Clouds, storms, atmosphere, and image above the Great American Prairie.
Imagine the size of the North American prairie.
On an impossibly bright summer Thursday afternoon, I park on the shoulder of a small road near the border between Minnesota and North Dakota. I am on a mission. A hunt. A quest for something gargantuan. This is important stuff. And while I will admit I have no good reason for wanting this, and no one has asked, there is something I want to explain.
All I really want is a photograph. A photograph of size. I do not want a big picture. I want a picture of big. A picture of how big this place is. A picture to explain why prairie people look up. There is a moment, a moment only on the prairie, where the whole world changes. You’re walking along, or driving, or whatever, and even if you’re daydreaming your whole imagination is human size. Your thoughts, the urgencies and plans and hopes, are based on the length of a human life. And then you see the sky. Not just the space between buildings, but the whole sky. The whole dome, 360 degrees. It’s huge and you are small. You nearly want to duck. It’s that big.
And the clouds can shake your soul.
I am not a photographer, except in the way that we all are photographers. Yet I have taken pictures that have glimpsed what I am trying to say. On summer evenings, I have seen prairie thunderstorms build on the western horizon, building fast enough to watch. I have gathered with friends, food and wine in our hands, and watched the storms grow as if they were theater, which I suppose they are. Lightning so far away at first that the sound does not reach us. But then the low rumbles. Finally, the ear splitting explosions, sharp and hard. I have seen the gust fronts, the shelves of gray cloud at the base of a storms like a wedge or knife edge, move toward us. The wind, calm until the gust front arrives, and then strong enough to remove a roof.
I have taken pictures of gust fronts. I have taken pictures of storms approaching, pictures of the downpours, pictures of the storms as they have moved east, toward some other people who are holding their breaths at the size and sound and color of it all. And more often than not I have made the mistake of zooming in, searching for some detail, looking for that bit of miniscule that implies the universe. More often than not, if not always, I have failed.
Fair weather cumulus today. Cumulus humilis. Cottonball fluff. In one or two places, though, Cumulus congestus. As if they were inhaling, the clouds building from within.
The picture is important. I want to get it right. I want to get the feeling right. The emotional response. I have rules, too. The photograph has to be black and white, or sepia, or blue. I am sure there are volumes of art philosophy, photographic theory, and aesthetics about this, but I have not read them. All I know is that I step toward the black and white. The image asks me to participate, to use my experience and memory. I do not translate black and white into some type of color image in my mind, though. The image just has space for me to enter.
No funky lens. And no photoshop. No reworking the moment in the quiet air of some office or study. Stick with the dials on the camera. I’ll allow myself all the dials on the camera, but nothing more. Even though I’m turning off the color, let’s call it one version of truth.
Iam chasing experts, to help me get this right.
Peter Schultz and I sit outside at a restaurant on the south side of Fargo, North Dakota. Peter is an art professor, specializing in architectural history. He is the kind of professor the students call a rock star: young, energetic and eloquent. He and his wife have just bought some prairie land. Not to develop. Not to live on. Just to preserve. To reestablish as tall grass habitat. At the restaurant, a small row of trees and shrubs line the patio and keep us from paying too much attention to the gas station on one side or the highway on another. The place features a woodfire grill, so the smell of woodsmoke lingers on every breeze.
The day is warm and calm. Soft white clouds, a haze in the distance. Cumulus humilis.altostratus. Altocumulus castellanus. There will be rain coming in slowly from the west.
We are talking about his bit of land. “Everything that’s out on this first piece, all of the plants,” he says, “are not just native in the sense that they’re native to Minnesota. They native in that those seeds were sourced from Clay County.”
His enthusiasm, his attachment, is obvious. And we are talking about a sense of scale. A sense of size.
“Listen man,” he says, “I’m an architectural historian. I think about scale all the time. But it’s always been within human-made scales, human-made structures, human-made formulae. But when you’re out there, especially at night, you pitch your tent. It’s you and your dog. And the Milky Way is about as creamy and milky as you could ever imagine. Not only is the landscape itself defined in a new way, I think the landscape in relationship to its other scale generators is also redefined. I mean the sky seems bigger, right? The land seems bigger.”
I tell him I agree.
“Maybe part of it has to do with isolation,” he continues. “There are no manmade edifices to provide a sense of security or comfort. There’s no traditional, culture-based scale. Here, we’re all about enclosing. Even with our trees, we’re about defining our space for us. So things are comfortable. Things are intimate. We can have a nice conversation. Things are kept in their place so that boundaries can be made. Probably for our peace of mind. But out there, there are no boundaries at all. I mean, there aren’t even any man-made lights. There’s the light you brought with you and what’s coming from the natural environment. When your campfire goes out, or if you don’t even bother to light it, and your night vision gets really good, you know after about 90 minutes, the land itself seems to glow with that kind of effervescent energy of the stars. I mean it’s powerful. And there’s no safety net, right? In terms of scale. There’s no reference. Yes, I’m walking on grass. But everything else, it becomes impossible to figure out how far something is.”
