The Voice of Thunder

In 1963 my father bought a black Dodge 330 with a V8 engine and a pushbutton transmission. It was a hideous looking thing, but it was the perfect car for long trips. For the next three years my brothers and I spent our summer vacations in the back seat of that car traveling through America. During the first trip we stayed in motels, then in 1964 my dad purchased a bounty of camping gear, including a huge 10’x10′ tent from Sears, and we slept in the National Parks of the Southwest and California. Ted William’s face was benevolently presented on all the camping and fishing gear produced by Sears in those days.
I spent hours staring at the landscape from the backseat of the car as the scenery passed. At times the land was endless and vacant and moved outside the window leisurely. But in the Midwest I witnessed real thunderstorms for the first time in my life. I had experienced the East Coast variety many times from the safety of the living room window, but they were nothing like the vast fronts of weather that ramble and rumble across the heart of the continent.
In the Plains you can see the thunderheads building up from miles away, towering far up into the sky like vast creatures of vapor. They move across the ground with deliberate purpose, grey rain descending beneath them as if they were squeezing power out of the clouds and saturating the land with it. Once, in Indiana, I popped out of the door of the motel room to watch the cascade of gushing rain and realized that the air was electric and that the hair was standing out on my forearms. The atmosphere was charged with something that was greater than mere weather. The electricity was crackling scant feet above my head and something immense was raging like a crazy beast.
What was that sound?
Throughout those trips I saw thunderheads in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Montana, and Wyoming. The storms were ominous. The beaded silver line of road stretched ahead of us for hundreds of miles. Squalls rolled across the earth relentlessly while the brown and purple landscape stood underneath them willingly, receiving the full brunt of the storms. It is impossible to describe the broad attributes of the Great Plains. The sky there is a larger sky. It is a land fully impregnated with the grandeur and power of nature. Any living being moving on the surface of the landscape must move with respect and the certainty of its own smallness. There is nothing that one can do except to take shelter and watch in amazement as the storm passes. I would never want to be caught out in weather like that without a solid roof over my head.
At the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, I heard the serious declarations of the storms. In August the weather arrived every afternoon. What had been a sky of fathomless blue became a turmoil of rain. The pitch of the thunder rolled sonorously through the Canyon, resonating for minutes on end, each clap hardly subsiding before the next one took its place. It was wondrous to sit in the enormous blue tent and play checkers with my brothers while the rain was beating on the canvas and the thunder roared as if it was never going to stop.
It was not until I grew up that I recognized that the voice of the thunder was a voice of divinity that had been speaking for many long years, and many lifetimes, and that it was a source of creativity and imagination. I’ve recently been thinking about the power of nature as the rain has been coming down in torrents in Northern California. We so easily overlook the weather. Because of the long drought I think we have gotten complacent, both as individuals and as a body politic. The current troubles up in Oroville reflect that. I admit to some smugness as well. This last weekend I travelled down to visit some old pals who live in Santa Cruz. I was planning to stay the entire President’s Day weekend, but headed home a day early because there was a strong chance that I would have been stuck down there when the most recent storm lashed the coast. Even though I know better and have memories of being trapped there in 1982 (which was the last time I can remember the winter weather being as intense as it has been this year) I was still taken by surprise by needing to head home. I managed to sneak away on Highway 17 before it was shut down again on Monday and spent the next 24 hours listening to the power of the rain and the wind lash my own backyard.
We take so much for granted in our lives. California, like all those states in the Plains, is really a wild place. Earthquakes, thunderstorms, snow, fog, coastal tides and tsunamis; all of that has always been here and for the last two hundred years or so clever human beings have devised ways to alleviate the effects of heavy weather. For several years we have been in severe drought and we had forgotten about all the dams, spillways, levees and bridges that are part of the infrastructure that we have developed to be able to live comfortably in an environment that will kill us if we forget how dominant it really is.
Our American Consciousness is fascinated by apocalyptic disaster. Years ago when I read Mike Davis’s book Ecology of Fear I recognized that fascination within myself. We can’t help ourselves really. When we see stories of floods and fire on the news it’s impossible to tear ourselves away from the information stream. Americans (and I am one of them) love a good disaster story, especially when it’s not happening to us. While we have grown more generous and compassionate about these things over the years, we always feel lucky when we personally have avoided catastrophe. Yet we always toy with the idea: what if it happened to me? What would I do? When we confront the insensible voices of the natural world we are reminded of our own mortality. If we are wise enough, we can see it doesn’t take much to snuff us out and that we should be careful, live joyfully and be grateful for the time we spend on this planet.
My greyhound, Finn, is much smarter than I am. Usually when I visit my friends in Santa Cruz and bring him along he settles down and sleeps for hours on end just as he does when we are at home. But on this visit he was underfoot and in the way, restless and a tad annoying. He was much relieved when he realized I was packing the car for an early return. He slept in the back of the car throughout the entire return journey, and when we got back he headed upstairs to his big fluffy bed and was out like a light for hours. He knew exactly what was going on, and that a big storm was coming. Like all domesticated animals, he lives on the edge of the Wild and knows that’s where he came from. It’s his origin. He has respect for it and no time at all for disaster movies and other fantastic entertainments.
“Yeah it’s a nice ocean. Now let’s go home.”


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