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.
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” …