“Safety net?” I say.
“Safety net. A lot of our built environments are built on this primordial need, this Neanderthal sense of shelter. We like those spaces. And I’m not just talking about the primal womb or that first cave. I think it’s all connected psychologically. So you have this sense that if you’re going to build something, it’s first function is basically to keep the rain off.”
“And the wolves away.”
“And the wolves away. And I don’t think that is ever too far away from any of those environments. Of course there are a multitude of other functions for any building. But the very beginning is that primal notion of shelter. And when that’s stripped from you, and the only shelter you have is your skin, you are forced into a new relationship with your environment.”
“I’ve heard people use the word humility,” I say. “And I’ve also heard people say it’s invigorating.”
“I don’t think those are the same thing,” he says, “but I think both experiences take place simultaneously. Maybe more they work in tandem. I think maybe the humility side is unavoidable when you’re faced with that vast environment. Then, right on the tail of that, is it’s real. I think we’re invigorated by truth. So when you’re out there and all the illusions are pulled away, and you are confronted by your own size, your own insignificance, there’s a kind of liberty that comes along with that. And I think that can be incredibly energizing. When you’re out there in the raw, natural environment, without that safety net, you can experience yourself in a kind of untrammeled state.”
Altocumulus undulatus in the sky. Eight, maybe 12 different types of clouds. Our food arrives, we clink glasses and begin.
“Tell me about the image,” I say. “And I don’t mean Plato’s Cave. But I can look at something as simple as the cave paintings in the Cave of El Castillo or the Chauvet Cave and have a deep emotional response. Hell, some of those are 40,000 years old, old enough to have been made by Neanderthals. And I can look at, I can have a response to something posted on line just this morning. What is it about the image that gets to us?”
“Honestly, when you mentioned the hand print on the wall, the first thing I thought about in the context of scale and landscape are the great Hudson River School painters of the 18th century in America,” he says. “And what these guys were trying to do was recapture a sense of vast scale, vast unprecedented scale of the American wilderness and bring that back to the east coast to show these people, who’d never seen anything like it, what it was like. And there are a couple of things that are connected to that. First of all the canvases themselves were massive.”
“Does that work? Cities talk about neighborhoods. We have trouble thinking large-scale. In the Louvre, the very large paintings are mentally divided into parts.”
“For an 18th or 19th entury viewer, that kind of canvas would have been very potent. And there is a connection to the handprint on the cave wall. There is the commonality of human experience. There is the ‘I was here.’ The hand on the wall was very visceral, and very universal, right? There’s a sense of marking.”
I bring up the idea of a first art class and a vanishing point. I say I think the prairie point of view troubles the vanishing point greatly. Infinity versus a single point.
“Well the thing about the vanishing point,” he says, “is all that goes back to the Renaissance ideas of space, which were being built by Alberti and his ilk in the 15th century. How math could be superimposed over the natural environment and thus reveal God’s order. There’s all kinds of treatises about this, right? The interesting thing about being out there, on the prairie, is that there’s all these roads and electric wires and telephone poles to give you that one point perspective, but your one point is infinite. An infinite number of points. That goes back to what we were saying about scale. You don’t have that referent ground view.”
“What I fail to do,” I say, “is convince people who are not prairie people how complete the reorientation is you get out here, when there is no other side to the valley. City people, forest people, east or west, will say they can see so far. They will say they can see 20 miles across their valley. And I will often think they have no clue. The sense of exposure, that’s a part of what I think I’m after.”
The waiter refills our drinks.
“Do you have a story?” I ask. “Something from your time out there?”
“I do, man, and it was crazy. It was before we decided to buy. And for us this was a big deal. We said what this means is that for two years we can’t go out. This is a serious commitment. We’re either going to do it, put our money where our mouths were, or just shut up. So there are a lot of discussions about this in my house. A lot of trips out there to look. One night, early evening, we went out there. It was late September, about 8:30, the sun is going down, we’re just kind of walking over the prairie. We’re looking west, and there’s not a building to be seen. The sky is huge. You have all these crazy purples and pinks cascading across the heavens. And we round the corner of this clump of bushes, and there is a herd of deer, nestled down, right there in the grass. Big buck. Huge rack. Eight or nine does. And they look at us. And we look at them. And nobody moves for like three seconds. It was one of these pregnant moments. Then they get up, very calmly, and just trot away to the west. And we just stood there and watched them go. We were in their space, right? You know how when they bed down they create a kind of nest, right? We don’t know how long they’ve been there. We see them walk. And we looked at ourselves, as they sort of disappeared over this next rise, and said this is something worth protecting. That moment. Once you have it, man, once you’re out there and have that contact. I looked this buck in the eye and he looked at me. He didn’t aggress. I didn’t aggress. There was something almost divine, magical about that moment.
