Inclement Weather

I love big weather. Maybe this is because the Willamette Valley is so meteorologically placid. Normally we soldier through the unending January and February days of drizzle simply wondering when, even if, the sun will appear again. This winter we wonder when the drizzle will appear again. Then comes that one special day or week when the stuff really flies, floods, or freezes. Weather doesn't give a rip about human wants or needs; 100-year floods don't care about what we call 100 years or that lovely house over the river, cold fronts descend out of the Arctic whether or not pipes are insulated, cyclones wheel onshore with no deference whatsoever to the condition of one's roof. Humans have a difficult time with this utter lack of compassion, so we try to make the weather attentive to our presence in the universe with emotional headlines: KILLER WINDS and FEROCIOUS FLOODS and BITTER COLD. Truth be told, the uncaring nature of big weather makes us feel small; no longer are we the self-designated masters of our universe. We become instead just another animal struggling to get through.

October 12, 1962. Columbus and his bumbling, disease-ridden crew finally got the tribute they deserved, but this should have been called Freida's Day in honor of the western Pacific cyclone that spawned record-setting winds. They came roaring in on an autumn afternoon when I was 5 years old, too young for fear but fully capable of awe. I stood at the back doorway watching every loose thing careen across the backyard in 100 mph gusts. The electricity blinked off immediately. But the image that remains most vividly isn't really an image. It's a sound. From inside the house I listened to trees on the hillside above giving way under the gale, one after another meeting the ground with a muffled ka-whump. The collective magnitude of their individual deaths was of no concern to my 5-year-old consciousness, though conservative estimates are that the storm took down 11,000,000,000 (yes, that's billion) board feet of timber in the Pacific Northwest. Somehow the large, unprotected Douglas firs below our house remained standing. My paternal grandparents were less fortunate. The back half of their house on Spencer Creek Road southwest of Eugene was splintered by a large big leaf maple. The folks came to stay with us, and for 2 weeks Mom cooked our meals in the living room fireplace.

December 18, 1964-January 7, 1965. We understand rain around here, and people who don't simply leave. But the storms that began in mid-December of my seventh year were special, even by western Oregon standards. Cold rain had fallen on the valley floor in the weeks before, and several feet of snow lay piled in the mountains. Then a mass of warm, wet air moved northeast across the central Pacific Ocean into the region of the Hawaiian Archipelago. The east-flowing jet stream bent south around high pressure in the Arctic and began dragging a narrowing band of soaking wet air toward the Pacific Northwest, the meteorological equivalent of green beans on a high speed cannery conveyer. This Pineapple Express delivered big time, with warm, slashing rain that wouldn't stop. I pulled on green rubber boots and my long yellow rain jacket, the kind with buckles on the front. A small stream was overflowing into the east side of our pasture, turning most of the field into a sheet of milky gray water running gently downhill toward the house. Splashing up to “The Creek,” as we called it, I waded in, watched the normally gentle flow pile up against the back of my boots, and admired the child-caused eddy extending from my legs several feet downstream. I probably went over my boot tops, because that's what kids do. In my 7-year-old world I didn't understand that the warm rain was rapidly stripping the mountains of snow, melting it into huge volumes of water no stream bed could contain. I looked north onto what should have been green pastures on the McKenzie Valley floor and saw instead a vast muddy lake inundating the grass and cottonwood bottom that would eventually contribute to nearly 153,000 flooded acres in the Willamette Valley.

January 25, 1969. Our front yard was already white and squeaky. A few inches of snow had fallen, followed by temperatures well into the teens and highs that didn't clear the twenties for two days. We were happy kids: snow had closed school on Thursday, and frigid temperatures kept the white stuff around, extending our vacation into the weekend. My brothers and I coated the runners of a paintless, gray hand-me-down sled with paraffin, then stamped out a trail on the steep incline at the back of the pasture. The cold, packed snow was fast, and we could generate enough momentum from the back fence at the top of the hill to fly across the flat pasture, past the rickety old barn on the left, picking up a little speed on the gentle downhill into our backyard, and then accelerate down the driveway, finally bringing the sled to a halt at our mailbox on Highway 126. Okay, so we were not overprotected. On Saturday snow began falling again, every flake sticking to the frozen ground, the new storm building in intensity into the night. At first my brothers and I made frequent trips outside to check an upright stick we had placed to measure the “progress,” but by Saturday evening we had given in to the magnitude of the snowstorm. It finally stopped sometime Sunday night, and by Monday morning 3 feet covered the ground in a glorious, pillowy blanket that shut the Willamette Valley down for days. School reopened 2 weeks later, just before my twelfth birthday. We ended that January with a monthly total of over 47 inches of snow on the Willamette Valley floor.

Weather is larger than ever now. But we aren't awestruck children with wind on our faces in yellow rain jackets or snow boots. Rather, we are adults wringing our hands in worry, arguing about ultimate causes, our actions finally subsiding into a status quo that may be intellectually untenable but is emotionally comfortable. We hear about Arctic settlements falling into the sea, Pacific Islander villages inundated by rising oceans, state-size pieces of ice breaking off Antarctica. Maybe the weather is now too large for us, too much of an abstraction despite all the government reports, newscasts, documentaries, and internet comments. We seem unable to respond to meteorological challenges unless they are literally in our faces, whipping up our adrenal glands, sending us into animal action. And of course the deep irony is that the weather may simply be responding ... to us.