I get a shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather.It's a special day here in Southern California, one that for me is redolent of the bad old days of Devil's Night when I lived fifty miles from Detroit twenty years ago. The Santa Ana Winds are predicted to kick in tonight for the first time this year. Those fires we've had -- they were straining to put out to last of the historically massive Station Fire on Mt. Wilson, before the winds billow life into the embers -- were just a prelude to what the hot and dry winds may bring us. At least the dose predicted to begin tonight is supposed to be mild.
~~ Natalie Merchant
But this diary isn't about the fire risk per se. It's about the weather and the climate and how bound our understanding of it is to our experience.
I am, as I have stated many times on these pages are surely will many more given the chance, a relatively new stepfather to three girls, 18, 17, and 10. They've been here in the U.S. for less than a year. The youngest two came here just when the Santa Ana winds died down, in late October, where I was with them for perhaps a day before driving off to electoral work in Vegas.
They don't know what the Santa Ana winds are, what they do.
Here's the most famous description I know of them, from Raymond Chandler's "Red Wind":
"Those hot dry winds that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen."And here's another nice description from a blog I've never seen before the search that just turned it up:
Imagine a snowstorm in Chicago in the dead of winter, but take out the cold and snow.Yes, those winds.
Imagine a tropical storm in New Orleans, but take out the rain and humidity.
What you have left is the Santa Ana winds—hot, dry, howling winds that blast Southern California in fall and winter, knocking down trees, ripping roofs off buildings, flipping over trucks, and drying out the already arid region. The winds, thick with desert dust, make breathing difficult and coat homes inside and out with a brown film.
I've tried to explain them to my daughters who, in humid Metro Manila and Pampanga province have probably never experienced the nosebleeds that seem to start from the sinuses when the air crawls up your nostrils like a scorpion and starts to sting. I have tried to explain it to them a time or two without success. This time tomorrow they will know. I'll let them know that we're not the only spot on earth blessed with winds like these -- there is the Chinook wind of the interior West, the Foehn wind that warms Central Europe.
When we last discussed this, they pointed out to me that I didn't know their weather either. In my ignorance, I thought that summer lasted from mid-June to mid-September rather than from March to May, as every Filipino child knows (and that I did not know when first I visited there in mid-March, thinking that I had beaten the summer Asian heat.)
I did not know before I met their Mom, they reminded me, when the monsoon rains came or how. I do know now -- thanks to our last trip when my wife and I were separated from our youngest daughter by a few yards in different stalls in a clothing mart for fifteen minutes that started and stopped like someone had turned on a shower, like the most intense Midwestern thunderstorm but without the warning, and there was no way to get across to her and have any chance of being dry enough for a taxi for the next several hours.
I asked my eldest daughter once -- the actual eldest of the five kids, one of the two left in the Philippines, and like the youngest an avid reader -- what she had made of Western stories, from the U.S. or Britain -- that spoke of the four seasons. She read them as a sort of fantasy, as I growing up in California had read tales of Northeastern snowstorms and Midwestern twister weather, both of which lay in my future. I asked her how many seasons the Phils had, and she said it was two but really three: wet (and therefore a little cooler) mid-May through October, dry but not as hot November through February, and friggin' hot March through mid-May. The notion of seasons changing with each equinox or solstice is as foreign as the notion of a hot dry wind that brings out the anger and the arsonists each autumn. What is a season? We in the U.S. think that we know, but much of the world disagrees.
That change of the seasons this far north (or south) -- that's the other thing to talk to my youngest daughter about, now that they are here in time to see the autumn begin. The equinox comes tomorrow, 2:18 p.m. hereabouts. She hasn't had much call to think about equinoxes before now; it simply doesn't matter at her natal latitude. I will revolve, carrying a tilted soccer ball, around my youngest while she stands on our low living room table with a lamp shining first on the Northern Hemisphere, then the Southern Hemisphere, and back, and briefly equally between them, twice a year, but always equally on the Equator from whose proximity she has flown, so that she sees that tomorrow everything is in balance, although when these heretofore unimagined winds arrive tonight, it may not feel that way.
The dry winds tumbling downhill from Utah to the ocean. A ball to represent a moment of equipoise whose absence she had never felt in her younger years. An upending of assumptions -- that seasons are four, that winds are cool, that every season has a name. O brave new people, that have such worlds to explore.