wildness in us all. Weather makes and unmakes nearly everything.

17. The weather of who we are
We are a reliable, conforming, decent people, good at getting things done—on the battlefield, the playing field, the farm, the mine site, the mall. At home. We’re good at civility and embarrassed by ceremony, though good at putting on a do; we’re not much given to introspection, to political histrionics, revolutions, bills of rights, that sort of thing; we’re rhetorically awkward, suspicious of large gestures, unless they’re commercial; we’re dedicated, it is said, to a fair go, in particular for ourselves; we’re suspicious of the foreign and the new, but we tend to come around. We don’t like to look far into the future. As if it were the weather—another cyclone on the horizon, another flood coming downstream, another fire running up the ridge. Perhaps the difficulty of many of our landscapes and the recalcitrance of our weather have taught us to be pragmatic to a fault.

In truth, most of our history happens—and most of who we are lies—between disasters, not in them. We are a stable people on a stable continent, whose weather is not, in fact, uncommonly wild, and perhaps we tell ourselves stories of military and meteorological disaster (narrowly and bravely survived) to reassure ourselves we’re real—that we have ticker and pluck; that we’re tough. (This is to overlook, of course, the long savage dispossession of the first peoples by the settlers—but this has always been a part of our history, we, as a nation, have chosen to ignore. A history of surviving savage weather is, of course, a nobler sort of history to own.) In the sunburnt country, flooding rains and ten-year droughts and catastrophic bushfires are our myths of identity. Which is not to say we get no grief from nature. Just to say that we find ourselves in, and we emphasise in our natural history, those events that speak of the power and unruliness of our places and the doggedness of our spirit in the face of them.

But we are not more prone to natural disasters than the international average. There are hotter places, wetter, lower, though few, it has to be admitted, drier. It doesn’t get dangerously cold; there are no ice storms or blizzards (not unless we include our territories on that driest continent on earth, the Antarctic.) We get dust storms (Darling Showers), but we don’t get so many tornados (the most destructive force on the planet) as, say, Kansas. We do fire as well as anyone, and we’ll do it bigger and more often as the atmosphere warms. Drought is our great affliction; and in the years ahead, water—the scarcity of rivers in the places where most of us live and farm, our profligacy with it, the drying of the climate—is our area of national vulnerability.

Between downpours and conflagrations, though, we get about the greater part of who we are. We make history, most of it quiet, in mild weather. But we tell ourselves in fires and floods; we find ourselves in drought. We think of ourselves as a people who know how to pick up the pieces when the floodwaters ease and the fires are dowsed, when the cyclone has petered out. And so we are, and so the national memory is crowded with images of the damage the weather often enough wreaks, and how bravely we bear it and get on. And it looks like we’re going to get plenty of opportunities to keep proving it in the years ahead.


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