“The kind of experience you get when it’s raw is raw. It goes back to that idea of humility and exhilaration that seem to go hand in hand with these types of experiences. Our little bit out there, it’s very small at one level, but it’s also very big. There were these two parcels, and with our bit now there’s over 1,700 acres of uninterrupted habitat out there. To stand out there and feel that seemed important in its own right. It’s something that almost had to be sought out, right? I mean the idea of turning it into a park, of putting in a boardwalk with little mechanical deer kinda doing whatever, that seems to miss the point. The point is look, it’s out there if you want to go find it. There are pieces still out there if you want to go find it. I really think we need that. This town is booming, which is great, right? But to keep the urban center somehow connected to the surrounding native lands, seems to be more and more important than ever. It’s available, but you kind of have to work for it.”
“What I am trying to do with this picture,” I say, “is say to somebody else, even if that somebody else is me six months from now, that all this is possible. I’m really not trying to get a picture of a cloud. I’m trying to get a picture that provokes an emotional response based in humility and inspiration and a sense of scale. A sense that this is part of what is possible in a human lifespan.”
“Right on, man,” he says. “One of the things that it feels like at night, when you’re lying on your back, if you are willing just to be still, it does begin to feel like that, like you are rushing into this vast, sublime cosmos. With no end.”
The Chase: Day 1
What I want is simple. I want Thor. I want the feeling when the first Imperial Star Cruiser appears in Star Wars IV. I want the cloud that hides the mother ship at the end of ET. I want Mufasa speaking to Simba out of the thunderhead, the great plains of the Serengeti spreading out around them. So imagine my excitement when this appears on my computer screen, television, and cell phone:
BULLETIN – IMMEDIATE BROADCAST REQUESTED
SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE EASTERN ND/GRAND FORKS ND
326 PM CDT TUE AUG 6 2013
THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN GRAND FORKS HAS ISSUED A
* SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING FOR…
SOUTHERN BARNES COUNTY IN SOUTHEAST NORTH DAKOTA…
SOUTHWESTERN CASS COUNTY IN SOUTHEAST NORTH DAKOTA…
NORTHWESTERN RANSOM COUNTY IN SOUTHEAST NORTH DAKOTA…
* UNTIL 430 PM CDT
* AT 321 PM CDT…A SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WAS LOCATED 20 MILES SOUTHWEST OF VALLEY CITY…AND MOVING SOUTHEAST AT 35 MPH.
HAZARD…QUARTER SIZE HAIL AND 60 MPH WIND GUSTS.
IMPACT…HAIL DAMAGE TO VEHICLES IS EXPECTED. EXPECT WIND DAMAGE TO
ROOFS…SIDING AND TREES.
* THE SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WILL BE NEAR…
I run for my Jeep. If I can get into the storm, I think, I can wait for the storm to pass. I can watch the overcast sky morph into receding storm clouds. The sun will be to the west and the storm will get full light. I imagine huge cumulonimbus. It’s already raining.
I pull up a weather radar app on my phone and drive entirely too fast through my neighborhood on my way south out of town. The storms are southwest of Fargo, but the green storm tracks on the screen show them heading very close. Rocket down Route 75. The roundabout at the Convent Road is slick with new rain and I worry about skidding around the bend, but I’ve done this before and I know how to skid. A bit farther south I see the sheets of rain coming across the corn fields. The radar says this is a good spot. Perhaps even a bit too far south already. I pull over at the intersection with a gravel road and wait. Rain. Hard rain. Then wind. The radio says there are tornados to the south.
The sky grows brighter. I can see harder rain back north so I drive that way and wind up in my own driveway again as the cell passes. I wait. The sun goes down. I got nothing.
If at first you don’t succeed, I think.
Again at the restaurant, the patio, the separating line of trees, the sound of engines on the other side, but this time with Sheldon Green, photographer for the college. Cumulus humilis. Cirrus. And to the north a deck of cirrostratus, altostratus. I tell him about wanting to photograph size. I tell him I have failed so far. I need the technical how-to.
“That’s a question I asked myself when I was at Horizons magazine a lot,” he says. “One answer was aerial photography. Because you can get a more unique perspective out of it. Another thing was finding just enough of a rise, a hill, so you can shoot down.”
“Why is that down angle important?”
“Well, otherwise, to me, the horizon is too flat. I wanted something that would undulate. That would build in a layer of light or shadow, which creates depth. That’s one of the problems I would have. If you were just on a flat road or a flat piece of land, there would be no depth to it. It would just be flat. So it would look to me like the image was two flat planes,”—he holds his hands at right angles to each other—“one vertical and one horizontal. And what I wanted to get was this image,”—he holds his hands one in front of the other—“so I could create some depth, which to me would indicate distance. So, for instance, when you’re on a boat in Lake Sakakawea and you look to the west, you can start to see the clouds coming in. You can see what weather you’re going to have in an hour.”
“Or three,” I say.
“Yeah. But that’s really good because it builds up these really high, beautiful clouds. You’ve got sky color and cloud color and you’ve got depth right there. Plus the flat water and the hillsides. So you get this big stretch of depth. Depth to me always indicates size and space.”
