“The Moon Was a Ghostly Galleon . . .”

” . . . tossed upon cloudy seas.” Alfred Noyes’ poem “The Highwayman” was one of the first long ballads I remember reading. Louis Untermeyer included it in the wonderful anthology for young readers that I still have. Even before then, I remember hearing my mother and father quoting the lines when winter winds blew and shreds of cloud dimmed the moon.

“The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.   

The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.   

The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,   

And the highwayman came riding—

         Riding—riding—

The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.”

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43187/the-highwayman

Loreena McKennitt arranged parts of the poem, not the full ballad of doomed love and blind fury. I was reminded of both ballad and song on the eve of the Harvest Moon, when I glanced out a window and saw the above. And below.

And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,

When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,   

When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,   

A highwayman comes riding—

         Riding—riding—

A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard.

He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred.   

He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there   

But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,

         Bess, the landlord’s daughter,

Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

“You Darkness that I Come From . . . “

Darkness, night, dark nights of the soul, following a star in the heavens, comets as portents . . . What does it mean if all of that goes away? Both in terms of astronomy and interesting people in star-gazing and studying the heavens, and in the sense of culture and religion? Those were some of the topics batted around at one of the FenCon panels.

The title phrase comes from one of Ranier Maria Rilke’s letters to a young poet, in which he (Rilke) muses about preferring darkness to firelight, because night includes everyone, while light shuts out those beyond the glow. I confess to having always been one “acquainted with the night,” as Robert Frost phrased it. I grew up star-gazing, taking walks after dark, going on Owl Prowls at the nature center, and so on. I prefer to keep lights dim, even as my aging eyes are less sensitive to light in general. I grew up understanding all the star references, and learning celestial navigation, and so on. But what about generations that can’t see stars, or anything dimmer than the quarter moon, because of city lights?

For astronomers, to lose the stars is both sad and a professional problem. Who will pick up the mantle after the current generation retires, if younger people don’t learn to look up, and are not fascinated by the wonder of “what’s out there? Why does it look like that?” Light pollution is a serious problem for migrating birds as well, in some cases. It can be a real pain for pilots, because finding the airport in a sea of lights is Not Easy if you don’t already know what to look for. Especially if you are not on an instrument approach with everything set to get the radio beacons or GPS fixes. There’s a runway down there. Somewhere. Or is that I-80?

Some people reply to the plaints with “There’s an ap for that!” You can point your phone or tablet at the sky, or ground, and get a star chart for whatever you are aimed at. Hubble and Webb telescope images are far more colorful and detailed than what you can see through a 6″ backyard telescope or binoculars. And some places still have a planetarium, to simulate going out at night without the bugs, traffic, light pollution, stiff neck, or risk of mugging. Who needs real stars?

We humans do. We need darkness to properly rest. We need to be reminded to things outside of our ken, of worlds greater than ourselves. There’s a sense of wonder and amazement kids and adults get from seeing the stars and identifying the patterns and shapes, the nebula and galaxies and planets, that even a great planetarium can’t quite match. There’s no ap that will reveal the heavens in their glory on a cold October night in Yellowstone, when so many stars filled the sky that I couldn’t identify constellations or planets. The Milky Way cast shadows, it was so bright. Or out at Black Mesa, Oklahoma, as the summer stars marched across the peak of the heavens and a coyote or ten called back and forth.

Darkness stands for evil in many religions. Darkness is when bad people lurk, and thus when heroes do their thing. Humans generally don’t see as well at night as by daylight, although there are a lot of variations on “not as well.” We don’t see color, and discerning patterns and “is that a shadow or a hole” becomes a bit more challenging. Not that it stopped people from working, traveling, or doing things at night in the past. Today, we flood the night with artificial light to make travel (in vehicles) safer, to discourage footpads and robbers and other mischief makers. We fear darkness more than in the past. Which came first – not going out into the darkness, thus leaving it for evil to use for shelter, or evil growing in the shadows and chasing “good people” indoors when the sun sets? Yes?

