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10 may 2017

Derek Elsom's Lightning is illustrated gorgeously, if a bit repetitively, with images of lightning flashing across the skies of Texas and New Mexico. Lightning is so famously ephemeral that one cannot study its visual form "live." So unless you make a habit of looking at photographs of lightning, you probably don't appreciate its varied and intricate forms. In fact, most people, and most human cultures, as Elsom documents, think of lightning as a simple zigzag.

In American popular culture, the delicate, dendritic lines of lightning are perhaps best known from the 2002 movie Sweet Home Alabama. This picture, such a forgettable romantic comedy that I am embarrassed to say I'd forgotten who starred opposite Reese Witherspoon, apparently provides about 99% of common knowledge about fulgurites, the channel-like glass objects formed when lightning strikes sand. As Elsom notes, Sweet Home Alabama gets nearly everything wrong about fulgurites. They form best in dry sand, not on the beaches where the characters got them. You can't prime for them, or harvest them with any predictability. They don't look like Steuben masterpieces; they look kind of like big caterpillars. You can create them artificially, and mass-produce the resulting shapes, as artist Alan McCollum has done; but the results look more like tables packed with oversize pipecleaners than anything else.

So much for fulgurites. Lightning in the sky is nicer anyway. Is it dangerous? Heck yes. Being struck by lightning is proverbially a "million-to-one" shot, but Elsom estimates it (for the US) as closer to one in a half-million, every year (186). This goes way up if you live in thunderstorm-prone areas like the Great Plains, and I do.

Still, avoidance of lightning is easy and common-sensical. Stay inside, and stay off corded phones, as if anyone used one anymore, and don't be typing (looks at power cord, looks at sky) on your keyboard when a huge storm comes through. People struck by lightning nowadays tend to be golfers, soccer players, and guys in bass boats. In the US, at least. Worldwide, a lot of people don't have lightning-resistant shelters, and/or depend on outdoor activities for their livelihoods. Many lightning deaths a year come to ranchers and shepherds.

Lightning can be so deadly that most cultures have worshiped lightning gods, hoping to appease them. Rituals – the carrying of amulets, the planting of protective trees – abound in global cultures. "Vor Eichen sollst du weichen, Buchen sollst du suchen," goes a German proverb: stay away from oaks, seek out beeches. But oak trees could become lucky if they'd once been struck, under the theory that lightning never strikes twice in the same place. (Elsom debunks both ideas: oaks get struck only because they tend to be "tall and isolated" [76]; and for that very reason a tall, isolated oak tree may very well be struck over and over.)

Elsom is fascinated by witches, often abandoning the topic of lightning for pages at a time while he recounts histories of witchcraft. This is because a common accusation against supposed witches, worldwide, is that they've brought down lightning strikes on the bewitched. You can see how this theory becomes self-confirming. At every moment of the day, many people worldwide bear other people open grudges. Some very small percentage of the begrudged get struck by lightning. QED, in some cultures – it's a witch. But the problem is serious enough that South Africa, apparently, has established a national sanctuary for accused witches. (While other countries like Saudi Arabia officially keep witchcraft on their books as a crime – though I too now seem to have gotten far off the lightning track. Surely with all that dry sand in Saudi Arabia, they don't mind the resulting fulgurites.)

"As Lightning to the Children eased / With explanation kind / The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind —" wrote Emily Dickinson. Elsom doesn't quote that poem; his chapter on lightning in literature and art has more on movies and popular culture than on the classics. The only Shakespeare play he mentions is Macbeth (witches, naturally). But Shakespeare is fond of lightning references and imagery. "The lightning in the collied night" is one of the "quick bright things" that "come to confusion" in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Lightning flashes in The Tempest, and recurs as a motif in Romeo and Juliet, whose whole relationship is un coup de foudre.

I would venture that the best-known lightning reference in English poetry is by Dylan Thomas:

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
As with Dickinson, "lightning" has a strange kind of permanence. For her lightning is the "Truth"; for Thomas lightning is an achievement that transcends mortality.

If you need something to gaze at while you ponder those poetic paradoxes, check out LightningMaps.org. Somewhere in the world – many times a minute, in fact – lightning is striking while you read this. The map at LightningMaps will even show you visually how far away people are hearing the accompanying thunder.

Elsom, Derek M. Lightning. London: Reaktion, 2015.