The first meteorologists were the cows. On some road trip of my youth, passing a stony upstate farm, one of my parents explained that when the cows are standing it will not rain, but when they are sitting it will. As I grew older I devised a pseudo-scientific explanation for their prescience — increasing air pressure pushes them earthward — but never tried to confirm it, simply accepting their predictive powers as fact. I test them every weekend when I take the mill road to my house in the country. Across the road from the waterfall that must have been the site of the structure that gave the road its name is a barn and a field where there are always two, three, or four cows. Sometimes they are all upright, if it is proper to say that of four-footed creatures, sometimes they all rest on the grass like so many bovine Buddhas. Sometimes one stands while the others sit, or vice versa; my wife and I will say, mixed forecast. For years their record was extremely good, though of late they have often been off, so much so that we have taken to asking (if they are seated), Are they predicting, or just resting? To ask the question is to introduce a greater burden of observation and deduction than a simple adage will bear, so now we simply regard them as scenery.
Human meteorologists have changed too. When I first read it, the Broadsheet of the Resistance ran meager columns of data, all print, accompanied by information on the phases of the moon, in case you had misplaced your Farmers’ Almanac. The National Hotel Lobby Newspaper changed all that. In came colors and maps; slanty lines for storm fronts; yellow sun faces for clear skies. It reported the weather nationwide too; newspapers with international readerships added Dubai to Pittsburgh. TV weather changed along with print. The weather girl was an ongoing off-color joke, and Bill Murray supplied the ultimate satire of all-knowingness, but that is what broadcast weather became: a dollop of titillation, atop the omniscience of the Wizard of Oz — as it rained in the beginning, rains now, and ever shall rain (until the forecast changes).
The forecast for information consumption changed the most. Now the weather comes to us online. The official site, maintained by an agency of the federal government, will give the current weather for whatever zip code you type in, and a forecast for succeeding days and nights, up to a week out: high and low temperatures, wind speeds and directions, chances of precipitation, rainfall amounts. All the future events are extrapolations from current trends. In a box midway down the main screen, off to the side, is displayed the real information from which the presumed trends are derived: maps of clouds as observed by satellites. By clicking on the proper arrow, you can look farther afield in all the directions of the compass. All clear here, but see that big blot of something over the neighboring state; and there, over the middle of its neighbor, another equally forbidding. Keep your umbrella handy.
A private company parrots this data, adding pseudo-precise scheduling to it: a 51 percent chance of rain at 3 p.m., dropping to 47 percent at 4. What algorithm exactly allows them to slice it so fine? I would as soon trust two cows sitting, one standing. But they must be right, the site has accu for accurate in its title.
I notice that Wendell Berry, no doubt reacting to such pretensions, is against weather forecasting, as well as every other aspect of modernity. His is a lonely position. Men have been consulting weather glasses and other barometers for a long time. I am not a farmer with a backlist, but a weekend refugee from the city. If I don’t plant between Friday and Sunday, it doesn’t get done. So when I am upstate I check online several times a day.
The first weekend of June everything went well. After an unusually wet May, there were three clear days, with a chance of rain Sunday night, so everything we planted would get a good wet tuck-in.
Sunday evening is when we clean up, load the car, and drive to the bus that takes us home. Although we have done the drill about 800 times, it is still a mad rush: paper to the fireplace, scraps to the compost, bottles and garbage to the bins for the transfer station, clothes and food in the suitcase. My wife and I argue over who has more to do. Each of us is right (and wrong). As we scurried, the leaves on the trees increased their tempo too, fluttering in the way that indicates new weather coming in. Good to know that the forecasts were accurate.
Bull’s-eye accurate. The moment we stepped out the front door, at the time predicted for a “chance” of precipitation, the heavens opened. There was still sunlight in the west, but in the right here it was pouring.
The drive to the bus station takes half an hour. Ten or 15 minutes along the rain stopped. We followed a rainbow, with a dim second rainbow hovering at the threshold of existence outside it. As we waited for the bus not a drop fell.
The drops resumed as we took the thruway south. The lower corner of the state was raked by passing thunderstorms. Windshield wipers swiped, rain rattled, dusk was darkened by clouds. The final lap is a sprint through the meadowlands, a crawl to the tunnel, then rebirth into the city, more people on every block, heck, in every building, than in the village we left. Ramadan was ending, the cabbies were less rigid in their fasts, hailing one was easy and rainless. But during the drive to our building the heavens opened once more. Pounding, pounding rain, hardest when we drew to our door and muscled out the luggage.