St. John of the Cross reveled in night, in his extended poem and meditation “Dark Night of the Soul.” Night brought the lover (G-d) and the beloved one (the mystic) together. Night is for lovers, for philosophers, for socializing. Night holds sweet secrets, conceals private pain from those who would mock or minimize what is very personal and real. Night is greater than we are. Darkness and stars, the moon and planets, remind us that we are tiny creatures in a big, mysterious, wonder-full universe. Who made the moon and hung the stars? What are the stories of the shapes in the night sky?

Without stars, we humans lose both astronomy and spiritual wonder. At least, that’s what the panel and those present eventually drifted toward, although no one said it in those words.

Book Review: When the Sahara Was Green

Williams, Martin. When the Sahara was Green: How Our Greatest Desert Came to Be. (Princeton U.P. 2021) Kindle Edition.

Once upon a time, millions of years, tens of thousands of years ago, the region called teh Sahara was green. Sometimes it held enormous rivers. Volcanoes erupted, were crowned with glaciers, and fell silent. Huge fish swam in the giant lakes and rivers. Lush vegetation of varying kinds grew on the land.

Then something happened. Actually, a very large number of somethings, including the entire continent moving in such a way that tucked the Sahara into a dry swath of climate, and Europe (the landmass) cutting the moisture supply to the northern regions. All long before humans ever wandered the landscape. So, as Dr. Williams points out, you can’t blame humans for the desert. Which may be the most useful point in the book.

Martin Williams is a geologist who specializes in deserts and how they got that way. His first introduction to the Sahara came in 1970, when the group he was with couldn’t go to Libya because of a coup in progress, so they went to an even drier region instead. As he and the group leader went ahead of the others (on camel, as the others got the Land Rovers and other vehicles repaired), Williams noticed evidence of human presence, and of a river, in a place where no water could be seen. That made him curious, and the rest is this book.

Half geology and half travel, the book is a very readable account of the Sahara’s deep history, going back to the Cambrian. It has nice maps and diagrams, although more would be useful, especially in the e-book version. The illustrations are hot-linked, as are the end-notes, so you can go back and forth, but that gets tiresome so I just studied the major diagrams and memorized what was where. Williams has a knack for translating from geology into good prose, and blends the deep past with more recent explorations and observations. He works roughly chronologically after the introduction, going back to the Cambrian and moving toward the present climate regime.

Contrary to popular understanding (and most nature shows I’ve seen), the Sahara is not an endless sea of tan dunes. About a quarter at most of the land is sandy. This is in part because sand is needed to make sand, and large swaths of the area don’t have the right rocks. More common are huge rocky “pavements”, and clumps of hard, black or red hills. Some are volcanic, some are tougher sedimentary remnants (think Ayers Rock/Uluru in Australia). Volcanoes in East Africa played a role in drying the region, blocking flow from what is now the Indian Ocean. Africa moving north to collide with Europe, closing the Tethys Sea, didn’t help, since what is now the Med has gone completely dry, most recently during the last phase of the Ice Age. Then things improved until the Younger Dryas, before returning to the current arid phase.

The edges of the desert move. This is not, as Williams points out, because of overgrazing, slash-and-burn farming, or air chemistry. It is because of changing rainfall patterns linked to the North Atlantic Oscillation and the El Niño/Southern Oscillation and Indian Ocean monsoon. How are they connected? No one knows yet, but there are a lot of guesses. In wetter phases, the North African grasslands and brush move south, or the sahel region moves north. When things dry out, the Sahara grows once more.

Humans didn’t cause this, but modern governments can make things worse for the people of the desert. Ordering Bedouin and others to stop moving, even when drought moves in for a decade or two, causes misery for the nomads and for the farmers around them. Killing off livestock “to stop overgrazing” isn’t the best answer, per Williams. Understanding the actual reason for the drought, and making space for people to respond in ways that work, is the better solution.

Williams is concerned about human effects on the environment, but he’s not pounding the “two legs bad, four legs good” drum that so many do. I suspect his background being in geology makes the difference – he’s used to looking at the looooooooong term. He talks about the humans who lived in what is now the desert, how they coped with the gradual changes and shifts, and what we know and don’t know.

I highly recommend this book. You don’t have an earth-science background to enjoy it, but it does make for faster reading. The illustrations and charts are good, and there are lots and lots of endnotes for those who want more.

FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration or consideration from the author or publisher for this review.

