A friend of fair weather

Human Nature

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Earlier this week, my parents told me they experienced 93-degree weather and hazelnut-sized hail — both at the same time. They sent me a picture of the hail pieces: oddly round, milky chunks of ice, already melting from the intense heat of the day. 

It seemed like such an odd combination, disconcerting in the way that a sunny rainstorm just doesn’t make sense. Hail on its own is a rare occurrence — in Central Oregon at least — but this only makes it all the more memorable when it suddenly appears.

I remember spending time at a friend’s house one middle school summer afternoon when a sudden hailstorm pummeled the earth with what looked like thousands of tiny white pellets. I distinctly remember us racing outside to meet the storm, screaming and laughing and running through the thick but relatively harmless sheets of falling ice. We relished the way the tiny balls of ice stung our skin and watched them melt within seconds upon contact with the warm asphalt. 

Although my memories associated with hail are positive and lighthearted — quite reflective of the relatively light and inconsequential hail I’ve experienced — it’s undeniable that more extreme hailstorms can cause extensive destruction. They can break windows, damage houses and pummel cars in mere seconds. The immense and transient power of weather events, while sometimes delightful and exciting, can also be a terrifying reminder of the force and unpredictability of nature. 

But while the weather is not subject to human control, that doesn’t stop us, myself included, from wanting the weather to behave a certain way and meet our expectations. 

For example, the Deschutes County Fairgrounds are, in my mind, the only place where it is acceptable and necessary for temperatures to be exceedingly hot. Although I generally enjoy feeling cold, a county fair is not the place for cool weather. I want to crave the sickly sweet and tart, but gloriously icy fairground lemonade and sit in the shade of the canvas tents offered to fairgoers. It just isn’t the county fair if it isn’t overwhelmingly hot.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, rain always makes me feel melancholy, but in an oddly satisfying way. I love to stand outside to smell the sagebrush around my house right after it rains, and just the thought of the smell of a rainy day in Bend, Oregon puts me at ease.

But if weather is so powerful in shaping our physical and emotional landscapes, why, then, is it often so deeply overlooked? 

In everyday conversation, weather is the mundane topic you resort to when there is nothing else to say. In reality, though, the weather is anything but mundane! It is this ambient, often intangible, but deeply impactful force that sets the stage for all human-nature interactions.

The way I dress, the foods that are grown and that I am able to eat, the way I feel when I look or go outside — it’s all influenced by weather. 

Even thinking about where I currently live in the Bay Area, I have grown accustomed to 70-degree temperatures and crisp mornings that remind me of the ones I’ve experienced during camping trips, as though the chilly air is just a tent flap away from me. Here, the seasons go by almost unnoticed, as most days fluctuate within a narrow temperature window, with fog and clouds nearly year-round. 

In contrast, my parents have grown accustomed to temperatures in the 90s, dry soil that requires intensive irrigation if anything is to grow and gnarled juniper tree roots that siphon off most of the nearby water in the ground. There, winter and summer are often separated by 40 or 50 degrees and mild spring and fall seasons. 

I have acclimatized to the Bay Area and recalibrated my sense of “normal” weather to what I know to be the norm here in the East Bay. But I have done all of this unconsciously. All I notice are the change in conditions, the startling jolts to my system and what seems to be unnatural. 

Thinking about our perception of weather reminds me of something I learned in middle school science class. We learned that heat only flows between objects when they are objects of two different temperatures. If the two objects rest at the same starting temperature — no matter how hot or cold that starting temperature is — no heat is transferred. Only when the two objects are at different temperatures does the hotter object “respond” by transferring kinetic energy, or heat, to the cooler object. 

Similarly, we only acknowledge the weather and respond to it when we aren’t used to the conditions we’re in. It’s only when we are exposed to immense changes or extremes in our outside environments that we really notice the power of weather. 

When we are instead inundated with roughly the same weather conditions each day — and for some of us, when the seasons blend together and conditions change in practically unnoticeable increments — we lose sight of the might of nature, especially as our world becomes increasingly manmade. Normalcy gets taken for granted, and weather, the engineer of our interface with nature, goes virtually unacknowledged. 

Lia Keener writes the Thursday column on the relationship between humans and the natural world. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.