Awe, shucks …

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

Wintertime was magic when I was a kid. When the snow came, it transformed our world. It turned the forest that surrounded our ranch into an infinity of marvels, mysteries and delights. We could track the animals and follow their secret ways. We didn’t get a lot of snow, most years there wasn’t enough to dig tunnels even for kids on their stomachs. Every few years, though, we’d get two or three feet of snow that would stick. Then we would build the tunnels, sliding and pulling ourselves through them on our stomachs like demented penguins.

What I remember most about those snow tunnels was the color. It was an icy blue that only lived one place in my experience, in the snow tunnels. That color had a strange fascination for me, it was a source of some strange wintry warmth that could only be produced by the weather. Nothing else on my planet had that same color, nowhere was there that same icy blue as the snow tunnels. Even today, I get the shivers thinking of it.

ice marbles 1SOURCE

Over at Judith Curry’s excellent and perennially interesting blog, there’s a discussion about what makes for a good scientist. One thing that has always pushed me to search for scientific explanations has been my never-ending awe at the size and the power and the endless varieties of the weather around the world. I always find myself asking, how do they do that? What mechanisms explain that? How is that possible?

One of my first experiences of this kind of awe was at something I’ve never seen described anywhere since. That’s what got me thinking about the winter.

Near where I grew up, there was something called the “German ditch”, which exists to this day. It was dug by hand, maybe around the turn of the last century, by the early German immigrants. It brought water from a noble watercourse yclept “Atkins Creek” to a whole string of ranches along the lower hillsides. It was maintained by the collective labor of those who benefitted from the water, on the eponymously named “Ditch Day” which occurred once a year, or more as necessary. It picked off water from the creek and brought it in the ditch, which up at the head was maybe three feet wide and two feet deep (.9 m x .6 m), for some miles along the ridge.

Along the way, there was another creek that the German ditch had to cross over. It was spanned by a wooden framework holding up a wooden channel of about the same dimensions as the ditch. It was a lovely piece of work, all hand-done back in the day, with notches and mortice-and-tenon joints in the framework. At places it was maybe twenty feet (6m) down to the creek below.

And of course, it leaked some. Not a lot, it was kept up, but some, as such wooden sluices are wont to do. Now, I used to like to walk the forest when I was a kid. And so on one very, very cold winter morning, somehow I ended some miles from home, up at the wooden aqueduct where the German ditch was dripping water. I had to walk through new snow to get there, and everywhere I looked it was that blinding white. Dark glasses? We’d never heard of them.

When I got there, I looked around. Where the sun was striking at the bottom of the framework holding up the aqueduct, I saw the most astounding, coruscating, vibrant, refulgent, wildly alive rainbow of light and color I had encountered in my young life. It was like the illustrations of the pirates chests in the books I loved to read, chests full of real jewels, gems I’d never seen with names like rubies and emeralds and sapphires, with light that comes blazing out in all colors when you lift up the lid of the chest. But this was for real! I was stunned. I remember just standing there, entranced, amazed that nature could be so full of wonders.

When I climbed down to the bottom, to my great surprise I found a conical pile of ice, from the drips from the German ditch. It had grown up to maybe waist height. At the top of the conical pile of ice, there was a hollowed out ice bowl. And to my amazement, the ice bowl was full to the brim with loose ice marbles. The marbles were of various sizes, most about the size of the marbles we played with in the summer, some as large as the “aggies”, the larger shooter marbles we used. But these marbles were all made of ice. And I could pick up handfuls of them.

I watched, astonished. After while I figured out the reason that the ice marbles were loose was that every time a splash of water came down from the aqueduct above, it was strong enough to move the loose marbles around. That constant motion had kept them from freezing solid. At the same time, it had rounded off all of the corners of the marbles and made them into perfect spheres. It was also what was responsible for the shimmering, changing light—as the sun hit the moving ice marbles, it was broken into a thousand colored shards and spun in all directions. And even when the ice marbles weren’t moving the water was dripping down them and refracting the sunlight in changing ways. I saw how the conical pile of ice had been built up out of marbles that had spilled out of the bowl and frozen solid and gradually built up to waist height. I could not have been more gobsmacked. I walked away half in a trance, stunned by what I had seen.