“For those pictures,” I say, “you needed the sides of the lake. If you had just the water and the clouds you wouldn’t have it.”
“Right,” he says.
“The sides create an alley, a type of road for the eye to follow to the storm clouds.”
“The next thing,” he says, “is that it’s a wide angle shot. It’s not a telephoto. The telephoto narrows it down. You want it broadened out. At one point I even had a camera that allowed a double-wide piece of 35 mm film. So it was long and narrow like that. I still have some of those photos, but they’re almost impossible to scan now, because they are so long. But they are absolutely right. I could do a double page on a magazine and it would be exactly the vision that you saw.”
I mention the iPhone panorama feature, and the picture stitching feature in my own camera.
“Do we see in panorama?” I ask.
“Oh yeah,” he says. Then he pulls a new camera toward me. “That’s why this camera comes with a 35 mm lens. That’s the closest to what our own eye sees. It’s close to the range of our own eyes. If you’re out in a plane or if you’re driving, you see in wide wide angle. You’re not just looking at the yellow stripe on the road. You see the white one on the side, and the ditch, and beyond. Some people have used the large format cameras, but you really don’t need one. And there’s another one that people have used over the years called a WideLux, which is basically a wide angle camera with a lens that moves 180 degrees across the film plane. But with digital, other than that app on the iPhone, there’s really no such camera yet. What you have to do is take several pictures and stitch them together in Photoshop.”
“Tell me about taking big landscapes,” I ask. “What are the particular challenges?”
“First thing is you want to have as much depth of field as possible. Depth of focus, depth of field. So you’re talking f-stops of f/11, f/22. You know, big. Just ratchet that aperture ring down.”
“Isn’t anything after about 30 feet infinity though?”
“The higher f-stops just add as much sharpness as you possibly can. It makes the lens work as hard as it can. The lens is the most important thing in your camera. Using the smallest lens opening, you get the greatest depth of focus and a sharper photo. So an f/22 photo is going to be significantly sharper than F/8 or F/5.6 and so on.”
My camera, I suddenly remember, only goes to F/8.
“So then,” he continues, “the next thing you want is as much detail as you can get. That means you want to have a slow ISO. Finer and finer grain. So you’re pretty much talking about a tripod now. So it’s not fast. It’s slow. It’s a process. You have to find that spot and look for clouds coming in. Clouds are your friends out in the plains. Because that defines where you’re at. So you set it up and you can take your time. What I used to do was go find a spot that I liked and figure out what the best time of day would be. Is it a morning shot? Is it a late afternoon shot? Is it an evening shot? And then that’s when you go back, for that time.
“Contrast starts to define the space, and one of the nice things about it is that our eyes love to go from dark to light. We’re attracted by the light. But even more so if it’s coming through a dark space. Brilliant architects have used that for years and years. When you go see the Taj Mahal, you walk through this dark building towards the Taj, and when you get to the arch, there it is, in the sun, and you’re in the dark. It just gives you that depth. It’s like, Oh my gosh, look at that. Instantly. It really draws you in. So if you frame a building photo with an overhanging branch, that is the dark. The building is in the light.”
Our food comes and I tell him about my attempts.
“One thing I’ve noticed recently,” he says: “There are a lot of power lines out there now. A lot of wind generators. A lot of the power lines I used to think were problematic. They got in the way. I didn’t mind the fence lines, because those were good about defining space. And the wind generators can be photogenic in their own way. But one of the photos I liked a lot with that double wide back was taken on the south shore of Lake Sakakawea. And it was mainly a color thing, to show off the various colors in the grass in fall. So we had the blue lake, the clay hills, and then this kind of red stuff. But there was a fence line in front of me and it was flowing through the frame, just like waves. And I purposely kept that in the frame because it established that depth that I wanted. Here’s this, there’s the lake, there’s all this color in between.”
“Look at the good guys, like Ansel Adams,” he continues. “He does that a lot. He’s got a famous photo of light coming through a cloud, and then there’s water, and you see these rocks coming up. The rocks, right in front of the camera, just as sharp as the way in the back. The lens is stopped all the way down. But the rocks in front of the camera make the scene in back. You couldn’t have one without the other.”
“Black and white,” I say.
“It’s just more imaginative,” he says. “It is. I’ve talked to world famous photographers and asked what they display in their own homes. Most of them say they have a favorite black and white.”
“I have these shots of Paris,” I say. “Standard tourist shots. In color they are cliché. But put them in black and white or sepia and suddenly, wow, they have emotional weight and intellectual depth. And a kind of allure.”
“Cameras are so uniquely qualified to work in black and white,” Sheldon says, “because that’s what they are calibrated on. Eighteen percent gray is what your meter reads. Basically, this”—he points like a camera is focusing on the palm of his hand—“is 30 percent gray. If you meter this and open up one stop, everything in this area will be the same exposure, about 15 to 18 percent gray. So anywhere in the same light, the exposure will be the same as it is here. Think of the freedom that gives you. Now I can just concentrate on the image. And you get this wonderful range of white to black. It would be accurate.”
