Never mind the calendar. On the Texas coast, summer shimmers into being when she will, and when she arrives, the signs are everywhere.
Store shelves begin to be emptied of Gatorade and bottled water. Bandanas and straw hats appear. Yard workers stop more often to wipe their faces, and even the Ladies Who Lunch begin to sweat. They don’t “perspire” or “glow,” as proper Southern ladies should. They sweat right along with the yard crews, and they do it at nine in the morning.
Soon, it becomes too hot to walk barefooted on a boat deck or dock. The sharp, metallic trill of cicadas replaces birdsong, and rueful humans can’t resist asking one another,”Hot enough for you?” It’s summer for sure, no matter what the calendar says.
Summer’s the time for boat varnishers to grump and moan, and envy the divers. Brushes come out only in the early morning, as soon as the dew dries, or in the gentler, falling evening light. Afternoons are for sanding, or working in sheds. If a piece of wood can be carried away to the shade of a tree, all the better.
Occasionally, a mallard or two shows up to demand a portion of that grassy shade. Ducks are especially companionable when their natural shyness is overcome by their own need for relief from the heat. With no sweat glands to cool them, the ducks ruffle their feathers, then pant like dogs through opened bills. Eventually, their eyes begin to droop, and they drift into sleep.
While the mallards dream, a great blue heron wades at the water’s edge, spreading its wings, looking for all the world like an impatient mother with her arms akimbo. Smaller green herons skitter along the docks, seeking their own relief on swinging, shadowed lines. Even the mullet seem to be gasping for air, skimming the surface of the water, wide-mouthed and wide-eyed, synchronized teams of fishy swimmers.
For the lucky ones, clinging humidity gives way to seabreeze showers, or the lovely, bubbling clouds of summer that rise as if by magic, gathering, scattering and subsiding as they rain themselves out on the horizon.
Each season heralds its coming with such subtle but readable signs. Long before October’s first frontal passage, whiffs of autumn smoke float and whirl on the wind. Tropical moisture subsides, the sun lowers in the sky, and afternoon light sparkles like newly-blown glass.
The first coot arrives, silent and gray, a token of winter’s monotone days. Bay waters settle and clear, even as blue-green fingers of Gulf water reach ever more closely toward shore. Eventually, the great flocks arrive — snow geese and cranes, pelicans, teal, and winter-fleeing folk from the north, all of them settling down onto the coast as easily as autumn’s final leaf. In time, they begin to stir, moved to action by increasing light and warmth, and the spring trek northward begins.
Twenty years ago, I was no more attuned to these seasonal cycles than I was appreciative of weather. As a new varnisher, I considered weather to be the enemy, and we skirmished constantly. My earliest lessons were unhappy ones: fresh varnish attracts rain like a magnet; smooth, mirror-like coatings turn milky with dew; shifting winds bearing pollen or grit blow away profits as well.
Trying to stay ahead of the next weather crisis, I obsessed over local forecasts like I’d lost good sense. I knew the name of every reporter on The Weather Channel, and spent hours studying the charts on internet weather sites as though they mapped hidden treasure. All the while, heat, wind, and humidity wreaked havoc with my work.
One day, in a fit of frustration and pique, I thought to myself, “I can do better than this.” I turned off The Weather Channel, left the forecasters to ponder their radars alone, and went out into the world.
I began to watch clouds rather than television. I listened to the winds, and judged time by the sun. I learned to recognize the sea breeze, and smell a coming rain. I watched weather systems announce themselves with tendrils of cirrus or a haloed moon, rather than by scrolls across the bottom of a screen.
Winds told their own stories, carrying pollution from the southwest, cedar pollen from the north, the soot of burning cane from Louisiana. I discovered that even the fog can be read, its comings and goings predicted with such remarkable accuracy that varnishing in a blowing sea fog isn’t impossible.
Still, knowing what’s possible and what isn’t is tricky. You can’t depend solely on historical averages, statistical probabilities or theoretical constructs in your decision-making. You have to learn weather the same way you learn a person: by living in relationship. Being attentive to shifting moods, cognizant of quirks, and accepting of the occasional surprise is critical.
In certain respects, learning to know the weather resembles learning someone’s heart. You can discover a good bit by taking blood pressure, measuring oxygen levels, using a stethescope, or performing EKGs and stress tests. In the process, you can learn almost everything about the physical nature of a given heart.
But nothing in those lab reports, scans, or physical exams will tell you anything at all about what we call the “heart” of a person: their courage and fears, their joys, their willingness to persevere, sacrifice, fail, and begin again. No machine in the world can measure such things.
If I were to fall victim to a heart attack, I certainly would want the best machines providing information, just as I’d want someone with the requisite knowledge and skills to interpret the results. But when it came time to talk about those results and decide on a good next step, I wouldn’t want a pile of printouts to study. I’d want to talk to a person: someone who knows my heart, advising me on how to treat my heart. Two different processes, two kinds of knowing.
Here on the Gulf Coast, the meteorological equivalent of a heart attack is the hurricane. No matter how many storms the experts predict in a given year, people understand that it takes only one instance of “Rain with a Name” to destroy communities and disrupt lives.
There’s no doubt we know more about the underlying causes of weather phenomena than ever before. The science of forecasting has improved, along with our ability to model future possibilities. But no matter the quality of our science, no matter how impressive our factual knowledge, we’re often wrong about the final track of a storm. We’ve learned, to our chagrin, that we can’t know everything there is to know about weather by analyzing data.
Those who depend solely on data to make their predictions often appear fussy and argumentative, comparing notes and dissecting theories in a twenty-first century version of shaking beaded gourds to ward off the storm gods. But the best forecasters, the ones whose predictions I trust, add sense and experience to the mix, understanding that the science of it all never fully contains the mystery and scope of the atmosphere that surrounds us.
Certainly, I’m as interested in weather science as anyone. When this year’s next disturbance swirls up, I’ll be right there, talking steering currents in the café and dropsonde data in gas station parking lots. I’ll refer to buoys by name, and dissect computer models as though understanding their mysteries confers power to steer the winds.
Even as I do, memories of storms already experienced will be haunting my mind. The strangely-colored sky before Alicia, steel-gray and citron, the slowly rotating edge of Humberto, the silent, implacable, and mostly ignored rising waters in bayous and creeks days before Ike — all point to forces larger than our technologies.
But for now, those forces seem quiet. The coast itself, fragile and lovely, builds and erodes with the tides. In this lull between what has been and what yet may come, we have time to turn off the computer, walk away from the television, and turn our backs on our gadgets. We have the freedom to put away the charts and graphs, forget the models, ignore the ceaseless stream of information that innundates our lives, and go outdoors.
Wherever you are, whatever your season, take the time. Yield to the wind’s embrace. Rejoice in the humidity. Disappear into the fog. Accept the heat. Describe to yourself the color of the sky, the shape of the clouds, the weight of the air.
This attentiveness, this engagement, this immersion through the senses allows a different way of knowing, a different path toward understanding our natural world. Walking that path, we may be granted a glimpse of our world’s heart, a heart still beating steadily and strong, in rhythm with an ages-old song.