I bring this up and I write about it for a simple reason—to recapture the energy bound up in that sense of childlike awe at the untold mysteries of the weather. I believe that for everyone studying the weather, there must have been some such sense of wonderment that started them on the path of scientific discovery. Sadly, far too many of us, including myself, often lose that sense of merry wonderment and infantile amusement at the antics of the weather. In the tropics, to keep the feeling alive, I’d go out in the pouring rain and laugh and jump at the thunderclaps. My mad mate Mike taught me to do that, to dance and cavort in my lava-lava at midnight with the raging thunderstorm tossing lightning around the sky.

I once walked out into the face of a cyclone (a southern hemisphere hurricane). Can’t remember the cyclone’s name, it was in Fiji. I was living up on a hill, it was blowing 70 knots and gusting above that. First I tried going out with no protection, but I couldn’t look upwind, the rain just bulleted my face and any exposed skin, it was unbearable. Plus when I opened my mouth to breathe, the hurricane wind just filled my lungs up.

So I went back inside and reconsidered, and I got out my dive gear. I put on my dive mask, and I put on my snorkel. I put on my parka and pulled the hood down around my face mask. I got out and put on my long pants that I never wore in the tropics, and I went back outside. Then, at least, I could face into the wind. It was all I could do to walk out on the hill, I had to lean at a steep angle. I’m sure I looked a right lunatic, with my parka and my mask and snorkel, nothing of my face exposed. But I could see, and I could breathe.

When I got up on the hill, I saw an amazing sight, the kind of sight to loosen the bowels of a sailor. The moon was out so there was some light under the clouds. I could see far out across Suva Harbour. The sea had risen up, the waves were coming over the reef that normally protected the Harbour. Only somewhat impeded, they rushed across the harbor and were breaking down at the foot of the hill where I stood. The whole of Suva Harbour, normally a placid blue lake, was nothing but wave after wave after breaking wave. Boats were jerking around on their moorings like crazed horses, rearing and plunging. Around me buildings were losing roofs, coconut palms were losing heavy fronds that were picked up and tossed about.

The thing I remember feeling most at that time? Other than feeling really, really glad I was on solid ground and not at sea, no matter how big the boat?

Totally insignificant. Nothing that I could say or do, nothing that any man or any group of men could say or do, would make the slightest difference to the scene unfolding below me. A ship was drifting ashore, to hit where it would hit. My sailor’s soul wept to see it go, it meant heartbreak for the owners. Telephone wires were keening for the loss on all sides. I went back inside, feeling somewhat like the little bird that picks the crocodile’s teeth …

That’s what I lose too often, and what I don’t want to lose, that feeling of curiosity-filled wonderment and total insignificance in the face of the magical marvels of weather, because I think a sense of awe is a crucial ingredient in what makes a good scientist.


…  from Willis’s autobiography, entitled “Retire Early … And Often” …


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Phil's Dad

Some people make the world a better place just by being in it.

Magnificent Willis, you have made my day much brighter, thanks for reminding us of what is really important and also joyful,


Thanks for the great read. It most definitely spawned old memories and infinite wonderment from my early years.
I just have one thing to say 🙂

Excellent. I have often thought I would hate to lose the childlike wonder that has me watching out a window for hours taking pictures of the partridges that only come around every twenty years or so. I skip the dusting and cleaning and instead watch a hawk eating a rabbit in my yard. On road trips, my husband and I both stop and watch anything that catches our eye–eagles taking down an antelope, a lost lamb with eagles circling and feeding on it’s mother, badgers, clouds, dust storms. I never ever want to see the world as anything but exciting and new. That is what makes a scientist–watching and learning. Keeping the awe and wonder.