Not Repeating, But Rhyming

China and western Europe have drought. The previous year had flooding and cold. Eastern Europe alternate hot and cool. Parts of North America are dry, then drenched, while other parts get warm for extended periods. La Niña has dominated the ENSO pattern in the Pacific for two years now, and may go neutral or shift to El Niño after February.

We’ve seen this before. The 1200s and early 1300s, the early 1600s, low solar energy output augmented by a bunch of tropical volcanoes going off, with the Italian volcanoes and Iceland’s Katla tossing out their own contributions, caused a massive climatic downturn in the northern hemisphere that led to some of the worst-for-humans weather patterns in centuries. Cold and wet, hot and dry, floods and rotting crops, summers with hard frosts in June, droughts that dried the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, plague and other disease outbreaks, civil unrest and regional wars . . . The Seventeenth Century stank worse than rotten eggs and a dead cow in a confined space in August. And it wasn’t because of CO2 or the internal combustion engine. It was the internal combustion of the sun and some volcanoes.

El Niño and the North Atlantic Oscillation are patterns. They don’t repeat on set schedules, because there are far too many variables, only a handful of which climate and weather people are 100% sure about. To make things more complicated—as if Nature needed help!—there are connections between the snowfall and rain in East Africa and the El Niño pattern. We just have no way to know how it works, but we know it is there because of the enormous Nile flood calendar. Climate specialists can cross-reference written and proxy data from South America and Southeast Asia with the Nile flood records, and there is a clear pattern.

What we can’t predict are volcanoes. A massive volcanic eruption in what is now Indonesia probably played a major role in the weather shift that triggered the rodent population explosion that led to the Plague of Justinian as well as the cold, wet, stormy weather that battered north-western Europe in the 500s. Nor could we predict the spate of tropical volcanoes in the 1300s and 1600s, or the Year Without a Summer (Mt. Tambora, tone it down!) The right volcano in the wrong place can cool things considerably. Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines dropped global temps by 1-2 degrees C for a year or so.

Nor can we pinpoint forecast what will happen exactly where. Eastern Europe might be slightly above average while Western Europe and Britain freeze. Or bake. A heavy winter with lots and lots of snow might be followed by a hot summer and drought. We can guess trends based on recorded and past oceanic temperatures and winds, but all forecasts are odds. My part of the country has good odds of reverting to average-for-the-past-thirty-years rainfall if next year is an El Niño, because that shifts the storms patterns south, more directly over this area. But that’s averages, not “RedQuarters will get 22 inches of rain between February and November.”

So if I seem a bit mellow about the latest “sky isn’t falling and it’s all the fault of the Global North minus China,” it’s because I’m looking at the long patterns. No, it isn’t any comfort when my water bill skyrockets as I try to keep the grass not-entirely-dead or the gas bill zooms because of Snovid ’21: Part 2 the Sequel. (We only got down to -4 F, with windchills of “miserable.” And up here we had rolling four-hour blackouts on a schedule, not the weeks without power like down-state.) Nor do I envy Europe if the predicted effects of the Tonga volcanic eruption do cause colder weather on top of the usual chill. Is it all mankind’s fault? Only if we’ve figured out how to trigger volcanic eruptions, or how to dim the sun, and I do not refer to adding fine particulates to the atmosphere, or putting mirrors in space to reflect “excess” solar energy.

I still don’t like drought, or blizzards, though.

Breaking Summer’s Back: The August Norther

Earlier in the month, Dorothy Grant and I were commiserating about hot weather and maybe the big rain maker that was chugging along would break the heat for a while. Alas, it wasn’t the one, although it did drop temps from 104 F to 84 F, which was a welcome change. The rain was even more welcome, for those who got some.

The big August system came in last weekend up here, and dropped things from the upper 90s to the upper 60s. For high temperatures. That’s the sign. Indeed, temperatures have stayed below the 30-year average for the past week, and seem to be remaining low. Oh, they’ll bounce up again in September, because they always do during the Tri-State Fair (just like it used to rain during FunFest every May when that was still held), but the worst seems to be past.

