Monday, March 14, 2005

Weather or Not

Czeslaw Milosz, the 1980 Nobel Laureate in Literature, lived much of his life in his native Poland, but also much of it in Berkeley, California, where he taught Slavic languages. In 2001 he published an "ABC" book, a Polish form consisting of short entries organized alphabetically. Between entries for "Aosta" (a valley in the southern Alps) and "Aron" (a fictional character) is two paragraphs on "Arcata."

"Always a gray sky and ocean fog," he wrote. "I have been there a number of times and never saw the sun. Should one live there? Perhaps as punishment. Yet people do live in Arcata, because they have to."

Though published in 2001, the rest of this entry suggests his impressions of Arcata were formed a decade or more earlier, since he then discusses the timber industry as the reason people "have to" live in Arcata. But by the time we arrived in 1996, timber was no longer the dominant industry. Arcata's largest employer was (and is) Humboldt State University.

I have heard stories about what Arcata weather was like when the timber industry was dominant, especially about the smoke from the lumber operations, which darkened clothes hung on the line to dry. This had a familiar sound to me, because it is how people talked about Pittsburgh in the 1950s when the steel mills were dominant, and before pollution controls were instituted. It was said that downtown businessmen had to change their white shirts several times a day. (I was growing up thirty-some miles away, but I remember the flames shooting out of the mill stacks, and the smoke, on our rare drives to the city, mostly for baseball games.)

Did the smoke affect Arcata's weather? Probably to some extent. But as Milosz writes, because redwoods "require constant moisture, they grow in zones of perpetual fog." The North Coast is also known as the Redwood Nation, one of the last places on the planet with significant redwood growth.

However, almost all of the old growth redwood is gone (as we discovered to our sorrow shortly after we arrived), and much of the former redwood forest land is covered now with buildings and roads, pastures and cropland, rather than trees. Biologists realize that redwood forests contribute to creating their own weather, so the fewer trees in smaller forests could lead to some alteration of weather, perhaps even so great a change that the surviving redwoods will no longer have the conditions they need to thrive.

Factor in as well the ongoing shifts in climate caused by global heating, and the picture of North Coast weather is even less certain.

Nevertheless, weather and climate are major distinguishing characteristics about the North Coast. On the coast itself, temperatures stay in the same 20 degree band, shifting from 60s/low 50s in summer to 50s/low 40s in winter. There are significantly different microclimates even slightly inland (Blue Lake gets hot in the summer) and higher (up the mountain from Arcata gets snow some winters.) The lack of high heat in the summer was a major attraction for me, even more than the warm winter. We did research the sunshine: turns out that on average Arcata has about as many sunny days as Pittsburgh.

When we arrived here in 1996, the seasonal pattern was familiar to residents. I arrived in Arcata in the sunny blue blaze of fall. I remember being amazed at the softness in the air. The nights were clear, and the stars out here actually twinkle. The moon was so bright that, coming through the skylight, I could see myself in the bathroom mirror by its light. And there were some fantastic sunsets (though as elsewhere pollution may have contributed.)

Then came the rains. It turned out to be the rainiest winter of the seven I've experienced here, but of course we didn't know that at the time. We'd spent some time in Portland and Seattle, but this was not the same.

We had to adjust our clothing. Unlike Seattle, nobody here seemed to carry an umbrella. We didn't have a car that first winter, so after awhile we found relatively inexpensive full length waterproof ponchos. Margaret's was red, mine was black. She said I looked like Darth Vader, and with nothing showing but her face in the window under the hood, I thought she looked like a red Gumby.

That was the year of the New Year's flooding. For several days, the North Coast was entirely cut off from the rest of the world. Highway 101 was closed in both directions, and so was the airport. According to the newspaper, we were self-sufficient in milk, so I guess we could have held out for awhile.

That winter extended well into March, if memory serves. Once in spring we were at a house in the hills above Arcata, looking out a picture window as a storm started. There was lightning. Our host was startled. He told us to pay attention, because it might be a long time before we saw lightning again here. He was right.

That summer we learned the daily pattern: fog, sun, fog. And the nature of the fog was new as well. It wasn't this wispy stuff hugging the ground or floating like smoke up the hills (though there was that kind, too.) It was gray sky and maybe a wall of gray around you. That's when we learned the correct term: marine layer.

We got used to checking the wind direction, for rain from the north, fair weather from the south. We were both amazed at how things grow here. There is always something blooming. Eventually we collected some Gore-Tex duds, and got cars. There were other aspects to the North Coast dress code that aren't strictly weather related, but I did adapt partly due to the weather. I liked my t-shirts thicker, with long sleeves, and my sweatshirts and sweaters thinner. I got wool shirts, although I didn't actually wear them much. One way you feel at home in a place is when you dress for its weather more or less without thinking.

This winter I found myself being made a little nervous by all the great sunshine. It was too warm, and where was the rain? ( South to San Francisco, apparently, and around Los Angeles, draining into Death Valley.) The rest of the country was having a bad time, and I was counseled to enjoy our good fortune. But maybe I'd developed a weather eye for what's normal for the North Coast.

What weather experiences define the North Coast for you?

No comments: