An Homage to Durham Weather, One Year In…

When I went out at 10 p.m. last night to walk the dog on our evening constitutional, my phone told me it was 90 degrees with 95% humidity. I didn’t catch the “Feels like” temperature estimate below that data because my head was by then lolling down around my navel somewhere as I prepared to drop down to all fours.

My intention was to see if I could clear a path through what felt like thick, suffocating butter so my dog could follow in my wake and we could stagger safely back to our air-conditioned house, despite the threat of a heart attack which could easily ensue from the shock of crossing the threshold from the hotbox on one side to the icebox on the other.

And you know something else?

I really, really love living in North Carolina, and am very glad I came (a year ago as of September 1).

And some of that love has to do with the weather.

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See that snowman at the top of this post? It was not 90 degrees when I took that shot, but that was here in Durham, too, where once or twice every winter it gets cold enough to leave the city in a lovely blanket of snow.

Ever-changing, variable, dramatic, sometimes extreme Weather. (Here, Weather deserves that capital W, in California, not so much…)

That’s the flip side of last night. Given that frequency, the city budget does not allow for a great number of snow plows to sit idle 363 or so days a year, so when it does snow with any gusto, that’s it: School’s out, cars stay in driveways, people work remotely or not at all, everyone dons warm jackets and hauls sleds out of sheds and kids out of their rooms to go find some inclines on which to careen and slide for a while.

I cite both instances because one of the joys of living in this part of the world is that it is subject to Weather. Ever-changing, variable, dramatic, sometimes extreme Weather. (Here, Weather deserves that capital W; in California, not so much…)

Big humid heat with the big bugs it brings. Yep: cockroaches the size of small birds—some of which fly like birds, too, yikes!

Balancing that, however: the magic of summer fireflies, and the clamor of cicadas.

Big cold—though it’s not Detroit, for sure. (It did get down to 4 degrees winter before last, though.)

Big howling 10-minute afternoon thunderstorms breaking up summer days with lightning strikes, sudden winds, and huge pounding raindrops, unpredictable and frequent enough that nearly every day from June though September brings with it at least a “chance of rain.” 

Occasional hurricane-infused longer downpours, though being some three hours from the coast as we are, our homes most always stay intact.

And oh my God, the clouds. Barely a day goes by without some dramatic cloudscape forming through the afternoon (samples above), the winds moving the clouds around with abandon into ever more intriguing, assertive shapes.

Not that none of this exists in California. I took my share of cloud shots there, too. And it’s not like the state’s occasional floods and no-longer-occasional fires lack for drama.

But it’s the everyday weather that is so much more intense and dramatic and variable here, which fosters an appreciation and acceptance that can get you through the hard parts—such as being wet all the time, every day,  if you’re outside for more than about five minutes through the warm months.

And working in the garden past 9, maybe 10 a.m. at the latest? Hahahahaha!!

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You know what I am aching to put to rest? The tired old meme that talking about the weather is a shallow exercise by shallow people either too shy or too brainless to discuss something of relevance and depth.

Let me tell you what was relevant and deep to my life last night: 90 and 95 at 10 o’clock in the friggin’ evening.

And if you tack on a few more degrees with direct sun in the daytime, which I am espying now from my air-conditioned library, it adds great depth to my observation that weather matters—yuuugely. And I will talk about it with anyone, anytime.

Ask your favorite neighborhood anthropologist about how trivial weather is in human affairs. Whether you’re going to war or on a vacation, planning a barbecue or planting crops, or just trying to make a living and raise a family in an environment where the weather won’t be too restrictive or unsupportive of your efforts, weather influences virtually every facet of life.

It has always done so, and it is only human intelligence and creativity that have allowed us to attain some measure of freedom from the yoke that intemperate weather has been for human beings through most of our history.

You want important and deep?

I give you air conditioning.

I submit that is right up there among the crowning achievements of human ingenuity, and it has enriched and emboldened our lives beyond measure. What would I be doing right this minute without it, at 5:07 p.m., as I type these words in 91-degree heat? Not this, I assure you— it’s a comfortable 78 degrees in this room.

People tend to move slower throughout the South, and most certainly in summer. No one skitters around like a bug in high heat and humidity, just as we tend to put our heads down and add some urgency to our step in trying to ward off the cold and wind of a northeastern winter. All manner of cultural and psychological differences flow from those elemental variations.