The August Norther, or Grey Norther as I sometimes call it, is the first really strong cold weather system to come down the plains during late summer. It starts as a wind shift, from the common southwesterly winds of summer, the dry, hot winds from the desert. Instead the windsock swings around to the north and northwest, sometimes northeast. Moisture comes in as well, the humidity creeping up from bone-dry to slightly damp. People start looking north, and checking the weather reports from places like Guymon, OK, and Dalhart Texas, up to the north of us. If they start getting cool, with light rain (or sometimes with heavy rain and storms), and Kansas and Colorado are also cool, then you know what’s coming. People with weather joints like my hands grit their teeth, because it hurts. Change is coming, even if we can’t see it and we don’t get restless like we do in thunderstorm season.

Clouds begin to mass on the northern skyline, low and dark or towering and ferocious. Either way, the cold air flowing south down the plains churns up the air, making clouds and scattering moisture over the landscape. Sometimes it is a cool, steady rain that lingers for hours and soaks everything slowly, perhaps flooding low places if things are just right. Otherwise it is a snarling, crashing storm line that drenches the world and sends streams out of their banks as low-water-crossing signs start to go under water in town and the usual places have street flooding. The rain is always welcome in August – nothing is ready for harvest, the winter wheat has not been planted, and the cotton and sorghum are still growing. Ranchers like the rain because it gives the grass a boost to start it growing again, or to keep it growing.*

The next morning wakens sluggishly as low clouds cling to the world, hiding the sun. The wind has faded a little but cool or even cold air continues to ooze down from the north. Instead of the 90s, 50s and 60s dominate the temperatures. Light drizzle may fill the air. It won’t soak you through, but it chills you if you don’t have a windbreaker or light jacket on. Joggers rejoice, and dog-walkers brace as old dogs gain new life from the cool air. The smell of dust is gone, replaced by mist, perhaps by the scent of drains in need of more flushing. Your glasses spot up, especially if you face into a cool, water-rich wind. Hot, spicy tea tastes very good when you come back indoors, lightly damp and a touch chilled. You can open the windows and let fresh air in without baking or getting dirt blown all over everything. The world looks greener already.

The clouds might burn off, thinning before revealing the sun. Or they might win the battle, hugging the ground and hiding the sky. People hunt for jackets long ignored. No one complains, though. The cool air is welcome. This past weekend didn’t bring as much rain to town as people had hoped, but other places got a gracious plenty, places that missed the previous round. Everyone relished the coolth. Not until two and a half days after the first clouds raced in did the sun appear, too late to heat the day.

Three days in the 60s and 70s, followed by humid, cool mornings and warm but not baking afternoons, that’s a sign. Summer’s back has been broken. The worst is past. Heat will return, but not the weeks of water-stealing desert wind, not the nights so warm the land just simmered in the darkness as people sweltered. The days grow shorter. The sun has moved far enough south that sunbeams peep into my office windows in mid-afternoon, still muted by the leaves on the neighbor’s tree, but present.

The seasons always turn. Everyone knows that in our heads. But when June fades into July bakes into August, our hearts need a reminder that the rains will return. Cooler days will arrive, easing the strain of summer. The Summer Triangle is moving farther and farther west each night, and Sirius has begun to appear in the east. Autumn will arrive. Our hearts know that now. The richest part of the year, the cool, prosperous time of harvest and warm spices and good things.**

Summer’s time is past. The wheel turns.

*Depending on what kind of grasses you have. The native grasses are “warm season” and start later in the spring, then keep going during summer and go dormant fairly early. Cool-season grasses like to die in summer, and thrive in earlier spring and the autumn.

**I’m leaning on tradition. Wheat harvest here is in June, cotton can stretch into December, but the fall seems like harvest because of the fair and other things. Winter can be lethal out here, but autumn is the time everyone waits for.

Loving a Dry Land

I’m strange. My favorite places to live are all semi-arid, which means that most of the time, they are hard lands to make a living from. “A semi-desert with a desert heart” as Marc Reisner described it, wet years are followed by hard-scrabble half-centuries of dust, fire, and struggling to find water and to keep the wind from stealing that water. And when it does rain, mosquitoes fill the grass, low places become bogs, snakes move uphill and indoors, and people get snappish and moldy on the north side. We’re too used to the very sun we curse, grumble at, and hide from.

