Sunday, December 06, 2015

Cold Front

Weather: Some mornings very cold, but some afternoons warm enough, for brief periods, that I could keep my resolution to keep working outside; little rain 11/29.

What’s still green: Juniper, arborvitae, other evergreens; leaves on fernbush, yuccas, grape hyacinth, columbine, catmint, vinca, hollyhock, winecup mallow, pink evening primrose, Saint John’s wort, Jupiter’s beard, snapdragon, coral beardtongue, tansy, yarrow, anthemis, coreopsis, purple and golden hairy asters; rose stems, June, pampas, and cheat grasses.

What’s blue-green or gray: Leaves on Apache plume, four-winged saltbush, snow-in-summer, flax, pinks.

What’s red or purple: Stems on sandbar willow.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geraniums.

Animal sightings: Rabbit.

Weekly update: Two cold fronts passed through this past week. You wouldn’t have known about the one yesterday if the weather service hadn’t told you. As for the one last Sunday, nothing they said would have prepared you.

Clouds began forming in mid-afternoon, with a few sprinkles an hour later. Then, it got dark, and thunder began around 5:15 pm. Not a crack, but a rumble like a truck passing over a wooden bridge coming from the east. No rain. A few minutes later, the windows a little south of the sound lit up. The two alternated for half an hour, each following its own rhythm. The room was continually illuminated.

The rolls invoked memories of my first dramatic storm. I was about nine-years old. My family was driving from Niagara Falls to Pittsburgh through some section of the Pennsylvania mountains.

The rain started. Lightening backlit black mountains. There were no towns, no places to stop. We had to keep going to find a motel. It was the mid-1950s when such things were still rare, and I suspect still are in that area.

That trip through the dark became associated with two things: coal and "Rip Van Winkle." The one must have come from school where we had been told about dinosaurs and how they had been transformed into coal. Those were the classes that sparked so many boys’ lifelong passions.

For me, it was the geology. I knew it had all happened in Pennsylvania, and there we were driving through that state. I knew coal was black, and there we were in the dark driving under darker shapes. I imagined some dramatic process. And there we were in a storm.

Geologists still think in those terms. Why else do they search for causes of a sudden extermination by impact with an asteroid?

I’m not sure if I knew about "Rip" then, or later. Another dim memory is reading a simple version in a children’s book given to me. But, was it on a train to Chicago, or was it on the plane we took from Pittsburgh a day or so later?

It wasn’t fear that imprinted that storm in my memory, but wonder. It was pure experience, unfiltered by acculturation. Images came after the fact.

As I mentioned in a post for 10 November 2013 about another unusual round of thunder, adults aren’t comfortable with visits by nature. We seek instant explanations that reduce them to the familiar, render them insignificant.

A friend asked a meteorologist about last Sunday’s storm, and was told it was cloud-to-cloud lightening, not cloud-to-ground. Something as true and irrelevant as knowing dinosaurs coexisted with ferns, and it’s the fern prints that are found in coal mines.

Most cold fronts, like the one that passed through yesterday, happen somewhere else. We might get some winds or a sudden drop in temperature, but nothing more.

Last Sunday, we must have been in the cold front. I have no idea at what altitude such cold air moves. It doesn’t matter much when you’re at sea level. But here we pass through clouds on our way from our 6,000' to Santa Fé’s 7,000' somewhere on Opera Hill.

My image is the boundary between two air masses, for that’s all a front is according to the Weather Service, was low and we were in the clouds. That lightening was passing around us, or rather just to the east of us. The thunder came from the boundary itself, not from the accompanying lightening.

And how can a boundary be a thing, if it’s a transition between two masses? It must have some mass, the same way that sudden extinction took eons. Our language obscures realities.

I wondered about "Rip Van Winkle." I hadn’t read the story since college, and wasn’t even sure my image came from it. When I went on line and googled "Washington Irving" and "Nine-pins" I saw a reference that said, "the balls of the ninepins symbolize cannon balls and the thunder is the explosion of the artillery of cannons" from some Revolutionary war battle.

Again, so many words to protect us from experience. I don’t doubt Irving was discussing changes caused by independence; he was politically conservative. But, he was doing something more.

The story’s first paragraph is about the Kaatskill Mountains. "Every change of season, every change of weather, indeed, every hour of the day, produces some change in the magical hues and shapes of these mountains" was written by someone who’d been there.

Rip wanders high into the mountains, where "now and then heard the long rolling peals, like distant thunder, that seemed to issue out of a deep ravine, or rather cleft, between lofty rocks."

An old man carrying a keg passes and asks for help. They go through the cleft into "a small hollow, like a small amphitheatre, surrounded by perpendicular precipices" where old men are playing nine-pins. "The noise of the balls, which, whenever they were rolled, echoed along the mountains like rumbling peals of thunder"

Rip drinks from the keg, falls asleep, and wakens twenty years later.

The rest of the story parallels one’s experience of a storm so dramatic it imprints an image. One searches for a way to remember it.

We tend to go deep into the past for the words, not our own prenatal pasts, but the mythic past. I thought of coal, Irving thought of Hendrick Hudson who both explored the river flowing through the New York mountains, and was set adrift by a mutinous crew on a southern part of Hudson’s Bay never to be seen again. The grandeur of the one merged with the terror of the other, the way things do in our sub-literate minds.

The preliminary story of Rip’s nagging wife and the posthumous legend of Hudson were so much narrative dressing to make acceptable the central experience of the tale: the experience of a storm or cold front at altitudes high enough to be merged into it.

Notes: "Rip Van Winkle Essay."

Irving, Washington. "Rip Van Winkle," The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., 1819.

Photographs: Coal waste south of Madrid, 17 September 2011.

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