Thanks Willis. I feel like I was there with you!


Elegant and purposeful prose, Willis…

Thanks, Willis.


Willis I to remmember snow fort’s and tunnels In Whitecourt Alberta Canada in 1972 and guess what they have been back for 2 year’s now :>)

D Böehm

Another fine article by Willis.
Re: ice marbles. I recall reading somewhere that folks would make perfectly round marbles by putting a stone into a hole in a rock that had water constantly pouring into it. After a while the stone would be worn into a perfect sphere.
Also, thanks to Willis my vocabulary has increased: coruscating, yclept. Had to look them up.

Willis I to remeber snow fort’s and tunnels in Whitecourt Alberta Canada in 1972 and guess what they are back just the same as they where. ;>)

Newness abounds,
wondering eyes.
Nature astounds,
ecstatic cries.
Years passing,
memories chill.
Sweetly lasting,
recurring thrill.
Passing years,
vision strong.
Recall cheers,
Nature’s song.

Thanks. You perfectly described same feeling of awe, wonderment and insignificance I get when I hike the slot canyons in southern Utah. Around each corner is something new and amazing. It boggles the mind that nature could create such beautiful sculptures. The sheer massive size of some of the features I rappel off is breathtaking. It seems impossible for nature to sculpt a canyon a hundred feet deep and a mere foot or two wide. The slot canyons constantly lure me back, to explore their untold wonders.

Steve Keohane

I always loved that blue. We had plenty of snow just 20 miles north of Boston in the early 60s, for tunnels as far as we could dig, and on special occasions, drifts deep enough to jump from the roof into, unharmed, engulfed in that electric blue cool.
Thanks Willis.

Steve in SC

Alternate title: More of the Marvels of Willis.
Some people look at things and never see them.
Thanks for seeing.

Willis Eschenbach

D Böehm says:
December 27, 2012 at 7:22 pm

Another fine article by Willis.
Re: ice marbles. I recall reading somewhere that folks would make perfectly round marbles by putting a stone into a hole in a rock that had water constantly pouring into it. After a while the stone would be worn into a perfect sphere.
Also, thanks to Willis my vocabulary has increased: coruscating, yclept. Had to look them up.

Thanks, D, for your kind comments. I’ve heard that about the stones as well, but never seen it. Makes perfect sense, though. Regarding coruscating, I realized I had left out “refulgent”, I’ll have to fix that.

Michael J. Bentley

I wouldn’t worry about loosing your child-like awe of weather, not with the way you write. I was shivering with you, feeling the rain bulleting onto my face, and understanding my smallness when facing a cyclone. You can dance in a thunderstorm all by yourself though – I’ll watch from safety if you don’t mind.
Keep up the good work, words and wonder.

Tunnels in ice also have a wonderful blue. During my stint as observer at station Inge Lehman [aka as Project Blue Ice] on the Greenland inland ice [77.92ºN 39.23ºW, 2400 m (7900 ft), in 1967] we cut ice [to melt for water] with a chainsaw making a tunnel going down at an angle of about 20 degrees. The walls turned a most wonderful blue as we got deeper. [the ppt version has movies]


Way too many “I’s”, W. Reads like an Obama speech. Sorry.

D Böehm

It’s sad that someone’s always got to be the turd in the punch bowl.

Old woman of the north

RE the stones being ground to balls by water: in Austria outside Salzburg there is a stream and a stonemason’s business that has channels feeding water onto stones that are tumbled until they form spheres.
In the sandstone creek beds on the Blackdown Tableland, in Central Queensland,and other places, there are ‘pot holes’ – perfectly round holes up to 6 feet deep that are worn by stones pushed around by the current when they flood or are running at strength. They are difficult to get out of but a not too deep one is lovely to drop into to cool off when bush walking.
Never having lived where there is snow and ice your description of the aqueduct trestle and the ice marbles was lovely.

john robertson

Thanks Willis, you remind me how easily I forget the wonder around me.