But I love this part of the world. I can see weather coming, even if I can’t get away from it. There’s nothing to hide behind once you get away from people and the trees we’ve planted. The Llano Estacado is one giant emergency runway, the few canyons excepted. At night, stars cover the world from here to there, making navigation easier once you know how to sort out which stars you need. Bison and cattle thrive here in wet years, growing fat on the short grasses of the prairie and the medium-height grasses of the playa lakes. The constant wind drives pumps and household wind-chargers, dries laundry, and keeps the mosquitoes at bay. Mold and mildew are uncommon, although turning into jerky and/or getting kidney stones are a constant concern.

In the mornings, meadowlarks and mocking birds, redwing blackbirds, and white-wing doves serenade the world. Wild sunflowers face east, welcoming the sun. In summer, Mississippi kites launch with the first thermals, soaring up and up to find bugs. Larger raptors also linger, Coopers hawks, a few golden eagles in the canyons, vultures (aka “the county hygiene society”) wherever they choose to congregate.

Foxes and coyotes trot among the grasses, blending in as they hunt rodents, grasshoppers, locusts, and anything else that looks edible. Mr. No-shoulders slithers here and there, bullsnakes and rattle snakes and other things that discourage you from putting you hand into holes. The occasional mountain lion and bobcat meander through, and pronghorn antelope race along, diving under fences to get away from the overly-curious.

When rains come, and winter fades, the land can look like knee-high velvet. The wind hisses and mutters over the flat land, bending the playa grasses as it passes. Cloud shadows flow as well, darker patches on greens and browns. Wildflowers appear in pockets, and wild sunflowers loom come late summer. As the days grow short and the rains fade away after the equinoctial storms, the grasses cure, brown, seed-heavy in all their forms. They are rich fodder for cattle, and for flame. March is fire month if the rains do not begin, or if snow has not fallen. Trees are rare and valued, those that can tolerate heat and cold, constant wind and hard sunlight on alkaline soil.

I love the high plains. It’s not an easy place. It’s not a “pretty” place. But it’s home. If I ever have to leave, I will miss the land and the people.

Storms and Promises

At six AM, the forecast promised rain within the hour. It all went west of town. I live in a heat island, and the effect has been notable this year. Shining storm towers build to the east, grey walls amass to the north and west, and the city gets three drops and a spitter, or at most half an inch while everyone around us is wading. Unless we get a big, juicy, tropical air mass, or a cold-front strong enough to overcome the hot spot, the city is drier than the surrounding area. So I was not surprised when the morning storm skirted past. I walked dry headed and dry footed, under rippled clouds that turned into undershot pink waves. Kites called and soared, and a few doves and other birds voiced their opinion of the morning. The morning cats slunk their way along the houses. Two joggers panted past, intent on their mileage. Without wind, any scent of rain remained under the distant showers. Town smelled like town.

However, come seven thirty, lower clouds began filling in over town. I shrugged and finished skimming e-mail and getting ready to go to work. I needed to grab a few things before my first meeting and to go through books and review papers and so on. It’s that time of year. I heard rain on the leaves outside my office, and rain on the skylights, but just light pit-a-pats, not steady rain or the pounding of a storm’s deluge. The pavement gleamed, but that was it. Another shrug, and I patted the cat and set out.

A brilliant double rainbow filled the sky to the west and slightly south! Black rain hid what lay beyond it as the sun undershot the showers to the east. The inner bow arced completely across the sky, from ground to ground, while the outer one only made it a third of the way, from the southwest up toward the northwest. Both were clearly visible, and glowed. I’ve not seen a rainbow that solid in ages. It was amazing. Enough so that I gave in and sang “Rainbow Connection,” because why not?

When I pulled into my errand, I noticed workers coming out, looking at the sky, then going back in. It turned out that the manager was sending folks out in batches so everyone could see. I trotted in, got what I needed, and trotted out. Both rainbows still gleamed. Traffic moved a bit slower than usual, especially westbound, and I suspect the colors in the sky played a large role. The sky remained blue-black to the west. I almost pulled over to get my camera out of my bag, but decided to wait until I got out in the country on the way to Day Job. Alas, the storm continued at Day Job, so no rainbows.

