Sunday, September 30, 2007
Our book today is “Big Weather” by Mark Svenvold, and its subtitle is ‘Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of America.’ Which, in this case (a rarity among hyperventilating subtitles), scarcely does the book justice. Because it turns out there are lunatic-fringe mortal men and women who don’t just study tornadoes, don’t just obsessively collect data on them, but actually chase them, for all the world as though they wanted to be CAUGHT by one, even though such an event would almost certainly spell their doom.
Svenvold makes it his business to meet all of these people, and they present an extremely motley assemblage of neurotics, nutjobs, and off-the-grid desperadoes. They’re saved from the taint of simply being latently suicidal by dint of their obvious zest for living, however bent and twisted.
Years ago, there was a great little TV show called “Eerie Indiana” (it starred a 14-year-old roasting tobacco addict named Omri Katz, who, for all we know, is meagerly subsisting on Paypal porn as we speak, but who did absolutely first-rate comedic work as a kid caught on the suspiciously thin boundary between suburbia and the supernatural), and one episode featured the delightfully frenetic Matt Frewer as a gonzo tornado-chaser prone to uttering Ben Kenobi-isms about ‘the big twisties.’ The impression the viewer is left with – aside from the fact that ‘Eerie, Indiana’ was a damn funny show – is that anybody who intentionally chases tornadoes must have a few too many singers in the choir.
And yet, there they all are in Svenvold’s raucous account, gulping down coffee in some no-name South Dakota diner and then hurrying off at news of a late-breaking sighting, the pots, kettles, and ‘seeing stones’ of their previous generation replaced with sleek cell-phones, GPS monitors, and other state-of-the-art gadgetry.
Part of this is, in fact, understandable. It’s not entirely insane to feel the pull of such awe-inspiring phenomena of nature as tornadoes. Their gigantic, unthinking grandeur is compelling, and it can often do funny things to the powers of judgement. Why, even we here at Stevereads have been known to be affected! Once upon a time, in the dinged-up little town of Elk City, Oklahoma, we were minding our own business when we became gradually more aware of all the telltale warning signs – the sickly green overcast the sky takes on, the vacant feel of the air, and more than anything the sound, like the roaring of a freight train, only seeming to emanate from everywhere at once.
And that’s where the lapse of judgement can become almost hypnotic, because even after we’d seen these signs, even after we knew what they meant, we still rushed out into the street in the hopes of seeing the great thing. And we did! Not Hollywood-movie clear, but unmistakable nonetheless, a black stain of pure ferocious kinetic energy, prowling laterally along the horizon on a thick cloud of destruction. And even then, even then, there was the mad urge to move toward that destruction, instead of seeking shelter.
Svenvold’s subjects yield to that mad urge, and he goes along for the ride as much as he dares. His portraits of these nutjobs are unfailingly endearing, but the book’s best, most effective prose concerns the phenomenon itself, rather than the lunatics chasing it. Svenvold, it turns out, is a superb nature-writer, starting with the book’s wonderful first line, “Air is water’s ghost, flowing, like water, through its season.”
He’s at his best, hands down, when describing tornadoes themselves. Here he shows the quintessential characteristic of the best nature-writers, the ability to convey scientific information in fluid, energetic prose:
“Tornadoes occur at the ‘storm scale,’ which is an entirely different sort of ball game. Small though they are relative to the mesoscale and synoptic scale forces surrounding them, storms are immense structures, which required a special orienteering savvy. Towering five to ten miles high, often sprawling across several counties, a storm is composed of many different constituent parts, moving rapidly in three dimensions, and often too large to take in. All of it is working as a single process in time, creating its own mini-environments, or boundary layers, which rise and fall, emerge and then vanish.”
He’s virtually exuberant about the sheer impossibility of his central subject:
“A tornado represents many things, beginning with its own extreme unlikelihood. Every tornado represents a supreme, if momentary, trouncing of the second law of thermodynamics, the glum law of entropy that states that all things move from order to chaos. Tornadoes move the other way, from a chaos of cloud swirl, from a mixture of lines of force, density, temperature, lift, speed, and convergence, a set of initiating conditions whose exact ingredients are still unknown, to a near perfect level of order and organization, capable, paradoxically of delivering immense destruction, an order that creates widespread disorder, confusion, and chaos.”
Mark Svenvold has written a powerful little punch of a book, something as energetic and light-footed as the monstrous things that comprise his subject. It’s well worth your time to find and read (we seem to be on an extended roll of such books lately – which will no doubt make the inevitable smackdown of some poor slob’s life-work all the more seismic when it finally happens).
And there’s something else we recommend, although it isn’t anything you can find on the shelves of your local Barnes & Noble. It’s this: if you should ever find yourself in tornado country (it can be anywhere, although your chances increase significantly if you’re in the United States, south and east of the Dakota badlands) and experience all those telltale warning signs, do yourself a favor you’ll be happy about for the rest of your life (no matter how short it might be as a result!): go outside and look at the horrible, beautiful wonder bearing down on you. Don’t chase it, like Svenvold’s lunatics, but likewise don’t seek shelter until you’ve at least taken a look. After all, as the saying goes, you only live once.