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When we talk, we talk about the weather

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 6, 2014

SELDOVIA -- We don't talk as much about the normal rain. The wet slaps from salmonberry canes grown over the trail, soaking darkly through what should have been rain pants. The rotting black-red-moldy fruit that plops to the ground as I pass. The grit that splatters my coat and reminds me that my bike really ought to have a fender.

Temperatures rose and fell, the rain spattered and stopped and the clouds darkened and drifted. So we picked berries and peas, attached plywood to things in construction and hiked with the kids. In some approximation of raincoats. Or in soggy fleece and sundresses, stripped off in a muddy pile atop the boots at the door.

We still talked about the weather a little. My husband squinted at the shimmering blobs of radar on a laptop screen. Are our latest visitors going to be sick on their boat ride home? How's that roof coming along? Should we push our camping trip back?

And perhaps we just have nothing else to talk about out here in the sticks. But weather is fascinating. Inescapable. I always seem to be plunging myself right into it, skating down a trail-turned-mudslide with a gaggle of gooey children, stumbling into the sting of driving snow, or holding a tent against the shuddering wind. Even getting sunburned.

Other people are often wiser in their recreational choices. But we still share the same weather. Sometimes I can't escape it because I've put myself a hundred miles from anywhere with only a nylon wall between me and a blizzard. Or on the wrong side of a fjord churning white.

But even scurrying indoors is only a partial escape. You don't escape the snow shoveling or the garden watering or the deluge that cancels your picnic. So we share those memories, sometimes across the breadth of the state. We start conversations with particular storms, particular heat waves or particular seasons. People remember them -- sharing stories about how the gardens grew and when the trees snapped in a storm, and that wonderfully warm and sunny stretch where a few folks even went swimming. Weather is the biggest way all of us, even those who don't intend to, interact with the natural world.

Weather invites us to compare the years -- their heat, storms and snow; their bugs, berries and cabbages. It's easy enough to grab your raincoat. What we really want to know is when to plant the radishes and when to tell our visitors to come. And how many berries can you pick? And is it worth it to buy new skis this year? And what about those solar panels? New this month, they're producing 450 watts beneath this morning's blanket of clouds.

Most of all, we like to talk about the weirdness. "Remember that snow a few years ago -- we had 6 feet in the yard! And this year I couldn't even get a pair of skis through all that sticking-up devil's club." This year, the snow in the mountains disappeared completely by midsummer. This year, the blueberries were enormous. This year, everything grew and ripened so much earlier than normal. That's the weird we've been talking about.

More dramatic weirdness spawns larger conversations. Weird weather brings flurries of news stories -- at least 75 in this paper this year. Beyond the cartoon clouds of the five-day forecast, you can find clusters of chatter on floods and wildfires, on snowless sled-dog trails and avalanche-closed highways.

Still, it's awfully rainy. It has been all month, and now we're starting to talk about it, standing around the fire at a drizzly party, eating pie salvaged from rain-soaked raspberry canes. "I swear I picked twice this many, but I had to toss half of them. They're molding before they even get ripe." Does this always happen?

Give it long enough and even this drizzle -- the least dramatic weirdness you can get -- hits the newspaper. As the climate warms, it adds more energy to the system. The jet stream gets "stickier," bringing more oddness and intensity to all of our weather patterns. The weather is only getting weirder.

I still look at those average weather statistics when I plan my gardens and expeditions. I still listen to the weather stories of neighbors who've been here longer than I have. But I wonder how much I can count on them.

Who can know anymore what weather to expect?

Erin McKittrick is a writer, adventurer and scientist based in Seldovia. She is the author of "A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft and Ski," and "Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska." You can find her at GroundTruthTrekking.org.

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