“Rainbows are visions/ They’re only illusions/ and rainbows have nothing to hide,” says the song. So why was everyone watching, and pointing, and smiling? Well, we need beauty. Rainbows are rare here, especially ones that bright, and doubles rarer still. They began the day on a good note – rain, cooler weather, and colors that sang against the dark background. Even if you are not a follower of Judaism or Christianity, the idea that rainbows are a gift and a promise still has some appeal.

About that “Rewilding the World” Fantasy . . .

So, I was skimming cover copy at the regional B&N recently, and found yet another, “humanity goes away and paradise returns,” this time with terraforming gone wild tossed in. Yawn. Now, granted, I did not buy the book and read it, so I don’t know all the details of the world building, either in-book or otherwise. However, if there were dams and irrigation systems, a rapid decline in population will not lead to a return to Nature. The opposite. Because we (humans) have seen this before.

One of the big surprises that arose when people got serious about using the tools of archaeology and hydrology for environmental history was the realization that the end of the Roman Empire and the population decrease in certain regions led to vastly increased erosion. That was completely counterintuitive. The thinking had been that when people stopped cutting down trees and overgrazing, and when the irrigation diversions silted up and went away, erosion would return to the pre-development baseline, then improve (build up instead of cut down.) That’s not what the dirt showed. Oops.

How awkward.

For one thing, in a lot of places, the “forest primeval” hadn’t existed since the Neolithic. Humans abhor dense, dank wildernesses. So they cleared out spaces for desirable species, thinned the undergrowth, encouraged “good plants” and generally did everything they could to get rid of “pristine Nature.” Unless it was the high mountains, or nasty swamps, people all over the world modified, improved, and tweaked “Nature.” And that’s before the engineers appeared . . .

When you deal with water control structures, like flood-control dams and irrigation systems, you generally have to keep in mind silt and other sediments. Silt, the very fine particles of soil and other things, will slowly settle out of slow moving or non-moving water. Give it long enough, and it will fill-up your reservoir. Moving streams have an energy balance: Slope of bed X volume of flow = amount of sediment X speed of flow. Change one and the others will adjust to balance. So if you slow the flow, silt settles out. Speed up the flow of non-silty water (say, at the outlet of a dam), and you will have increased erosion until the water collects enough solid particles to return to balance. Fast moving water can carry more stuff than slow moving or still water. It’s common sense, but the ratio wasn’t known until the late 1800s-early 1900s.

So, back to the Roman water systems. When Rome retreated, the engineers and excess population needed to justify keeping the dams and irrigation systems working also went away. So the systems failed from floods, lack of repair, the occasional sabotage, and hap-hazard maintenance. All the dirt in the ponds behind the dams started to flow downstream, silting up the place. Irrigation systems became erosion channels, eating into older fields, especially if terracing failed as well and gravity helped move soil down the slopes. The greatest amount of erosion seen in parts of Europe prior to the 1800s came between AD 460-600 CE. When the population dropped and resource use declined, in other words. Reforestation didn’t happen fast enough, and the bare soil that had been fertile fields washed away, causing more erosion until it was reclaimed in the Middle Ages.

That’s the problem with archaeology and environmental history. We keep finding things that make simple, tidy stories messy and complicated. We upset Natural apple-carts. So a failure of terraforming leading to the disappearance of the human colonists would not return the planet to “pristine Nature.”

Ya know, studying environmental history ruins so many sci-fi and fantasy concepts. SIGH.

Since the Rain . . .

“Oh, things look so much better, darlin’.” (Ian Tyson, “Since the Rain)

The part of Texas north of I-40 was blessed with two and a half days of rain, culminating in a huge rain shield that covered everything from the interstate north to Kansas and that left between two and eight (!) inches of rain all over. It was a tropical sort of system, bringing steady rain for hours on end, without much wind, and only a few embedded thunderstorms. They were what the Navajo call “female rains.”

I’m far more used to “male rain:” thunderstorm rains that explode, dump rain and hail for a short period of time, and then move away or collapse in place and stop raining. Most of the area’s moisture now comes between April-June with that type of storm. Sometimes storms “train,” forming lines that move over the same area over and over and flood a small patch or strip of territory. Others look like chicken-pox on the radar: a bunch of little red dots that give small patches of land a good drenching. And there are three-inch rains. A few drops three inches apart, usually preceded by flying mudballs.