Roger Carr

You just don’t need all these promotional pieces, Willis… we’re all hanging to buy the book.


Willis, like always, you are a great and insightful writer. As a person of the sea, I thought you might like this poem:
A wave is a spirit restless and free
Sired by the wind
And born on the sea
Dashing and splashing
And battering the shore
Dashing and splashing
And then is no more.
By Scot Kolbus


Nice thoughts. It always astounds me that CAGW believers and extreme environmentalists claim that anyone who disagrees with them has no feeling for the natural world.
Me, I still get a buzz out of watching ants. And peering into rockpools. And observing the birds in my yard. And watching as a new spray of fronds comes out on my cycad, checking progress at least once a day. And, and, and …
The secret is to stop and look – really look, for a while. It’s like a slowly magnifying lens, as you start to observe rather than just look, and begin to understand a bit of what is going on. Never, never gets old.
Happy New Year to all!


I was a kid again, even my childhood town, turned to magic with snow on the ground, good old Liverpool. Thanks a million.

Pete Olson

Where else can you get modern science in Middle English…?!

Pete Olson

And I like the pun in your title, too…maybe only English majors would catch it?

Willis Eschenbach

jae says:
December 27, 2012 at 8:16 pm

Way too many “I’s”, W. Reads like an Obama speech. Sorry.

That’s the sad deal about an autobiographical story. The person who actually lived it gets mentioned a lot. I’m sorry that I couldn’t put in a bunch of “you”s in place of the “I”s, jae, but truth is … “you” weren’t there and “I” was. In fact, in both tales, “I” was the only one there, so in these particular stories, it’s difficult to mention a whole lot of other people.
But heck, next time “you” want an honorable mention in an autobiographical tale of mine, jae, just make sure “you” show up when the stuff I’m talking about was taking place … wouldn’t want “you” to feel like “I” was overtaking “you”, after all …
I gotta confess, though, I do find it hilariously predictable. No matter how I write, no matter whether I use active or passive voice, whether I talk about myself, someone else, or the science, no matter how I put the words together on the page, there’s always some random anonymous internet popup to tell me how I’m doing it 100% wrong, wrong, wrong.
Hey, jae, if you’re so dang smart about how I should be writing, how come I’m the one getting a million page views per year, and not you? How come I’m the one getting quoted in the NY Times and the Australian Age and the Telegraph in the UK, and not you?
I can see how it must be frustrating for you to see me successful like that, jae, but at some point you’ve got to give up attacking me and telling me how to write, and get a life.

Thanks Willis, took me back to the 50’s in south central Wisconsin. Then I have also noticed that myself and few select other have never quite grown up. Today I pride myself on that fact. I did assure my grandson that I would let him know if I ever do.

Lil Fella from OZ

Thank you WIllis, it does us all good to be humbled from time to time, it keeps our feet firmly on the ground. Although I have never been there (one day I hope I can see it) I have heard people having similiar littleness experiences when viewing the Grand Canyon. Keeping things in perspectiveis vitally important to life!!!

John F. Hultquist

jae says:
December 27, 2012 at 8:16 pm
“Way too many “I’s”, W. Reads like an Obama speech. Sorry.

You mean like this: In his 1,600-word eulogy for Sen. Daniel Inouye last week, Pres. Obama said “I” 30 times, “my” 21 times and “me” 12 times. Eulogies are generally expected to be more about the deceased than the eulogizer, but not with Mr. Obama, who even described a childhood summer bus trip to Disneyland. [mentioned in the Weekly Standard’s blog]
‘Awe, shucks …’: This post is called a First-Person narrative. You could look it up.
Oh, wait – I see Willis just explained it to you. Were you an English instructor also, Willis? Blue is my favorite color. New hay barn has a Caribbean Blue © (#881) roof.
Rocks in scour holes are common along fast moving streams (glacier, high mountain) and made nice photos when the water is low. A few show if you do an image search.


