Excerpt: 'Weather Matters: An American Cultural History Since 1900,' by Bernard Mergen

Chapter 3, "Seeing Weather," looks at the history of sky awareness, the fascination with clouds, and weather-themed photography, motion pictures, painting, and sculpture. One of the most important developments for understanding our relation with nature in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century may, I think, be found in the work of artists such as Walter De Maria, James Turrell, and Dozier Bell, who strive to use elements of weather to place an observer in a living landscape created by a fusion of science and art. Philosopher Edward Casey's ideas on the meanings of place offer ways to understand how weather may enable us to achieve a sense of harmony with nature. The chapter concludes with a section on the exhibiting of weather in museums and science centers. Chapter 4, "Transcribing Weather," examines the work of more than fifty American poets and novelists who have used weather in various ways to explore the meanings of human existence and our relationships with nature.

The pervasiveness of weather in literature and the arts raises in another way the question of obsession. Are we obsessing on the weather or the idea of weather? The answer, of course, is both, and poems by Wallace Stevens, Richard Hugo, Howard Nemerov, Carol Muske, Naomi Shihab Nye, and others lead us into mental and spiritual towers where real and imaginary winds blow. Weather in the work of novelists--George R. Stewart, Gore Vidal, Rick Moody, Jean Thompson, Clint McCown, Paul Quarrington--is the avatar of chance. Necessity, the laws of science and religion, and freewill, the cornerstone of Western philosophy, are challenged by the chaos of weather.

Chapter 5, "Suffering Weather," looks at the times and places where weather is most troublesome. Episodes of disaster are just part of the story, however, and I am interested in showing how we accommodate and acclimate to everyday weather on our own and with the help of the National Weather Service and the media. I begin the chapter with an account of my own quest to understand the extreme weather obsession of storm chasing. I look at some of the social and cultural meanings of tornadoes and hurricanes, then explore the impact of everyday weather on our lives. Efforts by the air-conditioning industry and the Weather Service to protect us from any weather-caused discomfort only underscore the highly personal meaning of weather. Each of us experiences weather differently. This book is full of quirky facts and eccentric personalities. I sought to bring the past alive by quoting from some of the more colorful commentators on weather. Their anecdotes stand alone.

Nevertheless, there is coherence to the story I tell, and that is that weather is the part of the physical environment closest to us. We are enveloped by air that is the medium for our life and communication. It is so much a part of us, our thoughts, our languages, our feelings, that we are mostly unaware of it, but we ignore it at our peril. Weather is obviously more than what atmospheric science says it is, but how much more?

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