“Weather,” says Barry Boyce, “has near magical power as a symbol of the changeability that is at the heart of our experience.”
Never in human history have more people been more aware of the weather more of the time—and yet more thoroughly resistant to the nature of weather itself. From within climate-controlled homes and offices, to which we travel in two-ton protective shells, we can tune into the weather channel, we can dial up the weather line, we can get the hourly weather report on the radio or we can monitor the weather from thousands of sites on the Internet.
The weather on TV is brought to us by one of two main varieties of presenter: the goofy guy or the willowy woman. Weather aspires to the common denominator of all dynamic phenomena today, from war to the economy: the spectator sport. We want to sit back at a safe remove and root for our home team, the Mild Sunny Days.
Weather is the ubiquitous conversation starter with friends and strangers alike. With strangers it is sometimes the sole topic. When we talk with someone long distance we frequently find out the weather, and naturally before we land the pilot is going to tell us the weather at our destination. In spite of how trite it is to converse about the weather, it will always be so. It is just such a convenient touchstone, because it is the ultimate and common backdrop for our earthly existence.
It’s not surprising, then, that weather should be a frequent metaphor for our condition or our state of mind. We speak of someone’s sunny disposition or of clouds on the horizon, of stormy times and foggyheadedness. Weather is the source of that most hackneyed of gothic devices, the sympathetic fallacy, whereby a writer or filmmaker imparts a mood through a change in the weather. The villain stalks his prey in the midst of crackling thunder and jagged lightning. The funeral is conducted in a gray gloomy downpour. The sunlight breaks through the clouds just as our protagonist emerges from her struggle into the clear light of redemption.
Although it is a fallacy that we—as the central characters in the drama of our lives—conjure weather that mirrors our mood, weather has near magical power as a symbol of the changeability that is at the heart of our experience. It can be a great teacher about the fixity we strive for in the face of ever-changing reference points. Things were going so well, and then…
We all want good weather. By the age of thirty, we have more than 10,000 days worth of experience that tells us that weather will change without notice, that clear can turn into cloudy like that, that weather is a harsh master that can scuttle the best laid plans and lay waste to the castles we’ve erected in the sand. We only needed Aesop’s fable of the sun and the wind to know that we are powerless in the face of the greater force of our environment, but somehow the message never took. We persist in the near fanatical attachment to pleasing weather: not too hot, not too cold, not too wet, not too dry, not too windy, not too calm.
If we have the means, we can pursue the life of the contra-seasonal tourist, searching for the weather condition that suits our temperament. There’s a certain reasonability to that. Many birds do after all fly south for the winter. Yet the birds do not bring to it the burden of searching for paradise away from home. That requires a human level of intelligence.
Our persistent desire for good weather is the underlying assumption at the bottom of most weather reports, travel agency posters and bus stop conversations. At bottom, though, it’s a death wish. From the comfort of our armchairs, we long not to see a rainy day, ignoring the fact that rain is a great life-giving force. We eschew snow because it’s a pain to shovel and makes driving difficult, but in the parts of the world that need it, a snowless winter can be devastating to the crops and the water table. Whom the gods wish to punish, they grant their fondest wishes. The polar ice cap is melting. The Great Lakes are at a dangerously low stage.
When human beings were less shielded from the elements, they also knew that so called “bad weather” is a part of the cycle, a part that brings many gifts. It wasn’t for nothing that they worshiped the god of rain. Weather also offers the element of surprise. A harsh storm rolls in and shocks us, but when we wake up from it, a kind of calm and resignation prevails. I’ll never forget the quietude and camaraderie that overtook Boston in the wake of the blizzard of 1978. People went cross-country skiing down Commonwealth Avenue, which is normally the preserve of harried commuters and rush hour traffic. Inclement weather has its own aesthetic. There’s no pace quite like that of falling snow, no landscape like that of a high meadow with hale bouncing off it, no earth mover like a gully washer.
On a deeper level, our addiction to wishful thinking about good weather mixes with a psychological desire for constant smooth sailing. But what the weather is trying to tell us is to take the changes as they come. When it’s sunny, it’s sunny. When it’s stormy, it’s stormy. Real bad weather comes from wishing it to be otherwise.