Monday, October 11, 2010


Courtesy of
I saw the lightning from the studio window and I didn't want to get caught in the rain without my half-beaten umbrella, destroyed by one or another of the thunderstorms of this summer. I wasn't sure of the direction the storm was moving, all the while the chinny moon was in and out of our smokey warm front sky.

The yellow square indicates hail, the arrows direction, the notches in the arrows time till your neighborhood.
I made it home by 7:45 pm and only some low cracks and a few flashes, a drop on the sill, maybe two. The radar above tells a different story. Or not, this could be petering out. The storm V0 briefly had a tornadic signature over NJ, which I could see on the radial velocity radar image. Whenever I see a particularly intense thunderstorm, one with purple coloration and strong "shape" I check that radial velocity for the signature -something I did quite a few times this year.

The yellow diamond indicates a mesocyclone, which is simply a rotating storm which could lead to tornadic activity.

When I was a child I was horribly afraid of thunderstorms. So was my mother, and I think this is where I learned to fear. During really bad storms, which there always seemed to be, we would hunker down in the basement -a space somewhat capable of diminishing the experience of the storm. But, there were too many times that we kids were on our own, during storms, largely in summertime, in the afternoon, long before my parents would return from work. Those storms seemed so dangerous -as if the sky was after us, like a monster or hungry tiger ready to strike children.

I couldn't handle the loud, instant cracks of thunder -the sharp ones, the ones that feel like someone is shattering steel sheets over your head. I would plug my ears with my fingers to the point of ache. One time I was caught out on the open water in a skiff with my father. While we could see that a storm was brewing, he waited until the last minute to bring us in. I put my head between my legs so that I wasn't the highest point as lightning crashed around us, wind whipped waves driving the boat into the air. Another time, on the beach, a green sky storm seemed to stir up out of nowhere. Rushed from the water to the parking lot, lightning bolts crashing down yards away, but locked out of the car and waiting for my mother and aunt to make it with the keys.

It probably wasn't until my time in New Mexico that I truly began to get comfortable with thunderstorms. In my first few months there I lived out of my Ford pickup. It being monsoon season, afternoon, evening and night time thunderstorms were the norm. That first month was hellish as I tried to sleep in the pickup during night time storms, rain so heavy I thought I would get washed away in a flash flood.

Because of the nature of the landscape in the high desert, we can see distances, can watch thunderstorms form and dissipate from 30 or 40 miles away. I began to appreciate them for aesthetic qualities, something distance allows. I also began to appreciate the rains, and to watch people, however foolishly, not be scared off by storms moving in, ever so slowly, in the heat of a desert afternoon -soccer must go on.

It may have been my fear of thunderstorms that led me to my interest in meteorology, although I am as much inclined to believe it was Hurricane Belle, hitting Long Island one August, when I was six. My parents were in NYC that day, and we were cared for by my young uncle. It was humid and very cloudy, gray -I remember everything about that day from the moment my uncle told us we would have to bring in anything that could blow away. Up until that moment, we knew nothing of what was coming. The idea that things could blow away was highly intriguing. This was my first wind storm.

The storm passed overnight, lightning flashes revealing swishing, tormented trees, the black and white on all night, as my parents watched the progress of the storm via news reports. The next morning I recall the litter of twigs and branches, the fallen fences, the smell of fresh oak wood, but most of what I recall is the view out our bedroom window the night before, made visible by flashes of lightning.

So now it is that I am mostly comfortable with thunderstorms. But every so often, I am caught completely off guard, and this usually happens when I am removed from that ever so useful radar.

A few summers ago I was at the Mac Dowell Colony. It was the kind of summer where an unstable frontal boundary had parked right over northern NY, southern Vermont and New Hampshire. We had rough storms daily for about two weeks. I was in the common building, when it was struck by lightning. That was a loud. We had internet access in the building, so I checked the radar before leaving for my studio -a 15 minute walk. Nothing else appeared to be out there, so I left for my studio. When I got there, I had about an hour before dinner, which was in a yellow house atop a hill in a field another 15 minutes away. I decided to call Betsy on my cell. While we were talking I heard thunder that had the momentum of a march, canon fire, mortar blasts, a rather steady beating. After a few minutes, and seeing that dinner time was near, I told her that I should leave for dinner lest I get caught in the rain -oh the horror, wet at dinner.

I headed out the door, down the road, and into the woods. I can't see anything -only my ears to tell me what is going on. By this time Betsy can hear the thunder on her phone. I tell her that it is coming on awfully fast, mere minutes since I had left the studio. She tells me to hurry up and I tell her I think I should move faster. I hang up and walk faster, never inclined to run if I don't have to. By the time I exit the woods, maybe 7 minutes after leaving the studio, to cross the paved road, I see that the storm is just over the hill. It is not raining, however, and judge that I have enough time to get to the house up the hill before the deluge.

What came next was entirely unexpected. As I made my way up the paved road and turned onto the dirt drive, still the hill to climb, I am completely overtaken by the storm, surrounded by lightning bolts -there are ground strikes everywhere. I am mobilized by fear. You'll find this hard to believe, but the Mac Dowell creedo to not bother anyone in their studios prevented me from taking cover in any of the two studios on the way up the hill! I saw lightning above me, I instinctively dropped on all fours, or did I fall? The thunder was constant, never ceasing. I ran up that hill -who knew it was made of molasses? When I arrived at the top, I saw some of the kitchen staff running up the hill from the kitchen garden -they too were caught off guard. At that moment, lightning, which was landing all around us, had struck the large pine tree in front of the yellow house. A spiral burn and missing bark marked the spot, and where it leaped to the wishing well, it lost its shingles. All four of us ran into the nearest building to endure the storm. Never before had I felt so unprepared, so overtaken by a storm, so exposed.

Part of that is being in the mountains, where the woods obfuscates the sky, and the echoes off the hillsides distort what we hear -distorting our judgement. We were later told that this storm produced 20,000 lightning strikes per hour, which accounts for the thunderous march.

The next day, my friend, Tayari, a wonderful writer (and who introduced me to blogging!), wanted to go to town for lunch. I agreed, but a new thunderstorm was building just then. "Just a little thunder," she offered with her sweet Georgia sound before she walked and I jogged to her car. By the time we were on our way to Peterborough, it was clear things were going to get worse. After turning onto main street, the rain was so hard and wind so strong that we could not see in front of us. Then came the hail. I implored Tayari to turn right, into the bank parking lot, where there is a covering. But, honestly, and I think she would concur, she was just shrieking, freaking out, sitting in the middle of the road! She got the gumption to move on, but instead of the bank, pulled into another lot and parked under a tree. We endure 15 minutes of hail, falling branches, me wondering aloud whether or not hail could break the windshield, and crazy, car-rocking wind. I wondered about tornados in New Hampshire. And then we had lunch.

And that's how it is for most of us -tempest, then lunch. Although every now and then, we're awoken to what's possible.

1 comment:

  1. Good stories...

    Amazing that you just got a few raindrops.

    Lightning still makes me duck and scrunch my eyes up; it's just so beautiful, though.


If I do not respond to your comment right away, it is only because I am busy pulling out buckthorn, creeping charlie, and garlic mustard...