Diary: George R. Stewart, Life of a storm
As a crab moves on the ocean-bottom, but is of the water, so man rests his feet upon the earth—but lives in the air. Man thinks of the crab as a water-animal; illogically and curiously, he calls himself a creature of the land.
As water environs the crab, so air surrounds, permeates, and vivifies the body of man. If traces of noxious gas mingle with it, he coughs and his complexion turns deathly gray. If it becomes overcharged with water-droplets, he gropes helplessly in fog. If it moves too fast, he becomes a pitiable wind-swept creature, cowering in cellars and ditches. Even for rain he is dependent on air. If actually removed from air, he dies immediately.
Physicists describe the air as tasteless, odorless, and invisible. It could not well be otherwise. But these are not so much its qualities as adjustments of man. For if the air impressed the senses, being at the same time all-pervasive, it would necessarily obscure all other tastes, odors, and sights.
Air is so bound up with man’s life that only with difficulty can he realize its existence as something in itself. To a savage it is as much an abstraction as consciousness; a child can conceive wind, which is air in motion, but not air itself. In our own language, wind, mist, and rain are ancient words, but air is a late and learned borrowing of a Greek word, which itself originally meant wind.
Even among the so-called land-animals, man is less than most bound to the earth. His tree-dwelling ancestors may have descended to the ground furtively, as to a foreign and hostile region; in civilization people spend most of their time upon raised platforms called floors. As individual men move in a too well-known landscape without noticing its features, so man—fallaciously—takes for granted the all-pervasive air. His historians deal in lands and seas. But most movements of peoples have been not so much quests for better countries as for better atmospheric conditions. “A place in the sun” explains much of history more exactly than we usually realize, except that just as often we should say, “A place in the rain.” A thunderstorm in haytime may overthrow a ministry, and a slight average rise or fall of temperature may topple a throne; a shift in the storm-track can ruin an empire. In the twentieth century a temporary variation of rainfall put Okies upon the highway by the hundred-thousand, just as in the third century a similar shift might in a single year hurl the Huns against the Chinese frontier and set the blue-painted Caledonians swarming at Hadrian’s Wall. In the mass as in the individual, man is less a land-animal than a creature of the air.
From Siberia a wide torrent of air was sweeping southward—from death-cold Verkhoyansk, from the frigid basin of the Lena, from thick-frozen Lake Baikal. The great wind poured over the Desert of Gobi. Even the hardy nomads winced; the long-haired northern camels stirred uneasily; the rough-coated ponies shivered; all sound of running water was hushed. High in the air swirled the dust blown up from the desert. Over the mountain-jagged rim of the table-land the wind poured forth; through all the gaps and passes of the Khingan Mountains, down the gorge of the Hwang-ho.
Descending from the plateau and entering a warmer region, the air lost some of its arctic coldness; it ran Southward along the coast of China and at last swung away from the coast and moved out over the sea; with every mile of passage across the water it grew more moist and temperate. Through a thinning yellow haze the sun pierced more warmly. Now the wind was no longer a gale, scarcely even a strong breeze. The polar fury was spent. But still, east by south, the river of air flowed on across the China Sea toward the far reaches of the Pacific.
An hour before sunset, one section reached a small island—a mere mountain-peak above the ocean. A dead-tired man may stumble over a pebble and fall; but his weariness, rather than the pebble, is the cause. Similarly, a vigorously advancing front would simply have swept over and around the island, but now the obstruction caused an appreciable break, and a hesitant eddy, about a mile in diameter, began to form—weakened—took shape again. At one point the southern air no longer yielded passively to the northern, but actively flowed up its slope, as up a gradual hill. Rising, this air grew cooler, and from it a fine drizzle began to fall. This condensation of water in turn further warmed the air, and caused it to press up the slope more steadily with still further condensation. The process thus became self-perpetuating and self-strengthening.
The movement of this advancing warm air was now a little southwest breeze, where previously all the flow of air had been from the northeast. With this new breeze, air which was still warmer and more moist moved in from the south along the near-by section of the original front, renewing its vigor and causing a little shower. All these new and renewed activities—winds, drizzle, and shower—were now arranged in complex but orderly fashion around a single point.
As from the union of two opposite germ-cells begins a life, so from the contact of northern and southern air had sprung something which before had not been. As a new life, a focus of activity, begins to develop after its kind and grow by what it feeds on, so in the air that complex of forces began to develop and grow strong. A new storm had been born.
Around the curve of the earth, the day-old storm moved eastward, leaving Asia behind. Upon the opposite face of the sphere the sun now shone, but the storm swirled over darkened waters. Although among its kind it must be counted immature and small, nevertheless it had grown so rapidly that it already dominated an area which was a thousand miles across.
Around its center the winds blew in a great circuit—counterclockwise. In the whole half of the storm-area northward from the center there was little cloud or rain; dry, cold winds were blowing from the east and north. Most of the weather-activity lay to the south along the two fronts, the boundary lines between cooler and warmer air. Extending from the storm-center, like the two legs of a wide-spread compass— warm front and cold front—they moved rapidly eastward, and the storm center moved with them. As a wave moves through the water without carrying the water along with it, so the storm-center and the two fronts moved through the air, yet themselves remained a single unit.
The southwest breeze which, thirty hours before, had first sprung up near that rocky island south of Japan, had now grown to a great river of air five miles deep, five hundred wide. From over the tropical ocean it poured forth its warm and moist air. Then, as it might have blown against a gently rising range of mountains, it met the slope of the retreating northern air, and spiraling upward, swerved in toward the center. Ascending, it cooled; its moisture first became cloud, and then quickly rain. Thus, like a great elongated comma—head at the center of the storm, tail reaching five hundred miles to the southeast—the continuous rain-belt of the warm front swept across the ocean surface.
George R. Stewart’s bestselling 1941 novel Storm has been credited with inventing the eco-novel. In his introduction to NYRB Classics’ new edition, Nathaniel Rich writes, “To research the novel [Stewart] became a storm chaser, grabbing his car keys whenever a weather report mentioned blizzards or landslides. He rode on a locomotive cowcatcher through Donner Pass and on a flatcar through Feather River Canyon; he stowed away in the engine of a snowplow and toured storm-damaged utility plants. Having been impressed with a storm’s ‘dramatic values,’ he began to realize that a storm ‘had most of the qualities of a living thing.’” Stewart traces his heroine’s passage among the meteorologists who track her and the sailors and farmers and passersby who experience her effects; we’ve brought together here a few of the passages about the storm’s origin. Storm is the August selection of the NYRB Classics Book Club, which through August 11 one can join at a special anniversary rate.
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