Monday, August 2, 2010

kith and kin

for all the completely opposite vegetation, climate, and landscape, i feel at home in the southwest. there's one key thing that southwesterners and northwesterns have in common, a key similarity that we can recognize in each other's eyes and culture and think: yeah, so you understand where i'm coming from.

it's rain worship.

for opposite reasons, and through opposite experiences, we both end up at the same point: the point at which rainfall becomes, in many ways, the defining feature of our existence.

in the northwest, as it rains all winter long, it becomes the focal point of our conversations - how much it's rained. how many days it's rained. how long it's been since we've seen the sun. how much above, or below, average this year is. how it compares to soaker years in the past. how, we tell newcomers, this ain't nothin yet; just you wait. sometimes it will rain for months.

and down in the southwest, by the end of fall, they are having similar conversations: how much it's rained. how many days it's been since it rained. how long it's been since they've seen the rain. how much above, or below, average this year is. how it compares to drought years in the past. how, i imagine them telling newcomers, this ain't nothin yet; just you wait. sometimes it won't rain for months.

all of us, eyes fixed to the skies, staring at the clouds. all of us worshipping - in a direct, this-is-what's-shaping my-life way, the rainfall.

and existence in both the northwest and southwest is defined by storms that come, like clockwork, with the rains. in the northwest, it's the winter storms. the grey clouds settle in and cover the landscape, for days on end. then, slowly, a storm will build; with little change in the color or tenor of the overhanging roof of clouds, winds gradually whip up and rain increases until, for hours or days, all natural hell breaks loose. bridges are closed. trees topple.  waves crash across lanes of traffic. rivers cease to stay in thier courses and innundate the banks around them, spilling across roads. falling trees cut off power for hours, sometimes days. and all around, coastal and valley residents are comforted by the knowledge that they are, in the grand scheme of things, only bit players; that nature always has the final word on whether thier pitiful endeavors - roads, bridges, houses, power lines - will stand or fall. wrapped in our insignificance in the face of all that's powerful, we can finally relax, and inhale and exhale with the gusts and breaths of the storm. it is a meditation. and we are nothing more or less than rain-worshippers, praying.

in the southwest, it's the summer storms. the dark clouds gather on the horizon almost daily. one can watch them marching ever closer, ever darker. then like a wall, the water hits. torrents run from the skies. freeway traffic slows to 40, to 30, as drivers search for a faster windshield wiper setting. isn't there a three? i can't see a thing! water gushes into roadways, which drop from four lanes to two as rivers form along the sides. rain flows across parking lots and skips over curbs, creating tiny canyons in xeric rock landscaping as it courses along. instead of the drama of the wind, here it's the drama of lightning. streaks split the sky over and over. lightning touches down and, the channel now open, will pulse two or three times over as built-up energy finds an open outlet. thunder booms all around. life comes to almost a standstill as everyone realizes that, in the grand scheme of things, we're only bit players; nature will flood your roads and burn your forests without a second glance. the storm breaths slightly; slowing down, the worshippers exhale a bit, relax a bit, only to realize that the pause was simply an intake of air. wham, another blast descends. until, finally, like exiting a room, the rain slows to a trickle and the foreboding dark sky gives way to the trademark southwest washed-clean blue with little, innocent, white fluffy clouds. everyone is breathing in time. it is a stop-what-you're doing, meditative moment in the hot day. and every person watching the sky is nothing more than a rain-worshipper, praying.