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16 february 2017

Descriptions of other planets always emphasize really bad weather – lightning striking through clouds of methane and sulfur, howling red hurricanes the size of Asia, sandstorms that can rip spaceships to shreds and leave Matt Damon stranded. But periodically we are reminded that home sweet Earth is a planet like any other, with its own ferocious atmospheric events.

In Storm, John Withington catalogues how storms have been worshiped as capricious, all-powerful gods in many world religions. He goes on to look at record-breaking storms of all types, their meteorological explanations, their economic impact, their legacy in literature and the visual arts. Much of the book is frankly a catalogue, but it's a very interesting and wide-ranging catalogue.

So we learn that "the world record for thunderstorms was set by Bogor on the Indonesian island of Java, where there was an average of 322 each year between 1916 and 1919" (42). We learn about prodigious hailstones, up to a kilogram in weight, and about a thousand-year-ago hailstorm that killed a group of Himalayan pilgrims – a fate inferred from the wounds on their massed-together, preserved bodies (97). We learn of a Texas storm in 1940 that coated surfaces with 15 centimeters of ice; I can believe that.

Shakespeare features several storms, but one has to distinguish between those that are described and those that are enacted on stage. Withington starts his literary chapter with a quotation from Julius Caesar:

I have seen tempests, when the scolding winds
Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen
The ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam. (Act 1, Scene 3)
But Casca, the speaker, is just talking: Julius Caesar was performed outdoors at the Globe, and storm effects would have been unimpressive in daylight and the roar of the city and the crowd. Shakespeare's storm scenes come in his later plays, performed indoors at Blackfriars and able to make use of lighting and sound effects: King Lear, The Tempest. Storm scenes in movies could be even more realistic, of course, and had a peculiar run in the decade around the year 2000: Twister, The Perfect Storm, The Day After Tomorrow. After that, public anxiety about fictional storms seemed used up – or perhaps was diverted into all-too-real grief over Hurricane Katrina.

Robinson Crusoe and A High Wind in Jamaica figure here, and stories by Pushkin, Maupassant, and Kate Chopin. But I thought for some reason of a passing line in Charlotte Mew's poem "The Trees Are Down". The trees in Mew's poem are felled by people, not storms, but part of the loss that Mew feels is associated with the memory of how the majesty of a storm is measured by its effect on trees:

My heart has been struck with the hearts of the planes;
Half my life it has beat with these, in the sun, in the rains,
In the March wind, the May breeze,
In the great gales that came over to them across the roofs from the great seas.
We experience storms in the context of our own planet, by the power they have to move and smash the things that matter on our scale of existence.

Withington, John. Storm. London: Reaktion, 2016.