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.
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 white.
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!!
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 when there’s 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?
I understand James Taylor better now…
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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