In his 2007 academic paper, “Climates Create Cultures,”  the Dutch psychologist Evert va de Vliert gives an apt description of the central role that climate plays in human life:

“Humans thrive in temperate climates and must invest more time and effort to meet survival needs for thermal comfort, nutrition, and health if they are living in colder or hotter regions of the world. Temperate climates offer thermal comfort, abundant food resources owing to the rich flora and fauna, and negligible risks of unhealthy weather conditions. Both colder and hotter climates require more and better protective devices such as clothing, shelter structures, and heating or cooling systems. Work circumstances, work regulations, and work activities have to be adjusted, too. Increasingly colder or hotter climates also require increasing investments of time and effort in the pursuit of food and drink, and increasing concern about the climate-dictated composition of nutrients in the diet. Finally, more and more measures have to be taken in increasingly colder and hotter climates to safeguard the health of oneself and one’s family, especially in the tropics with its plagues of disease-producing substances, germs, bacteria, and insects.”

Thankfully, we are not quite in the tropics here in Carolina, which is a whole other level of difficult and does much to explain the chronic underdevelopment and enduring poverty in those parts of the world. (Notably, they are also not consuming and polluting their way to what looks like will become an increasingly uninhabitable planet, through no fault of their own.)

But neither are we tropical in California, my home of 64 years before my move last September. There, climate change is pairing with its perma-dry Mediterranean climate and the sprawl begat by millions of people who have also wanted a slice of its historic paradise to create conditions increasingly toxic to human life. I worry plenty for my former home, and the people and landscapes I still love there.

I still miss the fog rolling in from the coast at 5 p.m. and sticking around till 10 the next morning, its fingers creeping into the crevices of the hills overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge when I was bound for the City. And the vineyards ablaze with fall light rather than fire. And the forbidding coast, with its icy waters and often treacherous waves and currents.

Sonoma County, the Bay Area, and even the Los Angeles of my boyhood will always be a part of me, and my ashes will be bound there when my consciousness takes leave of this earth. But with love of a woman bringing me to North Carolina, I have also come to love much else—things I didn’t even manage to discuss here lest this note take on unwieldy proportions.

Besides, it’s too damn hot to do any more thinking—and Happy Hour in the afternoon shade of the sunporch beckons. Sure, it’s still 91 degrees and thick at 6:18 p.m.

But did I mention I’m getting used to it?

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I understand James Taylor better now…

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And as a special bonus and bookend to this post’s lead, a 21-second salute to my dog Shenzi’s first snow, at age 12, two winters ago…

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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

All other photos by Andrew Hidas  https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/

13 comments to An Homage to Durham Weather, One Year In…

  • Jeanette Millard  says:

    I’ll talk about the weather with you any day, Andrew! And the little clip of Shenzi running crazed through the snow shows you in in snapshot why I LOVE it up here in the Northeast. Instant playground!! I love it up here more when it snows, and it’s not doing that so much. But as soon as I experienced the heat and the bugs down there in Carolina – I fell more deeply in love with winter. Let it Snow!!!!!
    p.s. And yay for AC and heat, and *fire* in the woodstove, the outdoor brick on basketball court fireplace….Another James Taylor song, The first of December was covered with snow. So was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston…”
    Weather **songs** would fill up a dozen blogposts at least!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Haha, I will gladly take you up on both those suggestions, Jeanette: extended yakking about the weather and some good thinkin’ about a dozen blog posts on weather songs—or one post with a dozen songs! Fine idea, much appreciated!

  • Dennis Ahern  says:

    It’ll be 30 years Dec. 1st. (do you believe it) since I quit the “ideal” climate of California for the high desert climate of Boise, Idaho. On a number of levels, never a regret. Having also been a native Californian, I too appreciate the variety. Just enough cold and snow in winter. Just enough summer heat (dry…..thank you baby Jesus). Spring and Fall are sublime. Don’t like the weather? Wait a minute and it’ll change.

    I have always thought that talk of the weather had as much to do with a deep seated anxiety as it did way to pass banal conversation. For all our weather models and forecasts, we don’t really know what’s going to happen 3 or 4 days hence. We are entirely at the mercy of the weather in what ever form it comes, and we know it. So we blow off psychic steam by discussing it.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Well no, I cannot believe it’s been 30 years, anymore than I believe that ill-fated magazine project we took on was—gulp—thirty-TWO years ago!

