Seeing Through Storms

I'm a nerd when it comes to weather. Perhaps it's because I grew up in Oklahoma and Kansas, where weather is (rightfully) a major conversation topic. I love watching the radar on the weather app. I love seeing the deep greens and bright yellows and reds when rain and thunderstorms move through. In the winter I geek out over the massive storms that bring rain and snow to my state (California) and I often put a bucket out on our back porch to measure the rainfall. 

Growing up in the Midwestern plains, I loved a good thunderstorm. I loved the way a hot, humid day would give way to billowing thunderclouds: towering Cumulonimbus puffs that morphed into ominous UFOs in the darkening sky. I loved the way a cold front brought in a line of foreboding gray, intruding upon sunny days with sheets of rain, hail, lightening and thunder that shook the whole house and flickered the lights. 

I often marveled at the clear definition on radar of a huge line of storms, sometimes stretching from Texas to Illinois, moving across the land like a giant, invisible push broom... clearing away the heavy air and washing away the trash. Indeed, one of the beauties of storms is that they bring clarity. In Kansas the post-storm air was always a bit cooler, crisper, thinner. In California the post-storm air is less smoggy. The views of the San Gabriel Mountains are always clearer after the rain. The fragrances of nature are amplified after the rain, whether it be wet pinecones or citrus blossoms. 

Of course storms don't only bring sensory beauty. They also bring life. Their rains quench drought-ridden lands and revive faltering ecosystems. This has been profoundly displayed this year in California, where a year of record rainfall has ended a historic drought

But storms don't only bring relief. They also bring pain. Storms leave damage in their wake, and often death. Those drought-ending storms in California this year? They also destroyed bridges, dams and roads, like the chunk of the Pacific Coast Highway that was recently buried by a landslide.

This is the paradox of nature: it brings life, but not in a safe way. There are often casualties. Trees are uprooted. Power lines go down. Homes are destroyed. Lives lost. But somewhere there are fields and trees and farmers rejoicing, given a new lease on life from the same storm. 

There is a scene in Peter Weir's film Master and Commander that captures well the dual nature of storms. In the scene, the British ship HMS Surprise (captained by Russell Crowe) is pursuing the French ship, the Acheron, in the midst of a rollicking storm. Recognizing that the winds of the storm could provide extra momentum if the ship's sails can properly catch it, sailors are sent up the mast to secure flapping sails. One of the sailors, Warley, is knocked overboard, however, along with a piece of the ship's mast. Flailing in the violent sea, Warley desperately swims toward the wreckage, which is still connected to the main ship by rope, dragging down the ship.

The captain decides the rope must be cut, even if it means Warley will be lost. And so as the orchestral swells of Ralph Vaughan Williams rise alongside the ominous swells of the stormy sea, we watch as the rope is cut and the ship is set free, able to move forward in the wind. In one shot we see Warley, a gradually smaller speck in the sea who is then finally out of view, lost to the deep. And in the next shot we see the ship's crew cheering beneath deck, unaware of what had transpired above deck. All they know is the ship is freed and moving forward again. A life has been lost, but others are saved. 

Such is the nature of nature. It has two faces. It nurtures life on the one hand and threatens it on the other. When storms come, we may cheer for our parched land. But we must also take shelter. Because while storms can save, they can also be savage.

This is true as well for the metaphorical storms of life. They can be brutal and relentless. But when these hard times come they often bring a clarifying force, like the cold front pushing out the smog. Is there wreckage in their wake? Yes, often. Is there a need to repair, rebuild, and clean up? Yes, and it's hard. But storms are a necessary fact of life, bracing and beautiful but never as strong or certain as the sun.