We pause as the waiter collects our dishes. The word accurate hangs in the air. I want just this much, I think. All I want is an accurate picture of knee-shaking humility, grand scale, emotional surprise, and exploding joy.
“In a travel photo I want to see a context,” he says. “One of my favorite photos is a rabbi and a young man, both praying side by side at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The young man has a gun slung over his shoulder. The context of that all is the Western Wall, the history of Judaism, the old rabbi, but then the young defender of the modern state. Boy, that picture said it all. As far as I was concerned, that was the shot.”
“That goes back to the idea of narrative: the idea that there is a story to evoke.”
“There’s another one that I did that I like. It’s a picture of Machu Picchu. But I shot it from one of the terraces where they grew their crops. And there was a llama there, feeding on the grass. So I’ve got terrace, which is the context of how they survived. Llama, the national animal. And then there is the mountain. To me, that is the perfect photo. There they are. Boom, boom, boom. Your eye follows the scene, all in a row. All in context. In that one shot you get a real sense of place.
“With the zoom lens, you can zoom, but with this one,”—he points to his new camera again—“you go to the spot. The spot might be closer to the action than some people want you to be, but it gets the photo done. That’s that you have to do. You have to go to the spot.”
The Chase: Day Two
A bright, sunshine-filled morning and I am in my Jeep, 80 miles an hour, south down I-29. The sky is clear, just a little bit of fluff. Cottonball Cumulus Humilis again. Just whisps. More like memories of lace than any real cloud. But this morning’s radar, viewed over strong coffee, says there is rain to the west. Maybe even storms. So there must be clouds. There must be that space just before or after the weather when you can see the size of it all. At least that is my hope.
Round hay bales fill the shoulders of the highway. Corn in the fields. Soybeans. Sugar beets here still close to home. It’s August now and the wheat has turned golden, the sunflowers tall.
At highway speed it occurs to me that the prairie sky is huge but weightless. It has no gravity. This is not an emotional feeling or even an intellectual idea. This is physics. I have stood on the edges and walls of tremendous canyons and felt, in my gut and fingers and toes, a pull into the depth. Gravity is the weakest force in the universe, but it is also the most persistent. Every thing, whatever a thing may be, that has atomic mass, also exerts a gravitational pull. The very rocks at the bottom of the canyon are asking my body to move closer, perhaps to leap. But look up and there is nothing there. The sun, yes. And I suppose Jupiter, the other galaxies, Vega, Polaris, the Hourglass Nebula, the Pisces-Cetus Supercluster Complex, but they are all very far away. There’s nothing up there to give a sense of scale, a sense of gravity or gravitas.
I turn west. To the north, the clouds are more frequent, more together. Perhaps, I think, I’m going the wrong direction. To the south the sky is completely empty. But to the west I can see a growing collection. Perhaps this will be the day. I swear to god, on the road heading toward Lisbon, I pass a farm with llamas.
This is the part of the world where you pass somebody on a county road and you raise your fingers off the steering wheel. A small wave. A small sign of hello and greeting, a howdy’do. Red winged blackbirds. Mourning Doves. Killdeer. Robins. A yellow finch that seems to race me down the narrow, two-lane road.
The land begins to rise and fall. I’m entering the Sheyenne National Grasslands, the old river delta for Sheyenne River when the Laurentide Ice Sheet was melting and the Sheyenne was as broad and as strong as the Missouri River is today. A time when Lake Agassiz was the planet’s largest inland sea. And suddenly there are trees. Ash and elm and oak. Poplar, too. And pine.
How much of what you feel when you look at the sky is determined by what you already know? This day, at least, I know where I am. I know this whole place was once the Western Interior Seaway, with sharks that were large enough to eat my car. I know this is where Tyrannosaurus Rex once walked, and where mammoth, dire wolf, and ground sloth lived. I know about the Dust Bowl-era shelterbelt project, a grand scheme to build a wall of trees from Canada to Mexico, windbreaks to keep the soil in place. And I know that some of those trees are still here. But do any of these affect the way I see the sky? If I am in a new place, a place whose history is still in front of my learning, do I see a different sky, a different weather?
Suddenly, there is adventure. I pass a little brown highway sign that only shows a pair of binoculars over an arrow pointing south. I pass right by. But the sign gets into my wondering somehow and not a half mile later I am hitting the brakes, pulling onto the shoulder to make a sweeping turn, and then a turn to the south, to chase the promise of something to see.
A thick white plume of dust kicks up from my tires as I travel down the gravel road. The voice prompt from the GPS unit in my pocket, dedicated to destination, tells me to make a U-turn, make a U-turn, make a U-Turn. The gravel road grows narrower, crosses other mile-roads, and finally become just hard packed dirt. I am looking for a pull out, a viewing area, but nothing appears. I do pass one more of the binocular signs with an arrow pointing ahead. I pass crops and cattle, the occasional farm truck heading the other direction. In my heart I want whatever overlook I’m heading toward to be special. I want Sheldon’s down angle and I want scale.
