Highfalutin’ – March 2011

Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know

By Eli Gjeltema

Highfalutin' Gallup Journey WeathermanThe other day, I heard a legal scholar give a lecture pointing out that the intuitive understanding of words extends beyond their abstract, “literal” meanings. His illustrative example was ‘weather.’ “Weather – what do we mean by weather? I could say that the weather is sunny, or partly cloudy – but that could change. If you ask New Englanders, they will tell you that if you don’t like the weather, all you have to do is wait for an hour or two. So, in New England, the anticipation of change is part of the understanding of the word ‘weather.’”

I’m sure some New Englanders say so, but they’re not the only ones.[1] An hombre who picked me up hitching through Alabama in January told me the same. (He was right. It was seventy degrees that afternoon; a blizzard blew through the next day). A week earlier, a pair of lovely old Virginian ladies advised me to be patient and just wait out the beautiful sunshine we were having today. I’ve heard this colorful and folksy saying in dozens of different places. The strange thing is, everyone seems to think they are letting me in on a local secret, like an inside joke. Their advice is invariably delivered in a low, conspiratorial voice followed by a satisfied chuckle. Yep, that’s the way things are around here, they say. You just gotta get used to it.

Of course, some locales take pride in the climactic constancy. San Francisco: “It’s never nice and it’s never nasty.” The Ecuadorian Amazon: “When’s the rainy season? Whenever it’s raining!” Some wallow in their persistently unfortunate climes and grumble ceaselessly about the elements. But even when people complain about their generally poor weather, I hear a twinge of affection. Mount Washington, New Hampshire actually prides itself on having the worst weather in America. Whether good or bad, it’s clear that weather is important to people.

A region’s weather is as much a defining component of the character of a place as anything else I can think of. This is true not only to those who have experienced it, but for those who have only visited in daydreams. For most people I meet, the abstract idea of the Southwest is some combination of the endless, baking atmosphere, of Wile E. Coyote and tumbleweeds gyrating gently towards the sunset-soaked horizon. I am constantly refuting the idea that you must not be used to the cold, you know, coming from New Mexico. The abstract identification of weather with a place is the primary engine of tourism for such vacation hot spots as Hawaii and the Caribbean – Hawaii has done an excellent job of instilling the idea that it enjoys constant, peaceful warmth tempered by ocean breezes. The general public is unaware that it’s actually the wettest state in the Union, enduring more than twice as much annual rainfall as Oregon.

There is no denying the great significance of weather in our lives. At its extremes, weather can cause colossal damage and suffering, whether by hurricanes or heat waves. It can undermine political regimes: witness the backlash against George Bush’s handling of Katrina or Michael Bloomberg’s plunge in approval ratings to an all-time low after dissatisfaction with New York City’s lackluster response to the blizzards this winter. Weather is the culprit for minor tragedies, as well: many a longed-for fishing expedition has fallen short of expectations on account of rain.

The weather of a place may not be unique as people make it out to be, whether in dynamism, constancy, excellence or unpleasantness, but the fact that folks get such pleasure out of thinking so just goes to show how much it matters. It is an unavoidable part of our everyday experience and it is only natural that we get our feelings all wound up in it.

As anyone will tell you, the clear, blue sky is one of the Southwest’s best features. This is not unique: it is Montana, not New Mexico or Arizona, that is known as Big Sky Country. But that don’t mean it ain’t great. Even in the winter, you can count on good ol’ Mr. Sol to keep on glowing and keep away the gloom. Appreciate that – as though you need to be told – despite the legendary plateau “blowy season” that is soon approaching. I don’t have anything good to say about that.

[1] To be honest, the New England part might be incorrect. I am pretty sure he was talking about Boston, but I could be wrong. This only proves my point.

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