Breaking ground on this week’s challenge, I write to accompaniment of thunder.
Summer in Florida means afternoon storms four days or more of the week. Our blazing heat lifts an evaporate shroud into the sky which mixes with incoming seabreeze fronts from either coast, resulting in a massing of storms. You can watch them rising 30, 40 sometimes 50 thousand feet on the horizon, the only vertical feature in flat-as-a-dead-mullet Florida.
The storms sometimes dot the map, causing rain here and none there; other times they metastasize into state-sized wallops, with winds knocking trees over and dumping rain in furious salvos.
Central Florida is called the Lightning Capital of America because it has about 83 lightning events per square kilometer every year. Lightning is hot – five times hotter than the sun — an inch-wide bolt heats the surrounding air to about 55,000 degrees, causing the rapid expansion of air which creates thunder. It can go from ground to cloud equally as well. A phenomenon known as gigantic jet lightning can burst from the tops of clouds into the ionosphere and have been observed brushing the lower limit of space.
More than 40 million bolts strike my country every year, but the odds of being struck by on is less than 1 in a million. About 90 percent of those struck survive the ordeal. Just this past week, four people were critically hurt when lightning struck a park near the White House in the United States capitol. The lightning hit near a tree that stands yards away from the fence that surrounds the presidential residence and offices. Three subsequently died.
Over the 25 years my wife and I have lived in this house, we have been visited by lightning many times. A big oak tree just out back was killed by bolt striking its roots. We lost an electrical panel on the air handler under the house due to lightning. We’ve sat in our living room and been flooded with sudden light as a bolt hit nearby, followed instantly by a boom that strolled out in a huge wave. Neighbors lost all their TV and stereo to a strike. A few years back, some kids in town playing baseball were killed hanging out under a tree during a storm. Once we woke to an immense forest of flashes in our bedroom as a storm passed over; passing twenty miles to the east, an F3 tornado descended from that cloud, scattering trailers and killing 23.
Our warming climate is producing more lightning strikes More heat can draw more moisture into the atmosphere, while also encouraging rapid updraft – two key factors for charged particles, which lead to lightning.
Lightning from monsoon rains in the eastern Indian state of Bihar killed 20 in less than 24 hours in late July. Lightning strikes rose by 34%, with more than 18 million strikes occurring in India from April 2020 to March 2021, according to a study by the Climate Resilient Observing System Promotion Council. ‘
A 2014 study published in Science warned that the number of lightning strikes could increase by 50% in this century in the United States, with each 1 C (1.8 F) of warming translating into a 12% rise in the number of lightning strikes.
The increase in lightning strikes are stressing wildfire season. The interior of Alaska had about 18,000 strikes over two days in early July. More than 2 million acres of Alaska wilderness has burned by the end of July, twice the average of a typical Alaska fire season. More fuel, more lightning strikes, higher temperatures and lower humidity — conditions driven by a fast-changing Arctic climate — are fueling fires that burn hotter and deeper into the ground. Rather than just scorching the trees and burning undergrowth, the wildfires are consuming everything.
In the global Arctic, lightning strikes were once rare; but the Earth’s northernmost region saw 7,278 lightning strikes in 2021, nearly double the total strikes recorded in the previous nine years combined.
After the flash, then the strolling drums of thunder. You can hear it up to 15 miles away. About a third of the population suffer from astrophobia, fear of lightning and thunder. James Joyce was one such sufferer (a holdover, apparently, from his hellfire and damnation Catholic upbringing), he placed ten Thunder-words in Finnegans Wake. At 100 letters each, they are the longest words in English. The first (on page one) announces the Fall of Babel and the thunderclap which heralds the fall of Adam and Eve:
Pronounce it here:
Lightning and thunder have always been accorded top clout in our myths. The lord of Olympus was Zeus and his master weapon and sign of his power was the lightning bolt. It is one of the three great weapons forged by the Cyclopes in Tartarus for Zeus and his two brothers in their fight against the Titans (the other weapons were Poseidon’s Trident and Hades’ Helm of Darkness). In Vedic lore, Indra, god of rain and thunder, wields bolt-shaped weapon called the vajra. In Celtic mythology, Taranis is the god of thunder; in Norse it Thor, wielding a thunder-hammer named Mjolnir which also bestows the god’s blessings.