Wilis, I really like your writing and your perspective. Coming from warm Australia I don’t have any affinity with your Northern Hemisphere stories, but I’ve heard plenty that sound with your island stories, and they ring true.
I think we have way more to learn about how our planet’s climate functions than you can learn from studying lines of numbers in a laboratory. Donning underwater gear to face a cyclone on a South Pacific Island will teach you more in 30 seconds than a spreadsheet will teach you in 30 days. I think you’ve demonstrated this, and many, many post-grads could do worse than emulate your experience.
Best wishes of the season.
Glenn GP

Michael Tremblay

Your story about going out in the cyclone reminded me of the time my brother and I went out into a blizzard. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face when you were walking into the wind and the snow hitting your face was like getting hit with millions of needles. The good thing was we didn’t lose our sense of direction because the wind was blowing continually from the same direction.
I didn’t mention it in your article about the moon wind, but I’ve sailed across the Pacific a few times myself, albeit in a powered ship. My fondest memories of those trips is going to the upper decks in the middle of the night and looking up at the stars without all the light pollution. Absolutely beautiful and humbling at the same time.


Beautifully written…..You have a tallent for writing stories that are a joy to read.

Awesome Willis, hoping that you are having a glorious holiday season. Your little vignette was perfect for today….

Policy Guy

I loved your story. I recently drove from Carmel to Sacramento CA through back roads and chased a rainbow to within 15 ft to my left and 100 ft to my right. Quite extraordinary!! What a site. I have another comment to follow.
Thank you

Policy Guy

I love Discover Magazine, at least I used to. I used to use it as an example for my kids about how science is so much a part of our every day life, and here is an easy way to read it so that you don’t have to wade through Scientific American, as I did, to get essential information.
But now I hang my head because of the page 22, of the January, 2013 edition of Discover Magazine. Written by a Linda Marsa. As far as I can tell, this is a political/religious belief statement, rather than a scientific statement of the climate/weather of 2012.
I could spend an entire response refuting her unrelenting misstatements of proven facts in this article. Will someone please reach out and try to educate this poor lady?
I know i’m not alone.


Q/ What is the colour of water? a) colourless b) blue. Ans/ The colour of water is blue. Yes, a lovely blue. Some days I look out over the bay soaking up the blue sea and sky. Even the mountains in the background are blue. This beautiful blue planet. mmmm…..I wonder what the radiative absorptivity/emissivity of that blue colour is…could it be about 0.82? …… damn science again spoiling my thoughts .


Gerald Manley Hopkins got it:
Pied Beauty
GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough; 5
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: 10
Praise him.
(I’m not religious, but that poem perfectly expresses how I feel.)

Willis said;
‘So I went back inside and reconsidered, and I got out my dive gear. I put on my dive mask, and I put on my snorkel. I put on my parka and pulled the hood down around my face mask. I got out and put on my long pants that I never wore in the tropics, and I went back outside. Then, at least, I could face into the wind. It was all I could do to walk out on the hill, I had to lean at a steep angle. I’m sure I looked a right lunatic, with my parka and my mask and snorkel, nothing of my face exposed. But I could see, and I could breathe.”
Rain in this part of the world is not unknown and the conditions on the nearby uplands of Dartmoor can get pretty difficult. I have often contemplated putting on my wet suit-used to brave the waters of the English Channel-when going for a walk in the rain on the moors. I’ve never had the courage to do so and my wife would disown me. But If I do and anyone looked at me I can just murmur, ‘my name is Willis, its what I do.
Have a great New Year

I love your reminiscences, Willis. This one was your best yet. Keep ’em coming please. 😀


A thoroughly enjoyable read. Thank you.


