The Ancient Modern
Local Weather / Joshua Alan Sturgill
The Summer before my twelfth birthday, my family moved to from Ohio to Kansas and I became aware of the sky.
There are many kinds of awareness, and perhaps they are really only distinguished by contrast. Naturally, I knew aboutthe sky; my elementary school science classes gave me words like “cumulous” and “atmosphere.” But in my early years in Ohio, the weather was predictable, often grey, often rainy. Urban structures cluttered my view of the horizon, so my attention was given to close things—to trees, houses, rocks, to streets and alleys. The sky was present, but distant. Weather came and went more or less on schedule, without the need to pay much attention.
Our first few weeks in Kansas felt uprooted and unanchored as my parents shopped for a house. In contrast to the weather in Ohio, the Kansas Summer reached endlessly high temperatures described, with typical local humor, as “116 degrees—but only 114 in the shade.”
It was the kind of brutal heat that feels like a wall when you leave your house and turns cars into ovens. A local mechanic told us that every August tire sales go up because the roads become so hot as treading comes loose or tires simply burst on the highway.
The sound of cicadas and the heavy feel of the heat fused together, like the cicadas were gasping or complaining, or comparing this year’s high temperatures to last year’s.
I kept wondering from where all this heat came. Kansas isn’t that much farther south, latitudinally, than Ohio. But Ohio, even on the hottest days, has some cloud cover, and a break is on the way. Not so on the prairie. Weeks of glaring, furnace-like conditions weighed on our new hometown. Grass withered, trees faded, water use was rationed.
But sunsets in Kansas were spectacular, and there were easy ways to see them. Our new house had a tall roof, and I could climb up and catch the changes in the evening sky. The sunsets seemed to go on for hours, and when conditions were just right, the sky would continue to glow orange long after the sun had sunk beneath the horizon.
That first Summer was such a change. But we found we had to adjust to Winter, too, and Spring was altogether a revelation.
In Winter, there seemed an inconsistency in the temperature to which I wasn’t accustomed—as if Kansas was a place that simply got everyone else’s leftover weather. A week of deep cold, then a week we could go out in shorts, then back to cold. Older folks told us that “there used to be a lot of snow.” But the snow in Kansas came one day and melted the next. Snowmen and snow forts wouldn’t stand for long, and there weren’t nearby hills for sledding—even if the snow stayed around long enough.
Also, it wasn’t the right kind of snow for sledding. I didn’t know there were different kinds of snow. Ohio snow was always wet and slushy, good for building and good for sledding once it was packed down a bit. Kansas snow was sometimes “dry” and sometimes wet, and often there was no snow at all, only “sleet”—which I think is just a name for tiny hail.
What happens in the sky to bring all these different kinds of precipitation together in one place? I know now that there are specialists who study the conditions in which various weather is produced, but as a kid, it was all a mystery and a marvel.
Just like the heat of Summer brought beautiful sunsets, often on the coldest Winter nights the sky would suddenly clear and become dazzling with stars. In my mind, I pictured that the sky was so cold it had frozen into a giant lens, magnifying the starlight. Ohio nights were too cloudy, with too many street lamps. But rural Kansas was a great place for seeing the constellations clearly enough to learn their names and their travel habits. I discovered Polaris—small and dim, but so important—by following the bucket of the big dipper. The stars were bright enough that I understood for the first time how many there are. I understood why and how they were once seen as portraits, not mere connect-the-dot suggestions.
But The most spectacular celestial revelation—I could say apocalypse!—came with Spring.
“Tornado season” the locals say blithely—meaning the time of year when, occasionally, warm air from Texas gets underneath cold air from the Dakotas, and they try to change places. Whether or not it’s true, the two blankets of air are said to drain into each other, and just like in a bathtub, the drain forms a funnel.
Ohio has a lot of tornadoes, too, and some are destructive. But tornadoes that form on the Great Plains, by huge weather fronts undisturbed by mountain geography, are simply massive. When I heard stories, I pictured tornadoes rushing around, unrestrained—baby, rodent hurricanes.
