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WHAT THUNDER LOOKS LIKE
June 17, 2011
 
Thunder is the sound lightning makes. It sets up vibration in the air, and
sound is how we perceive vibration of any kind. It also instantly heats large masses of air, causing them to collide with the cooler air around them. We hear the collision, delayed by several seconds from the flash of its occurrence: light travels faster than sound..

Do you tell me so? That colossal crash we hear is air, nothing more? Air? Sorry, I know that's the science, but it simply fails to convince. My imagination fails to certify it. A collapsing building, maybe, or a thousand-megaton bomb. An asteroid hitting the earth might make such a noise. But not air.

Air is soft. Air flows easily in and out of our lungs. Air is caught in
balloons that bob harmlessly at the ends of pieces of string. Air is
invisible. We can pass our hands through air without feeling a thing. Air
doesn't bump into things with an impact loud enough to wake the dead.

This is what troubles Wyatt, at age two. He wants his parents to show him the thunder, and they have explained that they really can't, that the noise thunder makes is invisible. Invisible? He knows it cannot be so. Nothing that loud could be invisible. He is frustrated with his parents for believing something so contradictory to the clear evidence of his senses. Thunder, invisible? Nonsense!

What immensity does he picture? I remember dreadful visions of it myself when I was small: a recurrent dream of something huge and faceless, something like a boulder as big as the world, looming over my tiny self. In these dreams, nothing ever happened: just that snapshot of overwhelming power and defenseless weakness. I knew it could crush me in an instant. Young as I was, I knew that this was a dream of the moment just before my own death.

We go to the schoolyard a block away. There, Wyatt flies along the circular track on his scooter. Then he pushes his stroller around, pretending it is a hot dog cart and he is a New York City hot dog vendor. He climbs on the climbing equipment, replete with steps and ladders, bridges, rings and bars from which to swing. It is only recently that he has come to love it-- until now, it was too disconcertingly large to approach.

Two sliding boards project from one end of the climber, side by side, so you can race down with a buddy. Another little boy sits at the top of one, and Wyatt joins him at the top of the other. I see that they are talking, but cannot hear what they say. Suddenly they begin to bang their feet against the metal surface of the slides, producing a deafening noise. It swells to a crescendo as they bang and then subsides, over and over. I approach the slide.

Wyatt, this is what thunder sounds like, isn't it? I must shout in order to be heard above the din. Are you boys thunder?

Wyatt considers this for a moment, and a satisfied little smile crosses his face. So this is what thunder looks like, I see him thinking. I can make the sound myself. I see him begin the human project of domesticating the terrible power of nature, see him turn toward it to face it down in a new way.

Somewhere between our illusion of nature's domestication and our utter paralysis in the face of her power lies the truth. Her forces do dwarf us; we will never dominate her. But we can partner nature, seek to understand her, enlist her help in our own empowerment. We cannot transgress the limits she sets. She will not let us overreach ourselves for long.

How do you navigate through a storm, I asked a sea captain when I was on the waterfront. That must be difficult?

You navigate around it or outrun it,
he said. You can't fight it. If at all possible, you get away from it. You use everything you have learned from years at sea, because your years at sea have taught you nothing if they have not taught you to respect it.

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The other day's eMo considered the odd eating habits of certain domestic animals. Do you have a story about a dog or cat with strange tastes in food? Send it to Debbie over in the HodgePodge at www.geraniumfarm.org.
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