Nice read. And don’t let the naysayers get you down. It was a first person narrative. That’s the way it is. Obama’s flaw isn’t that he uses “I” a lot. It’s that he uses it a lot even when it’s not about him. It’s the context.
Anyhow, nice story about the sense of awe that inspires innovators and researchers. In the Burt Rutan talk posted earlier, you could see his enthusiasm when he talked about rockets and new planes. He mentioned that it’s at an early age that people get inspired. In fact, I’ve read that the kid in all of us is what keeps us feeling young and healthy.

James Bull

Dear Willis
I have spent many happy hours watching the birds outside my door as they go about their daily routine, looking into a flower wondering at how beautiful and ordered it is or standing in my garden at night looking straight up at the stars for hours at a time (when the boring ones say I could be doing something useful ) and it is good to be reminded of these times.
Thank you.
James Bull

Gail Combs

johanna says:
December 27, 2012 at 9:19 pm
Nice thoughts. It always astounds me that CAGW believers and extreme environmentalists claim that anyone who disagrees with them has no feeling for the natural world.
Me, I still get a buzz out of watching ants. And peering into rockpools….
Agreed. From what I can see many of us here are ‘environmentalists’ to some degree. No adult messes their own nest and that is what ‘environmetalism’ boils down to.
I too absolutely love rock pools. Forget boring sandy beaches I much prefer a beach with rock pools to explore.
I gave up TV not long after I got out of college. I much preferred to spend my free time outside in the woods especially since I was stuck in an apartment for those first decades out of college. Hiking, caving, climbing, backpacking, horse back riding, nature photography, cross country skiing, crewing on a sailboat, rock hounding – I rarely spent a full day inside and I never spent a weekend at home. Pack the truck/car on Thursday night and meet the gang at quiting in a parking lot to take-off for the weekend trip of caving, ridge walking, rock hounding or whatever.. It was amazing we ever got any work done on Mondays.
You are correct Willis there is nothing like that icy blue light you get shining through the walls of snow tunnels or snow forts.

Peter Hannan

Thank you. Being from Britain, I have to go back to the winters of ’62 and ’63 to remember similar snow. Implicitly, you talk of humility before and in nature, through concrete experiences: this planet, where we live, is greater than us, at so many levels. The opposite of humility is hubris, the ancient Greek concept of overweening arrogance; as a young environmentalist in the late ’70s, and later, I saw as hubris the idea that we humans could continue polluting and destroying and changing landscapes and making species extinct and using limited resources for ever, without negative consequences; I still think that. But, in the last 30 years of climate alarmism, there is a different hubris: the idea that we humans, a small percentage of the biosphere, with all our activities, can significantly affect enormous planetary systems of the oceans and the atmosphere. As far as I can tell, we really need to understand that we are subject to the processes of this planet, as you eloquently express, we live in nature, we do not dominate it / her. Climate alarmism is hubris.

Willis, another excellent article, but with a different slant. I don’t think anyone can be a true scientist unless they have a sense of awe about their speciality. On this side of the pond we have very sadly lost Sir Patrick Moore whose enthusiasm and awe for all things astronomical gave him a career in broadcasting that lasted from 1957 until his death earlier this month. Your article was very similar to Patrick’s writings.
The sad thing is, the impression I get of the warmists is that there is no passion (apart from the desire to have opponents of their views, flogged) there is no awe about their chosen subject, just doom, gloom and research grants.

Stephen Richards

One of my many ‘awe’ moments was in the London, england area in the winter of ’62 ’63. It was fairly rare, even then, to get much snow in London but on Dec 26, after an exciting christmas day, we woke up to a blizzard of proportions not seen for maybe 60 yrs.
I rushed out, fully clothed of course, into the teeth of the blizzard on the pretence of seeing an ‘aunt’, about a mile away, who lived in a block of flats ‘appartments’. When I arrived, with the blizzard beginning to die, I found a 3foot drift around the flats about 100 yds long.
I just had to find out why the weather did this. I’ve been studying ever since.
Good write Willis.

Stephen Richards

[trimmed, Mod]

Every college-level student in the world should read this, Willis, as part of gaining an understanding of the World we live in.