I suppose mile-wide is smaller than a hurricane, but it’s enough to sweep a whole midwestern town right off the map. The tornado that swept through Kansas that Spring was one of those giants I’d read about in my encyclopedia. It didn’t hit our town, but it came close, and was accompanied by hailstones the size of softballs.
When the sirens went off (for the third or fourth time that month) we did what all our neighbors taught us to do: we went out on the front porch to have a look at the sky.
Green sky. That’s when it’s serious. There’s a particular muddy-cat-puke green around the edges of all the clouds and an electric tension in the air, eerie and ominous.
Since we didn’t have a basement, the kind folks next door showed us where their spare house key was so we could use theirs in case of emergency. We leashed the dog and crated the cat and walked over and knocked on the door. “I don’t think they’re here,” dad said, pointing to the empty driveway.
We let ourselves in and went down an old wooden staircase into the cool dark our neighbors used for storage and woodworking projects. I upended a mop bucket and stood on it to see out one of the small ground-level windows out toward the street.
Wind blew wildly. The Elms and hackberries on our block appeared to be dancing. Leaves, trash and debris raced up and down the pavement. When the storm really hit, it came first as sheets of rain in a kind of rhythmic pattern, then rain mixed with hail. The light kept dimming and brightening again. I could look up just enough to see clouds swirling very quickly in all directions above us. Lightning, thunder, and bursts of wind which made anything loose on the house bang and rattle and shook power lines around like whips.
Suddenly, the rain stopped, and first on, then five, then hundreds of hailstones fell out of the sky—those good-gracious, mythical, softball-sized hailstones I’d read about. Where they landed in the yard, they bounced up again several feet so that in a moment my whole field of vision looked exactly like a popcorn popper—loud, white, chaotic, almost joyful.
The giant hail didn’t last long, but soon covered everything like chunky frosting. The wind settled, but I kept looking up at the wraith-like grey clouds spinning around each other, threatening but never forming a spiral.
We decided the storm was past, and walked back. I picked up the largest hailstone I could find and put it in the freezer. Over the next few days, I examined it closely. It was a concretion—a geological term I learned as a kid in Ohio, where there are a lot of formations like this. I could see a lot of individual, round hailstones, all sizes, which seemed to have melted or frozen into a larger stone. The little hailstones and the icy “mortar” holding them together were all different shades of white and grey. Some were clear as glass, some milky and opaque.
My hailstone lived in our freezer for several months, but sublimated—another elementary school science word—until it was completely gone.
The tornado had landed about 20 miles from us. It hit a business district and a trailer park in a town not much larger than ours. And, as usual, stories of the aftermath followed in its wake. A lady who lived down the street from us was outside about a half hour after the storm, clearing fallen tree branches from her driveway. A lone hailstone flew out of the sky and hit her so hard it dislocated her shoulder and she had her arm in a sling for several weeks.
I remember driving down the highway a day or two later and seeing a smashed car up in a tree. It was so bizarre, so out of place, I didn’t realize at first what it was. My brain told me it was a twisted branch, then that it was a billboard, then that it was someone’s idea of tornado humor. But we passed it a few times before it was taken down. A car in a tree! It’s since become embedded in my imagination as the symbolic image of the clash of nature and technology.
These years around my twelfth birthday were difficult. I didn’t like Kansas, I didn’t like rural life; it took a long time to make new friends. But Kansas gave me a gift I continue to appreciate: it made me aware of the sky, of stars, heat, storms, unpredictability. I learned to love weather, seasons, rainbows, drought and humidity.
Since Prairie people are in the business of growing food, they understand the importance of looking to the earth. But they also know they live under very moody, very beautiful weather. Perhaps this is one of the reasons religious faith is strong here, and why the God they describe is also moody and also beautiful.
In Kansas, the simplicity of the landscape strongly contrasts the temperament of the weather.
And the sense that life is unpredictable, vast and varied, is every day confirmed by the sky.