Thursday, September 29, 2011

Break in the weather

The shortening days always catch me by surprise. Last week I geared up to photograph an engraving on a limestone outcrop high above Alcove Springs, the famed watering hole on the Oregon Trail, only to find the sun already slipping behind the thicket. My idea was to capture the carving when the light was low so that the inscription stood out in stark relief. As the sun was so low it had all but disappeared, that much of my plan was a success. Everything else was a shock to the system.

Nor did it end there. Several days later a friend roused me from a deep sleep with orders to photograph fog that had settled in the valley. Groggily and not without dire imprecations toward his interruption I dressed and staggered out to the car where the cold froze me in my tracks. The thermometer read a paltry 46 degrees, which combined with my summer attire of shorts and T-shirt, 100 percent humidity and pre-coffee disorientation equaled a chill index of 30 below zero.  

In all fairness I have to admit that I was among the thousands of others clamoring for a break in the heat, and now that it was here I’d have to acclimate myself to the change. Next year, though, I vowed to temper my wishes for a gradual cessation rather than one so abrupt that it takes us completely off guard. Moderation in all things.

The doomsayers and homespun climatologists wasted no time in predicting an early winter. Their reasons loosely fixed on the woolliness of caterpillars, the prevalence of fog in the lowlands and the early disappearance of birds, most of which could be explained through common sense. That the birds left on their southbound migration within days of their normal departure was easily proven through meticulous records. Fog is a common occurrence when the ambient temperature cools to a point lower than that of the rivers. As for the fuzziness of caterpillars, its alleged thickness remains subjective unless verified through measurement and hard data, none of which these declaimers of wives tales bothered to analyze.

The truth is simpler: we get so wrapped up in our daily doings that we fail to see what’s right in front of us. And, sometimes, the shift from hot summer to cool autumn happens at a faster pace, leaving us deliriously dizzy from the effect. I’ve taken to leaving windows open day and night to capture the coolness, necessitating blankets some nights. Facebook friends keep up a running commentary on the autumnal weather, none of whom dare express fears that it’s too early for these temperatures.

Perish the thought. I’m not one for wives tales though many possess a kernel of truth. Whenever I’m faced with those who swear by the old incontestable signs I remind them of the rain crow, a neotropical bird whose song is said to be a harbinger of showers. Several years ago during a particularly nasty dry spell that saw our city enact watering restrictions as ponds emptied and perennial creeks depleted, rain crows were abundant, and abundantly singing. Mating season was in full swing, a fact that probably goes without saying.

From the dawn of time humans have attempted to predict weather. Today’s technology has improved the science of climatology but any scientist worth his salt will admit that it’s still mostly guesswork. Satellites and radar might give us a godlike view of the planet but what happens next relies on forces beyond the reach of instrumentation. The best we can do is draw conclusions from the available data which is probably the same thing oldtimers did with their hirsute caterpillars and dubious ornithology. 

I’m taking it day by day, relishing every cool minute we’re given. The summer was a scorcher that few will miss. Prevailing winds have shifted to the north bringing drier, cooler air filled with the shapes of migrating birds and insects. Already golden leaves are drifting on the wind, mostly from walnuts and locusts. Nights are soft drones of crickets, tree frogs and katydids, and softer silvered moonlight. The sky has turned both paler and bluer, an atmospheric contradiction with no scientific explanation. Days shorten as the sun drifts southward. Colors leach from the fields, greens fade to ochre and dun, grasses lapse into dormancy while the rest of creation emerges from its heat-induced hibernation into a world it had all but forgotten, ephemeral and fleeting, undemanding of anything other than exquisite relief.

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