But what I want does not appear. I seem to have missed it completely, if it was ever there. No rise, no place to park, no pull out for photography. But it is a warm and bright summer Saturday afternoon, and as I come around one bend in the road I pass a remote farmstead, the family out front, one child in diapers, all of them playing croquet.
I pass a field with a number of dead trees, an interesting site, and I take some pictures. But it’s not at all what I am looking for. No huge drama in the sky framed by some foreground delicate. I drive. Or, to be more precise in this part of the world, I proceed on.
Eventually I wind up at Fort Ransom State Park. There are tall hills and long trails. Pretty trees. The Sheyenne River curves through it, meandering. It’s all very nice. But the image isn’t there. Whatever storms the radar may have promised this morning have disappeared.
Leaving, though, I see a sign that reads “America’s Byways.” An arrow points north, down a gravel road. So yes, I think. I have given up on chasing clouds. The road follows the river, more or less, and every turn reveals a new bend, an interesting tree, a new refraction of light. At one point a broken suspension footbridge makes me wonder about the history here. I take a picture of this, a picture of that. More for my remembering than for anything else. So I should not be surprised at all when I find myself at the edge of a field that gives way to a low rise, that sits beneath some newly gathered clouds, with one tree for depth. I stop, get out of the Jeep, unpack the camera again, take a moment to frame the idea.
It’s close, I think. Cumulus humilis and altocumulus.Not breath-stopping, but it gets a bit closer to the hope.
It’s called the Flammarion Engraving, though no one ever calls it that. The picture is famous. It gives an image to something we have, each of us, felt. It looks like a medieval woodcut, though its first appearance was in 1888. A man on his knees, a shepherd’s crook by his side, is lifting up the fabric where the sky meets the earth and peering into whatever may be beyond. Inside the dome of the sky are the sun and the moon and the stars, a tree, perhaps the Tree of Life, and some flowers, some village or town. Outside the dome, the cosmos set in layers, bands of clouds, Ezekiel’s wheel, fire, other suns. The image shows the quest for knowledge, a moment of discovery. This is the place where the Earth touches the sky. The man’s right hand is raised, an apparent gesture of astonishment.
I am thinking about this man as I sit with Fred Remer, Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of North Dakota, having lunch at a café in Grand Forks. Warm sandwiches, coffee, and soup between us, we sit at a window table and watch rain showers pass over the streets. Both Fred and I are pilots and we’ve known each other for years, though we seldom have a chance to get together.
I tell him I want Cloud 101 stuff. I know moist air rises, the water condenses, and presto you have cloud. Beyond that I’m pretty unsure. I tell him about my project. I want to know what I’m chasing.
“Technically,” he says, “a cloud is an ensemble of water droplets or ice crystals. But one thing that’s kind of interesting, when I talk with other meteorologists, is that there’s an argument as far as what is a cloud? Where does the cloud start? You look in the sky and you see white. But it depends on the number of particles, either ice crystals or water droplets. If they are in high enough concentration you start to see the edges of the cloud. But even outside of what you consider cloud, there are water droplets, there are ice crystals. Typically they are forming and evaporating rather quickly, but there is no real hard edge to a cloud. That’s why when we’re doing cloud research, it’s hard to decide when you’re in-cloud. You have to use some sort of criteria. You have a cloud droplet number of this many or that many droplets per cubic centimeter. We use the FSSP, the forward scattering spectrometer probe. That measures droplets from approximately two microns up to about 30 microns in size. The real edge of the cloud, in terms of how it behaves, could be ten meters, 30 feet, maybe 40 or 50 feet from what you can see.
“The center of the cloud, the updraft, the center of the thermal tends to be pretty uniform. We use the term adiabatic. It has an adiabatic core. As the air rises it cools at a certain rate because the air is expanding. That doesn’t happen along the edges. Along the edges you have all this mixing that’s going on. The center remains rather undiluted. But along the edges the temperature profile is determined by a lot of other things. Is it cold air? Is the air coming out of Canada, moving over a warmer surface? So you’ll have a temperature difference between the inside of the rising thermal and the surrounding air. As long as the temperature of the thermal is warmer than its surroundings, it’s less dense and it continues to rise.
“You can have what we call deliquescence.”
We are at the point where I nod, knowingly, and take a bite of my sandwich, as if this is common knowledge.
