by Jim Fairhall
Some 40,000 thunderstorms, it is estimated, roil the earth’s atmosphere each day. Thunderstorms are force fields composed of three of the basic elements—air, fire, water—each of which impacts the fourth element, earth, both literally and metaphorically. Divine scriptures sometimes depict God as a storm cloud:
Behold, the Lord has a mighty and strong one, which like a tempest of hail and a destroying storm, like a flood of mighty waters overflowing, shall cast down to the earth with his hand. (Isaiah 28:2, King James Bible)
Whether we see them as having a divine or a natural origin, thunderstorms catch our attention. They play upon our senses as if we were, as Thoreau wrote in Walden, wind harps.
One of my earliest memories is of summer afternoon storms in Culver, Indiana, where my family used to vacation at my grandparents’ house. First, a spell of surly heat. Then a shift, like water absorbing color, from bright sun and dark shade to pale gray—the still, hot air so full of moisture that we kids would drop down onto the grass, sweating, after a burst of play. Light thickened. The first drops smacked the leaves of elms and maples. Everyone—adults, kids, and dogs alike—moved to the screened-in front porch. In a world without smartphones or PCs or cable TV, this was the main event of the day. Our bodies, Thoreau’s Aeolian harps, readied themselves to be played.
I can’t beat Mark Twain’s description, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, of what happens next in the progress of a mid-continental afternoon thunderstorm:
It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale under-side of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms…; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest — fst! it was as bright as glory, and you’d have a little glimpse of tree-tops a- plunging about away off yonder…; dark as sin again in a second, and now you’d hear the thunder let go with an awful crash, and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling, down the sky towards the under side of the world.
What Twain’s gorgeous prose slips somewhat into the shadow is the perceiving human bodies—here, Huck’s and Jim’s—without which, phenomenologically speaking, nature as we know it doesn’t exist. Thunderstorms are natural phenomena that we can measure with scientific instruments, such as barometers and altimeters, but our primary instrument is the body. Huck’s description evokes the storm through the modalities of vision and hearing, but it omits other senses that alert storm participants to their intimacy with something like divinity.
Everyone can remember the elemental smell of a thunderstorm and of ozone in its wake. But the thrill, or fright, of being in touch with wild power comes through the sense of touch—in this case, the sense of being touched by wind, water, changes in barometric pressure, and diffuse electric discharge. Thoreau on Mount Ktaadn evoked the ecstasy, beyond culture, of being invaded by unmediated nature:
What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! — Think of our life in nature, — daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?
Some people get too intimate with thunderstorms, especially in the lightning-strike hub of Florida. Elsewhere, the environmental writer Gretel Ehrlich got caught out in the open during a storm in Wyoming, as she recalls in A Match to the Heart. The air sizzled before a bolt hit her and reprogrammed her central nervous system. Closer to home, lightning destroyed the Rogers Park, Chicago home of a DePaul colleague of mine. But no one has been more intimate with a thunderstorm, and lived to tell about it, than a lucky/unlucky Marine Corps pilot whose flight above the anvil of a Cumulonimbus tower ended abruptly.
Late in the summer of 1959, 39-year-old Lt. Col. William Rankin, flying in sunlight at 47,000 feet, felt a harsh jolt to his silver-and-orange F8U Crusader jet fighter. Less than a minute later, at six p.m., he ejected from the nonresponsive plane. He was wearing his helmet, an oxygen mask and his parachute, preset to open at the safe-breathing level of 10,000 feet.
After free-falling for ten seconds, his body penetrated a Cumulonimbus incus, the distinctive anvil top of a thundercloud. A Cumulonimbus is a vertical column several miles across, towering as high as 60,000 feet, whose upper canopy (the incus, or anvil) consists of ice crystals swirling above the water droplets that make up the rest of the cloud. Whipped by powerful winds high in the atmosphere, th
e anvil, resembling a huge, flat-topped iceberg eroded at the sides, can extend hundreds of miles. “From a distance it can have a calm, majestic beauty.”
Rankin, proportionately the size of a swallow plummeting into Lake Michigan, didn’t see beauty or much of anything. Frostbitten, his abdomen swollen to twice its size, his nose bleeding and his helmeted ears roaring with wind, he found himself displaced from a sunlit vista of hundreds of miles to nearly zero vision in a dark-gray maw.
“It seemed like I free-fell an eternity. All this time I had this ke
en desire to pull the ripcord. I had to keep telling myself, ‘If you do, you’ll slow down and freeze to death or die from lack of oxygen.’ Just as I was considering pulling the cord, I felt a shock. I looked up to see the chute. All I could see was cloud. But I could tell from pulling on the risers that I had a good chute.
Rankin’s parachute, an artifact of culture like his oxygen mask and helmet, was designed to protect humans venturing into a realm of nature they can’t survive unaided. But it wasn’t designed for protection in a thundercloud. The cloud’s violent cool downdrafts and warm updrafts (paragliders call the effect of the updrafts, without fondness, “cloud suck”) blew Rankin up and down as much as 6,000 feet at a time. Pelting hailstones bounced up and down alongside him. At lower altitudes, rain swept into him with such force that he had to close his mouth to keep from drowning.
Although Rankin was an expert at analyzing the sky from the instrument readings of military jets, his unmediated contact with the storm felt like a nightmare. He closed his eyes, opening them only to find himself looking down a long dark tunnel through the center of the cloud. He recalled: “This was nature’s bedlam…an ugly black cage of screaming, violent, fanatical lunatics…beating me with big flat sticks, roaring at me, screeching, trying to crush or rip me with their hands.”
Blue blades several feet thick—lightning—lit up the cloud. One bolt illuminated the white shroud of the parachute, making him think he’d died. He didn’t hear but rather felt the thunder.
At last his parachute floated out of the cloud, revealing a stretch of wooded North Carolina backcountry 500 feet below. A parting touch of the beast—a gust of wind—blew him headfirst into a tree. Like his chute, his flight helmet did its job, protecting his body from nature. On the ground he looked at his watch: it was 6:40 p.m. He had been bobbing up and down in the Cumulonimbus, sometimes called “the king of clouds,” for forty minutes.
Lt. Col. Rankin managed to write a lackluster book, The Man Who Rode the Thunder, about his wild cloud-surfing. Unlike Thoreau on Ktaadn, he had the experience but missed the meaning. But I’m glad to note that he lived fifty more years after his fall, finally paying his debt to nature in 2009.
As for me, I look forward to the approaching summer season of thunderstorms here in Chicago. Wildness will descend upon the city, that monument to culture, and put its busy citizens into contact with nature in one of its most elemental, capricious, beautiful forms. At least once this summer, when the spirit takes me, I’ll go outside, stay away from trees, and let a storm play upon my senses. It’ll be worth getting wet.