      Great point I hadn’t considered about weather anxiety, which the media play into full-tilt to almost absurd degrees—they know what makes us tick! People poo-poo weather talk as a means of dealing with social anxiety, but underneath that—the thrump thrump of danger, mortality, not knowing what the hell awaits. So we get addicted to weather reports, and then excoriate the meteorologists when they get it wrong, which they don’t nearly as frequently as they used to, but still…

  • James Kellough  says:

    Imagine the huge ice storm that paralyzed the region completely once in the ’90’s.. In the middle of the night after Day Two the police tapped on our bedroom window and said : ‘Call your Mother.’

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      That must be what they mean by “community policing,” James! And sounds like really sound advice—those must have been exceedingly well-trained officers…

    • Pat Wilson  says:

      Loved this- esp the dog!!! Lolol

  • Mary  says:

    Having grown up on a farm I can attest to true weather anxiety: storms that can wreck an entire year’s work and income in a few intense moments. There is also the knowing that, no matter how desperately cold or hot, you gotta get out there, and stay out there, working.

    Even with all that sometimes harsh, often exhilarating, history I have always loved whatever shows up on the weather plate….more to the point, I revere it, have respect for it and revel in it. When I (once again) commented to a friend on a cold drizzly and foggy day how beautiful it was she sort of rolled her eyes and sighed in exasperation “Mary, you think EVERY day is beautiful.” Guilty as charged. Reflecting on Jeanette’s comment about the music, it’s clear to me that there is so much poetry, metaphor and lyrics about weather because it connects us to our elemental selves, our animal selves, our spiritual selves.

    I am a card carrying member of the Cloud Appreciation Society (seriously, and you can be too! ) It is dedicated to helping people to notice the glory of clouds in all forms and addressing the banality of “blue sky thinking”.

    https://cloudappreciationsociety.org/

    Let the humidity ease your joints, frolic in the snow, jump into the waves, let the rain fall on your face and yes, take a walk on a cold foggy day, and say to yourself: It’s a Wonderful World.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Unfortunately, Mary, this Comments section doesn’t accommodate fotos, otherwise I would fill it up with at least a few dozen of the thousands of cloud shots currently occupying the “icloud” backup (!!) on my phone! Thanks for this paean to clouds, and weather, in all their shape-shiftiness and influence on our animal-spiritual selves…

  • Harriet  says:

    If I’m home when a storm comes up…and it can shift the weather in a nanosecond….I head out to my screened porch to inhale the air, feel the churning wind, and settle in to experiencing one of my favorite things in life. Before my son had children, we would often call each other when we were immersing ourselves in a storm (he lives several hours away, so they were different storms), eager to share the exhilaration with each other. “Jason, the lightning is striking sideways! ” or “Mom, the hail is as big as three dimensional quarters!” and always, “I wish you were here!” Then, as the storm plays itself out, the sun shines through the different hues of black and grey and sometimes even a hint of purple, and the last bits of moisture drain from the clouds, I become hopeful, expectant, because, sometimes, as if just for me, a rainbow slowly materializes. And, each time it is magic.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      That’s lovely, Harriet, thank you!. As highly as I regard old-fashioned letter-writing, I’m finding myself feeling sorry for our ancestors who experienced those storms and rainbows you mention and had to reflect on them strictly in the past, in a letter that might takes weeks to arrive, rather than sharing such experiences in real time with their distant beloveds. Score one for technology there, made all the more immediate in recent years with the ability to Facetime the “three dimensional quarter”-sized hail, or shoot a video of it and send it right along just seconds later. Riches, just added upon riches. Hard to remember, caught up as we often get in the fraught dramas of daily life, what dazzling times we live in!

  • Lou Denti  says:

    It’s not the heat it’s the humility as the saying goes. Growing up in upstate NY with no AC I slept in on the bathroom floor or in the tub many a night. The weather, oh the the weather on both coasts. I would love the feel of humidity, rain, clouds but my CA is on fire and all we are seeing is smoke these days. I appreciate your homage.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks, Lou. I was literally up half the night nervously looking at weather, wind & fire reports, not only in NorCal but SoCal, too, given I still have people & boatloads of memories in both places. Am beginning to wonder whether much of my beloved Cali is on the way to becoming inhospitable to human life for the next couple hundred years, climate change greatly accelerating an otherwise natural cycle where all the flammables burn and rejuvenate themselves over time. The problem the “natural cycle” didn’t account for and doesn’t care about is how much human habitat will be destroyed and human lives made miserable in the interim. It’s almost too much to think about, but these catastrophic events keep intruding regardless.

      Meanwhile, keep your perimeter trimmed and your go-bag at the door, pal. I will be thinking of you and all my California peeps through the depths of fire season there.

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