“To have condensation you need aerosols,” he continues. “You need water droplets in the air to attach, to form a cloud droplet. Cloud droplets can form by themselves just in pure air but it would take extremely high super-saturations. You’re talking on the order of 400 percent relative humidity. We don’t get that here. But you can have condensation occur, deliquescence, at relative humidities of less than 100 percent. And that’s because a lot of the aerosols in the atmosphere are hygroscopic, meaning they attract water vapor. You have water droplets that are being attracted by basically salt particles in the atmosphere. Cloud condensation nuclei. A lot of times you’ll have deliquescence where the aerosol starts to become a solution as a result of condensation at relative humidities of 85 to 90 percent. But these droplets are tiny. These droplets are on the order of one or two microns in diameter. You can’t see them very easily. But they still do refract a little bit of light.
“So you have deliquescence right near cloud base. Eventually the droplets grow large. When they are small, the surface tension restricts the ability of the water vapor molecules to attach themselves to the droplet. So as the droplet gets larger, the surface tension becomes less, and it’s easier for water vapor molecules to attach themselves.”
“Of course,” I say. “But tell me about prairie storms. The explosive thunderstorms,” I say. “The ones that seem to erupt and get dangerous.”
“Individual thunderstorms are pretty hard to forecast, a lot of times,” he says. “They develop because of small differences in the atmosphere. A lot of times you can see really small pools of moisture, perhaps, or the dewpoints are a little bit higher, and as a result it doesn’t take much lifting, whether it be surface heating or just some sort of topography to get a cloud forming. Small boundaries in the atmosphere, like the outflow from a thunderstorm that you’ll see from the previous day. You can still track it, pushing through a region and then initiating the development of another thunderstorm. And topography is a big thing. A lot of times we have elevated terrain. I’m not talking mountains. It does happen over mountains, but even over hills that are just 200, 300 feet tall, higher than the surroundings. The act in a couple different ways. One, they are an elevated heat source. They are tall and they are warmer. The air that’s in contact with the hill is warmer than the air just about 200, 300 feet away, so as a result they tend to help initiate the formation of clouds and thunderstorms.”
“I probably shouldn’t say this,” he says.
Fred and I are telling pilot stories, weather we’ve seen, weather we’ve flown.
“We were down in Florida, and the day before I was in the right seat, “ he says. “I had not been flying the jet for a long time so I was second in command, and we were doing electrification studies on anvils over the Kennedy Space Center. We’re taking off and landing from the shuttle landing facility, that 15,000-foot strip. The day before we were flying an anvil, and usually at high altitude you don’t hand fly. You use mostly the autopilot and the heading bug and stuff. I don’t know why I was hand flying. But I got caught in a downdraft in the anvil, and I started losing some altitude. There was a 757 going underneath us, about 2000 feet, and the controller saw that and it went off on his radar that there’s a conflict. And he kind of started chewing my butt. I got back up to altitude right away. It was just one of those things. But I had my tail between my legs and the captain was one of those old-school captains that really chews you and rides you hard.
“So the next day it was his leg; he got to fly. And we’re flying an anvil. But he didn’t know how to use the radar. I mean, he did not know how to use it well. He hadn’t been flying jets that long and hadn’t been flying weather that long. This was his first season, actually, flying thunderstorms. We were tracking an anvil, going back and forth, and he wanted to go a little bit farther towards the core of the storm. An anvil’s not too bad flying at great distance. But when you get closer and closer you’re getting closer to the storm. I kept saying, ‘Do you want to continue? Do you want to continue?’ Meaning if we keep on this path, we’re going to wind up in the storm. He said, ‘Yeah, I just want to go a little bit farther.’ I should have been a little bit more aggressive. But I’m using the radar and I’m seeing a big red blob and he’s not looking at it. My area of expertise is airborne weather radar, how to use airborne weather radar. Finally I realize that he is not going to turn around.
“The day before I felt so humiliated that I wasn’t questioning anything that he was doing. I figured he knew what he was doing. So I tightened my seatbelt. I put my seat down, because you don’t want your head to hit the top of the ceiling. I’ve flown in storms before, storm research as a technician in the back and everything. So I know what to do. And usually you can fly through a puffy Florida thunderstorm pretty easily as long as you just keep going straight. Two miles across. One mile across. Not that bad. As the thunderstorm goes up there’s air spilling around the sides. So you go in and you get a downdraft, and then you get the updraft in the core, and then you get the downdraft on the other side. It’s a rollercoaster.
“You don’t want to do that in Midwestern storms, the super cells, the mesocyclones. You don’t do that. But just a puffy, big, fat, Florida thunderstorm, you can usually survive coming out the other side. So we got in the middle of this storm, and I knew this was coming. We started going down and then we started going up, and he decided in the middle of this storm that he didn’t like it. He’d never been in this position before but I had with the research I’ve done. And he decided to turn. He says ‘I don’t like this, I’m getting out of here.’ I’m like, ‘Oh shit.’
“No, this is the one thing you don’t do. You don’t turn in the middle of a thunderstorm. You go, you just keep going. You’re going to be out in ten seconds, 15 seconds. But we ended up turning, and the updraft kicked over our wing. We ended up not totally inverted. We were probably like 120 degrees over. He yelled at me that he’s got the airplane and I should try to control the throttles because the engines were surging because there’s so much water, and the airflow was different. So I was trying to keep the throttles under control, and eventually he did get control of the airplane after about 270 degrees of turn inside the thunderstorm. But we had technicians and scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in the back. The scientists in the back were plastered on the ceiling because of the Gs. They were not happy.”