In the Tarot deck of divination cards, The Tower is perhaps more disturbing than the Death card, for it portends a sudden strike of fate, like that of a bolt of lightning causing a tower to fall, resulting in chaos and destruction. The Tower of Babel fell this way, it’s height of human aspiration humbled by the power of God and the resulting confusion of languages For his pride and ambition, Lucifer is cast down from Heaven in a dazzling fall akin to lightning, and Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden in a sudden dazzling fall for disobeying God and eating of the Tree of Knowledge.
Fire came from the gods in a lightning strike. Prometheus snuck into the great fire-pit where the lightning bolt hammers of Zeus were forged and stole a spark of the fire and hid it in a fennel stalk and took the gift back to mankind — a theft for which he would pay eternally.
Actually, we’re the ones who are paying eternally, as humankind’s mastery over the elements began with the theft of fire. Karl Kerenyi writes in Prometheus: Archetypal Image of Human Existence,
The crime was inevitable because without fire mankind would have perished — this was the design of Zeus, as we are expressly told in Desmotes (232) — and this inevitable act was a crime, because power over fire — as over all things that “grow” and are not produced by man — was the prerogative of the ruler of the world. (79)
The theft of that fire eventually granted us the Anthropocene, a world of withering weathers cooked up a vat of human innovations. The lightning which comes now in fuller fury we can, in part, call our own.
Are we up to the task? The United States has experienced an average of 7.7 billion-dollar disasters annually over the past four decades. But in the past five years, that average has jumped to nearly 18 events each year. 2020 and 2021 saw the highest number of such disasters on record, with 22 and 20, respectively. The catastrophes that span the country and the calendar, ranging from a cold snap that crippled parts of Texas and hailstorms in Ohio. Spring has been an especially active time, the numbers show. But many of the most destructive and costly disasters of recent years also have come during summer — including massive Western wildfires, a crippling heat dome in the Pacific Northwest and devastating hurricanes such as Harvey, Maria and Ida. Just in the past two weeks, there have been three separate thousand-year rain events, in Missouri, Kentucky and Illinois.
When you consider the rising intensity of these catastrophes against our civilization’s ability to contend with them — worst of all, when dealing with climate change — Goethe’s poem “Limits of Humanity” suggests that humility is our only honest posture.
When the primeval
With hand indifferent
Out of dark-rolling clouds
Scatters hot lightnings
Over the earth,
Kiss I the lowest
Hem of His garment,
Kneeling before Him
In child-like trust.
For with the gods may
No mortal himself
At any time measure.
Should he be lifted
Up, til he touches
The stars with his forehead,
Nowhere to rest finds
The insecure feet,
And he is plaything
Of clouds and of winds.
Stands he with strong-knit
On the deep-seated
No father he reaches
than but with the oak
Or the slenderer vine
Himself to compare.
What doth distinguish
Immortals from mortals?
In that many billows
Before those roll ever,
A stream flowing by:
Upheaveth a billow,
Collapses a billow,
And we are no more.
A little ring
Encloses our life,
And numerous races
Are strung through the cycles
On to existence’s
(Poems of Goethe, translated William Gibson, 1883)
I have a radar app installed on my iPhone. It used to come in handy when I was commuting daily to my job in Orlando. I pay for it now mostly for the extra reconnaissance it provides during hurricane season when rain bands whip in. I’m not sure why I keep it set to give me alerts for lightning strikes within 30 miles. The damn thing lights up my phone dozens of times every afternoon and into the night.
