When my grandparents were in their late seventies they fulfilled a dream to live on a farm. They were not just retirees who sat on the front porch admiring their land. They were full fledged cultivators who worked from the crack of dawn until late in the evening growing crops which my grandmother then canned and shared with family and neighbors. It was hard work, but they reveled in it and not even our summertime visits to their place halted their labors. Usually by the time that we awoke each morning they had already been working in the fields for hours.
By noon the sun would be bearing down so brutally on the Arkansas land that my grandparents would take a break from their labors. We would sit on their front porch sheltered by an overhang shielded by screens designed to keep the bugs from invading our space. Big box fans did their best to move the mostly still air and Grandma provided cold drinks to quench our thirst. Since none of us had air conditioners in our homes back then, we endured the heat without too much complaint, but when the temperatures inched over one hundred degrees our talk would almost always focus on the weather.
My grandparents lived in the hills near a tiny town called Caddo Gap, Arkansas where summers were ferociously hot and winters brought snow and ice. In the fall they enjoyed the changing colors associated with that time of year and the spring marked the beginning of their months of toiling over their crops. Their’s was a cycle repeated over and over again in tandem with nature. Sometimes a flash flood would hit and keep them captive in their home until the waters receded, but they were always prepared to survive with their fresh supply of milk from their cow, eggs from their chickens, and canned vegetables in the cellar. The seasons and the weather ruled their days and nights and thus were a constant topic of discussion.
There was a time when talking about the weather was noncontroversial. It just was a fact of life that everyone took for granted. Depending on where one lived there were certain weather events that tended to occur regularly and some that were a less frequent but possible occurrence. I grew up near the Gulf of Mexico and understood that now and again a hurricane might come our way. Preparing for such an eventuality was commonplace. We knew what supplies we might need if a big storm headed our way. We kept stashes of batteries, flashlights and water along with gas stoves and canned foods to sustain us if the worst happened. I remember filling the bathtub and all of our big pots with water in advance of hurricane Carla with the idea of having a means of flushing toilets and washing ourselves if our utilities were damaged. Sometimes it would take weeks for the electricity to come back and we adjusted until things returned to normal once again.
Somehow the storms and droughts and tornadoes and fires and blizzards seem to be happening more often than in the past. When they come their intensity is often more extreme as well. Even if nobody ever mentioned phrases like climate change or global warming I suppose we would sense that the weather is not exactly as it once was. There is a frightening uncertainty about it that even belies our preparations. We don’t expect three or four days of unrelenting downpours that bring six feet of water into our homes and yet that has happened more and more often. We are not accustomed to such long stretches of drought that our forests become kindling but it has almost become a way of life.
We humans are innately control freaks. We have long had dominion over the land and sometimes over other people. It’s been quite some time since most of us have had to produce what we eat. In well developed countries we tend not to notice the weather much until it is unusual. We enjoy our cooled and heated homes and cars and take those things for granted. Life seems so good and so perfect. There are no noonday breaks from the sun for us. We keep working in our air conditioned or heated bliss. Our food is delivered in trucks. Weather is an inconvenience only when it interferes with our routines. Somehow we have ignored it for so long that it only gets our attention when it wreaks havoc. Otherwise we don’t seem to notice the impact that we are having on it, and that our impact is not good.
Talking of the weather is no longer an everyday thing like it was for my grandparents whose progress in the fields depended on what was happening in the atmosphere. As with so many things these days the weather has become political. We fight and disagree over how to address it, or whether it is even necessary to address it. We expect our government to stay out of the business of harnessing our habits of creating problems, and then expect that same government to save us when a weather disaster occurs. We seem either unwilling or incapable of becoming more attuned to the sacrifices we each need to make if we are to undo all of the damage we have done to our planet. It is almost unthinkable to consider spending a summer in the south without air conditioning, and yet it was done all the time before about the middle of the twentieth century. We don’t want to do the heavy lifting of scaling back our misuse of the earth’s resources. In fact we don’t even seem to want to talk about it, and we make fun of those who do.
My grandparents were in tune with the weather. They grew up in a time when there often was no glass on the windows of their homes. They learned how to survive the heat of summer and the cold of winter. They worked around the vagaries of temperature and climate. They wasted nothing and used little. All of that changed as we became more modernized and began to take our conveniences and our government for granted. We want it all and we want it now, a concept that would have been foreign to my grandparents. They understood the need for sacrifice and sharing quite well. They would not have understood our hesitation to conserve and cultivate habits that enrich the natural resources of our world. They would have easily spoken about the weather and our role in it rather than denying that we have any impact whatsoever in the acceleration of disastrous events.
So let’s really begin talking about the weather and what we will have to do to keep it from ultimately making life more difficult for all of us. If we love our planet and each other it’s time for some hard conversations and some new ways of living.