There was a stretch of time a decade or so ago, after cable had exploded into a thousand channels but before the internet had vacuumed up all our idle time, when the timesuck of choice among most people I knew was to sit around blank-faced watching the Weather Channel. It looked like the low-water mark of intelligent culture, and it may have been. It still depresses me to think about Saturday afternoons I spent lying on a friend’s sofa watching update after update on the weather along the Florida panhandle, the tornado watch outside Salina, the dry spell in Hibbing. But it occurs to me now that our obsession with weather was perhaps not as arbitrary as it seemed at the time (like, why weren’t we watching NASCAR instead? or poker?)
There’s something compelling about weather: it’s one of the few things about the world that we haven’t taken under management. We decide just about everything that goes on on this planet, from where the “wild” animals roam to how much of a river’s water reaches the sea. One thing we can’t manage, and don’t seem likely to be able to manage, is the weather. Even with our most sophisticated technology, our predictions are inaccurate to a degree that we wouldn’t accept in any other discipline–just think back to the suprises that Hurricane Irene delivered.
Given that even “wilderness” is wilderness only because we designate it to be so, and it remains wilderness only as long as we decide to allow it to be, the fact that we can’t have our way with the weather is profoundly interesting. When I stepped out of my apartment the other morning and saw a discarded Christmas tree caroming off the walls of the building next door and the wind sucked the breath right out of my lungs, I was in the presence of the wildest thing we ever encounter anymore, the one thing we can’t fully prepare for or protect ourselves from. And it’s a wilderness that reaches us no matter where we are. If there’s an opposite to “nature” in the minds of most people New York City is it, yet we’re just as exposed to the whims of weather as someone sitting alone on a cliff edge in Glacier National Park.
It’s part of what makes farming such an interesting challenge: on the one hand–even at its simplest–it’s the essence of engineering. You buy X seeds for Y feet of croprow and expect a yield of Z bushels. On the other hand, it’s hopelessly unpredictable, and even all the brainpower and dark science of Monsanto and John Deere and the Department of Agriculture combined can’t outwit the weather. Every season, the work of farmers recapitulates in miniature the moment in history when humans carved a pocket of civilization out of an undifferentiated wilderness, and every summer we watch the clouds roll over the hills to the west and wonder what will become of our tomatoes, our seedlings, our ponds.