For this week’s challenge, let’s interrupt our usual programming with flashes and booms of this extraordinary power. Lightning falls: what are we going to make of that?
BEFORE SUMMER RAIN
Ranier Maria Rilke
Suddenly, from all the green around you,
something-you don’t know what-has disappeared;
you feel it creeping closer to the window,
in total silence. From the nearby wood
you hear the urgent whistling of a plover,
reminding you of someone’s Saint Jerome:
so much solitude and passion come
from that one voice, whose fierce request the downpour
will grant. The walls, with their ancient portraits, glide
away from us, cautiously, as though
they weren’t supposed to hear what we are saying.
And reflected on the faded tapestries now;
the chill, uncertain sunlight of those long
childhood hours when you were so afraid.
— tranl. Stephen Mitchell
KING LEAR III.ii
Another part of the heath. Storm still.
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!
O nuncle, court holy-water in a dry
house is better than this rain-water out o’ door.
Good nuncle, in, and ask thy daughters’ blessing:
here’s a night pities neither wise man nor fool.
Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription: then let fall
Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man:
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join’d
Your high engender’d battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this. O! O! ’tis foul!
THERE CAME A WIND LIKE A BUGLE
There came a Wind like a Bugle—
It quivered through the Grass
And a Green Chill upon the Heat
So ominous did pass
We barred the Windows and the Doors
As from an Emerald Ghost—
The Doom’s electric Moccasin
That very instant passed—
On a strange Mob of panting Trees
And Fences fled away
And Rivers where the Houses ran
Those looked that lived-that Day—
The Bell within the steeple wild
The flying tidings told—
How much can come
And much can go,
And yet abide the World!
THE ELECTRICAL STORM
Dawn an unsympathetic yellow.
Cra-aack! — dry and light.
The house was really struck.
Crack! A tinny sound, like a dropped tumbler.
Tobias jumped in the window, got in bed —
silent, his eyes bleached white, his fur on end.
Personal and spiteful as a neighbor’s child,
thunder began to bang and bump the roof.
One pink flash;
then hail, the biggest size of artificial pearls.
Dead-white, wax-white, cold —
diplomats’ wives favors
from an old moon party —
they lay in melting windrows
on the red ground until well after sunrise.
We got up to find the wiring fused,
no lights, a smell of saltpetre,
and the telephone dead.
The cat stayed in the warm sheets,
The Lent trees had shed all their petals:
wet, stuck, purple, among the dead-eye pearls.
— from Questions of Travel, 1955
I hope they never get a rope on you, weather,
I hope they never put a bit in your mouth.
I hope they never pack your snorts
into an engine or make you wear wheels.
I hope the astronauts will always have to wait
till you get off the prairie
because your kick is lethal,
your temper worse than the megaton.
I hope your harsh mane will grow forever,
and blow where it will,
that your slick hide will always shiver
and flick down your bright sweat.
Research us terror, weather,
with your teeth on our ships,
your hoofs on our houses,
your tail swatting our planes down like flies.
Before they make a grenade of our planet
I hope you’ll come like a comet,
oh mustang – fire-eyes, upreared bell —
bust the corral and stomp us to death.
—from Nature: Poems Old and New, 1994
FIRE ON THE HILLS
The deer were bounding like blown leaves
Under the smoke in front the roaring wave of the brush-fire;
I thought of the smaller lives that were caught.
Beauty is not always lovely; the fire was beautiful, the terror
Of the deer was beautiful; and when I returned
Down the back slopes after the fire had gone by, an eagle
Was perched on the jag of a burnt pine,
Insolent and gorged, cloaked in the folded storms of his shoulders
He had come from far off for the good hunting
With fire for his beater to drive the game; the sky was merciless
Blue, and the hills merciless black,
The sombre-feathered great bird sleepily merciless between them.
I thought, painfully, but the whole mind,
The destruction that brings an eagle from heaven is better than men.