Weather and the sense of a place

By Sharon Blackie:

We are told by the older residents of our local crofting townships that this autumn and winter have been the worst in living memory here in the Outer Hebrides. Wetter and windier. It’s true that we seem to have been battling gales since October, and the already boggy ground has been sodden for months. In November, on our personal blog, I wrote a post, The Gods of Days, in which I talked about wind and suggested that there was little point in living in a place where the dominant weather was wind and rain, and then sitting indoors and complaining about it when it was windy and raining. Of course, a lot of wind and rain has happened to us since November … and a couple of normally hardy friends are now jumping up and down and demanding that I recant and admit that wind and rain is a terrible thing and that I wish it were mild and sunny like everyone else does.

At one level there’s no question about it – I’m tired of battling the wind and sloshing about in the mud when it’s time to feed the animals and walk the dogs twice a day, because this has to be done whatever the weather. I’d be ecstatic if a few mild and sunny days happened along, and I’m eagerly anticipating spring like everyone else … but the truth about weather, about our relationship with weather, is very much more complicated than that.

The point about weather is simply that it can’t be divorced from place. Weather is an intrinsic part of the character of a place. It’s not just a question of weather being what happens to you every day when you are in a place: it goes much deeper than that, in a number of different ways.

First: weather shapes a place. The Outer Hebrides are what they are precisely because of centuries of wind and rain. The land is boggy, treeless, hard, pared back to the bones and vivid precisely for that reason. It seems like an obvious point to make, but it’s surprising how often people come to live in the Outer Hebrides and start to long for periods of hot dry sun. Hot dry sun isn’t the Outer Hebrides, it’s Provence, or Tenerife. And I mean that literally: the weather IS the place, not something superimposed on it. The Outer Hebrides IS wind and rain, rain and wind, and more wind and rain. If you can’t love wind and rain, you can’t love the Outer Hebrides for what it really is, and then it really isn’t a very smart place for you to live. And if you live in a place and won’t go outside because you hate what that place is, then there’s a very strong argument indeed that it’s not a healthy way to live.

Second: weather is what you walk in, as well as landscape, when you walk in a place. It isn’t something that happens to you as you walk on a surface: it’s something much more than that. Recently I’ve been reading acclaimed anthropologist Tim Ingold’s book of essays, Being Alive. There’ll be a review of the book in the May issue of EarthLines magazine, and Tim has agreed to write something new for us for the November issue. One of the many things that struck me about Tim’s perspective on the world is what he has to say about weather – that expressed exactly what I’ve been struggling to say. Here’s a flavour:

To inhabit the open is not, then, to be stranded on a closed surface but to be immersed in the incessant movements of wind and weather, in a zone wherein substances and medium are brought together in the constitution of beings that, by way of their activity, participate in stitching the textures of the land.

Landscape is constantly being transformed by weather. Think of the difference between a range of mountains covered in mist, and the same range of mountains in the glare of the  sun at midday. In the former case, the mist isn’t something you can just extract from the mountains, as if there’s some permanent reality underneath that is represented more truly by the second case. The mist and the mountains merge, and create something that is entirely different to those experiencing it. Mist, wind, rain – they’re not things that interfere with the reality of a place – they are the place – they bring the place into being.

The weather, in short, is ‘the world’s worlding’ – to adopt Heidegger’s expression – and as such it is not a figment of the imagination but the very temperament of being.

And so how can you divorce yourself – dissociate yourself – completely from the weather of a place? True, there are some types of weather that are more comfortable than others – though I have always had an odd affinity for wild windy, rainy misty places – to the extent that I’ve had severe reverse seasonal affective disorder when living in climates that are warm and sunny year-round. One of my favourite kinds of weather here is the slightly misty, very gentle continuous drizzle – or ‘broom‘, from the Gaelic – that pervades the entire landscape on a wind-free day. It’s soft, gentle, and to me it epitomises the spirit of this place more than any other weather.

The ground on which we stand is a zone of formative and transformative processes set in train through the interplay of wind, water and stone, within a field of cosmic forces such as those responsible for the tides … Sea and land are engulfed in the wider sphere of forces and relations comprising the weather-world. To perceive and to act in the weather-world is to align one’s own conduct to the celestial movements of sun, moon and stars, to the rhythmic alterations of night and day and the seasons, to rain and shine, sunlight and shade.

I think Ingold has it. If we can’t inhabit the weather-world that constitutes the place where we live, then there is a very strong argument that we’re not really, to return to the title of his book, ‘Being Alive’.

About the Author:

Sharon Blackie is the editor of EarthLines Magazine, a new quarterly dedicated to high quality writing on nature, place and the environment. This post originally appeared on the EarthLines blog, and we are really pleased to have been given the chance to republish it here on Under a Grey Sky.

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