On Monday, here in Orange, California, the temperature was an ovenly 107 degrees. The heat outside was intense and palpable. It didn’t cling like the humid Julys in Illinois, but encompassed the body. The day before, some of our friends were huddled under blankets, bundled in jackets, shivering in the annual fall chill at Wrigley Field. The air blowing off Lake Michigan was a September-balmy 45 degrees or so. Unlike anywhere else we’ve lived, darkness in Southern California brings relief from the day’s heat. In the wake of that scorcher on Monday, the temperature dropped to 69 in the middle of the night.
As we reminisced about Illinois weather patterns, we realized that, as children, we both watched the handsome Flip Spiceland on WCIS, before his gig in CNN’s early decades. Talking about the weather this week, in a way we hadn’t in a very long time, reminded Doug of his 7th-grade assignment to learns the names, types, and functions of clouds. Anna, even younger than that, checked out a little book about clouds from her grade-school library and recounted her new knowledge to her father as they drove for hours in the big blue station wagon to Wisconsin. The memory lingered vividly enough that she wrote a poem about it, called “A Theory of Formation.”
As kids, we liked that we could look to the skies and put names to what we saw, that we could categorize. Cumulus clouds were those heaping mounds rolling from the West. Cirrus, those high, wispy things. We could tell which might bring rain: nimbostratus pulling itself over our landscape like a gray sheet. We liked the sounds of the cloud names, how cumulonimbus could roll off our young tongues. We like these words even now.
When transplants to California like us struggle to make sense of the weather here, it is partly the lack of wide variation. The high and low temperature in a single day can be separated by 40 degrees, but a 40-degree shift from one day’s high to the next day’s high would be very unusual. In the first three weeks of September here, the high daily temperature varied from 73 to 86. During that same time in Chicago, the highs varied from 67 to 83. That looks to be just about the same. But it’s not. The Midwest temperatures are trending downward now. Still relatively new to California, we can’t sense the subtle weather trends here, so we tend to think it’s all the same, except for the exceptions like Monday’s heat wave.
The clouds—or lack of many or varied cloud formations—compound our lack of sensitivity. In late spring and early summer, there exists a marine layer phenomenon here, in which the ocean cools the air and a fog rolls inland over miles of the coast. Locals call this June gloom. We found this term hysterical when we first heard it, for this was the brightest gloom we’d ever seen. We wore sunglasses on these gloomy mornings. And the gloom burned off by lunchtime.
Technology always removes us further from our environment. If we had awakened on Russian steppes a couple of hundred years ago, we would have turned our noses in the air or watched our livestock and known what to expect from the impending weather. Anna’s grandfather would go out into his backyard, lick his finger and hold it up, and declare what the weather would be. No one took him particularly seriously, not even him. But some modern men remain obsessed by and attentive to the weather. From his kitchen window at the same time each day, Doug’s grandfather meticulously recorded the temperature and rainfall in notebooks, for years at a time. Those scratches in his notebooks marked time and seasons in one spot on Earth, an accurate record of the environment that was never used for anything more than that.
Before we wrap up this post entirely, we must note that September 29 is a day chockfull of events in the larger record. Here are a few scratches in our notebook:
- In its return to space after the Challenger disaster, the Space Shuttle Discovery launched STS-26 in 1988.
- In 2004, Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne flew the first space flight of two required to win the X Prize.
- In 1954, the convention establishing the European Organization for Nuclear Research—CERN—was signed.
- Today is Enrico Fermi’s birthday. This Nobel Laureate in Physics was born in 1901. (This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics will be named on Tuesday.)
- It’s the anniversary of W.H. Auden’s death. He died in 1973, at the age of 66. From “As I Walked Out One Evening”: “The glacier knocks in the cupboard, / The desert sighs in the bed.”