The first day on Hadrian’s Wall, the morning was overcast. Then the misty cold rain began, blowing sideways as I picked my slow, panting, flat-lander’s way up onto The Sill to walk more of the route of Hadrian’s Wall. It was the sort of weather I’d expected Yorkshire and Scotland to have, and while it wasn’t fun, it was a very nice change from the 100 F + heat back in Texas. Instead of the veils and streamers of blue-grey I usually see when there’s good visibility around showers, it was grey and hazy where the rain fell. I never got truly drenched, but dampness soaked into my trousers and spotted my glasses.

It was rather more gloomy than this exposure suggests. New Lanark, from the famous viewpoint.

The only other day of serious rain was at New Lanark. It had showered on us the afternoon before, when we walked from the mills up to the falls on the Tweed and back. The trees broke up most of the rain, and it’s supposed to be wet in Scotland, yes? The next morning, a steady drenching poured down from low clouds. It was a good morning to be doing museums and poking around the gift shop (great if you are a knitter or do needle art, or like to read about knitting and needle art.) From there we drove almost due west, toward Ardrossan. The rain surrounded us, very heavy and dark, with mist devouring the rolling green landscape. The thickest fog and low cloud met us at Louden Hill.

Louden Hill, where a lot of history and prehistory happened. Creative Commons Fair use. Original source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/19773685844081178/

The clouds almost skimmed the base of the mound. It was distinctly eerie, not that my imagination needs much help. We were passing the cold front. Just past Louden Hill, the sky abruptly rose, and bits of blue had started to appear when we pulled up to the ferry terminal at Ardrossan.

Departing Ardrossan harbor . . .

It’s easy to see why large swaths of Britain are so green and lush. Now, all I want back here is “clear blue skies—and eighteen inches of rain!” (Ian Tyson, “Eighteen Inches of Rain)

Waiting for the First Drops

It takes rain to make rain. The most frustrating part of living in a drought may well be the nightly weather forecast, when the weather dude (or dudette) says, “All the ingredients for a good rain are here, but until we get some moisture, the system has nothing to work with.” And so you open the morning paper to see that the area a hundred miles east of you got pounded with flooding rain, ping-pong-ball-hail, and farmers are griping because it’s too wet to harvest the winter wheat. Meanwhile dust is dancing on the morning wind and the cracks in the ground of your yard are so deep that you’re pretty sure if you look carefully, you can see a group of people in a park practicing tai chi.

Without moisture in the ground, there’s nothing to evaporate and fuel the storms that bring more rain. All the air does is bake, sucking more water out of the plants and soil. It takes rain to make rain. Only after something pumps starter moisture into the area, be it the remains of a hurricane in the Gulf or the Pacific, or something sucking southeasterly winds up into the Plains with dew points in the 50s F, can the rainmaking weather systems produce rain.

Writing and culture seem to be a lot like waiting for rain. It takes someone saying “Hey, I’m tired of elegantly written, beautiful books without plots. I want characters that stand up and defend what they believe in. I’m tired of reading 400 pages of ‘brilliant prose’ about a woman having existential angst about her midlife crises over the course of a day of shopping.” And someone else chimes in, “Yeah. Me too. I want some big damn heroes.” And a writer ventures out into the waters, publishing a little electronic book and saying, “Hi. You might like this.” Or “Dear Big Publisher, sod off. I’m writing what I want to read and if other people buy it, great.”

One story becomes two, becomes three, becomes the first faint gust of moist wind. Other proto-authors see the new books, or encounter a reprinted swashbuckling classic, and say, “Hey! I’ve got one of those in my drawer.” Or they decide to venture out into the publishing waters with their own tale of adventure. (Captain Blood in space, anyone?) The damp gust becomes a stronger wind, bringing inspiration and ideas and motivation with it. And then the rain begins, or a wave. Let’s call it “human wave,” a storm of books about people of all colors and flavors, human and otherwise, fighting for truth, beauty, justice, and the right to be left alone. Or to win the hand of their true love. Or to defeat the evil wizard. Or just to survive on a hostile planet.  And so the rain falls, bringing more rain, and refreshing readers thirsty for well-told tales and pretty-much happy endings.

You don’t need a hurricane to bring rain, just a steady, water rich wind.