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Thursday, 18 August 2011

I’m spending more time watching the clouds than I have done since I was a ten-year-old boy. For the moment I seem to have time on my hands. I’m writing at a steady pace, I’m not leaving the ranch more than once every eight or nine days, and I expect there’s still a little way to go before the weather cools down. So I can indulge myself, go up onto the range and watch the weather develop. It’s been a life-long interest.

I was quite young, around eight or nine, when I caught the bug. Not just what was happening around me, but the science of it. We used to have the Daily Telegraph delivered to the door every morning, and I got used to looking at the front and back pages as my grandmother held it up to read for what seemed like an age. I always knew when she was almost through with it because she’d pour herself a final cup of tea and turn to study the columns of births, marriages and deaths – what she liked to call the ‘hatches, matches and dispatches’. She was always looking for anyone bearing her maiden name, which was an unusual one, Royan. While she studied the back page I now had exposed to me the front, and the only thing of any interest to me there, down in the bottom right hand corner, was the weather forecast. It took me some time to decode the isobars, cold fronts and warm fronts that patterned the map of the U.K., to understand what high and low pressure meant. I suspect I was aided by the gift, one Christmas, of The Observer’s Book of Weather.

That book was like a bible to me. It explained all the jargon, and how forecasts were arrived at; but most of all it described all kinds of meteorological phenomena. Not just the fog and rain and autumn winds that I was used to, the names of all the different clouds I’d seen, but the extremes I’d heard gown-ups talking about: the legendary snows of 1947 and subsequent summer heat, the snowy Christmas of 1927 (or was it `21?) when my father splashed his way to church in heavy rain and emerged an hour or two later to find everything white; the appearance of the Northern Lights as far south as Malta in the mid-1930s; frozen rain, week-long fogs, the flash flood that wiped out Lynton and Lynmouth in 1953. Tragic, yes, but to a ten-year-old boy exciting. I longed for excitement. And just once in a while I got it. The great thunderstorm of September 5 1958 that washed away my garden, the severe winter of 1963, colder even than `47 with a snow that came on Boxing Day and lay on our sports field at school until March 13 and one brief, glorious spell of freezing rain. Not quite as dramatic as in Robert Frost’s poem “Birches”, but something at least to write in my diary.

So maybe that explains why I am content to stand up there in the wind for thirty, forty, fifty minutes just watching these wonderful Plains clouds pile up higher and higher. Yesterday they were all to the west, and passing us by, taking their rain and a rumoured tornado into Hooker County, away to the south, but near enough for me to capture a few moments on film as a vigorous up-draught spewed a broiling mass of white into the clear blue sky.

We rarely see anything like that at home. As I’ve said before, we’re used to seeing our weather arrive, mostly from the Atlantic, ready made. Cloud formations and rain sweep across the country and head out towards Scandinavia, one after another, keeping us well watered and cool. What I find so interesting here is the way that new weather can be created any afternoon, and sometimes right above your head. Innocuous looking clouds can suddenly develop into thunderheads; the wind can change direction abruptly; a thin veil of grey coming towards you can turn into a half-hour torrent. The temperature can drop twenty or thirty degrees in as many  minutes. Wonderful stuff.

I didn’t fritter away the entire day watching the sky. I got out the ladder and tools and completed a little job I’d started on Tuesday, painting the two windows and doorway at the front of the house. I can’t claim to have made the neatest job, but I think it’s an improvement. There is still work to be done around the attic window, but I am having second thoughts about getting up on that roof. I simply don’t like the idea of it, especially with nobody else around.

They’re forecasting 95 today. I think I’m going to take it easy again, and maybe drive to Gordon tomorrow, when it’s supposed to be a little cooler. With no air con in the car, those trips need to be planned. I make a point of driving out in the morning, when the sun is more or less behind me. So, a quiet day in prospect; I’ll be watching the skies for a little entertainment.


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