“Are prairie clouds different?” I ask.
“Yeah, actually, they are,” he says. “The Florida storms are single cell, or what we call air mass storms. They go up, straight, and the water droplets become hailstones, they freeze. Usually from zero degrees Celsius to about minus 20 degrees Celsius, that’s where you have hail production. And usually in the summertime, in Florida, zero degrees Celsius is at about 16,000 feet or so. So you get hail production anywhere from 16,000 feet up to about 25,000 feet. If you’re painting it on radar and you see red well above the freezing level, that’s an indication you got hail in the cloud. The top of the cloud is still bubbling, you have entrainment at the top, so dry air is coming at the top of the cloud, and you have the weight of all the water, and the entrainment evaporates part of the top of the cloud so that it’s cooler than its surroundings and so you have a negatively buoyant parcel of air within the cloud. It comes down within the updraft. It actually kills the updraft. And there’s what we call precipitation drag—the water and ice crystals also act to cool down and slow the updraft. So a puffy storm in Florida is basically setting up its own demise. Florida storms go up and they come down and then go up and then come down. It’s like popcorn all over the place.
“Here, we get that sometimes. But not a lot. Most of our thunderstorms are caused by some sort of forcing mechanism. Here it’s usually more dynamics driven. The jet stream, causing rising motion. Or you have strong convergence due to a low-pressure system. Or surface things and upper level things conspire to cause rising motion. And we’re closer to the cold fronts. Usually with a cold front you have strong sheer in the atmosphere where the wind down low is weaker and in a different direction than it is up high. So because of that, just think of speed sheer, the change of wind with height. As the thunderstorm goes up it’s going to tilt. What happens is the updraft forms and goes up through the cloud, the precipitation forms and falls out. The precipitation causes drag, and the storm is tilted, so it separates the updraft from the downdraft. With Midwestern storms, when you get this sheer, that sheer causes a coexistence between the updraft and the downdraft. They can last a long time. We get multi-cell clusters here, a lot of multi-cell convective systems here where you have a bigger storm and little pieces that are kind of building into it. Occasionally we get super cells, which have a strong rotational aspect as well as the tilt, which causes the mesocyclones and thus the tornados.
“Do you remember July 4, 1999? That derecho that came through town?”
Fred and I are still in the café. The food is gone and the coffee is empty, but we are still telling stories.
I tell him I do. Straight line wind storm. Sustained winds, if I remember right, of more than 100 miles an hour. Street signs bent level to the ground. The tops of trees removed. Homes destroyed. The tops of churches erased.
“I was a TV meteorologist for KXJB, Channel 4,” he says. “I was the weekend guy. I was looking at the charts the night before and it looked like there would be storms sometime during the day. I woke up at 5, 5:30, and I looked at the radar on the internet back then—we could get it and it was something new—and I saw storms! They were to the west of Fargo. I went outside and I saw clouds screaming to the west, which set my alarm bells off. This was inflow! I just saw these clouds go screaming to the west, and the storms are moving in from the west, so I realized this is not going to be good. I drove as fast as I could down the interstate I got my graphics together and I was ready to go on air and say ‘There’s a strong wind event about to occur! There’s a squall line coming through!’ I was begging with the station engineer, who was working master control, to let me go on. He said we’re showing an infomercial, they’re paying for this. He said wait for a break in the infomercial and then you can go on.
“I got in front of the screen and countdown 30 seconds and bang—the lights went out. Everything went out. The satellite dish on the roof departed. It ended up in the parking lot. It was one of the most frustrating things. You see it, you know what’s going on, but—”
The Chase: Day Three
I watch the weather radar on my television, my computer, my cell phone.
Mid-morning, I see there is a something to the north, an area of green set over the map of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota. Within the green: yellow and red. A storm. It’s small enough I might be able to see its shape, and there is gas in the Jeep. The camera is ready. I’m out the door, nearly running.
I’m beginning to feel a bit like Ahab.
“Thar she blows!” I yell. Or almost yell. Or think about yelling. “Thar be storms in the western sky!” That seems better, but my pirate voice is forced at best. “Captain, thar be whales on board!” Fun, but off-topic.
I point the Jeep north, up Interstate 29, toward the weather. Just north of Fargo I see cumulus humilis set in transverse bands, long narrow rails of cloud with open sky between them. Then a thicker overcast. Then some open sky beyond. To the west, more open sky, but in the distance I see puffballs rolling. I look again a few minutes later and they are completely different. Larger. There are peaks and meadows. Layers and bumps.
The next exit is for Grandin, North Dakota, and I pull off there, turn west, pass a lonely gas station and start down the gravel road. Then I stop. A huge field of wheat, bright golden in the afternoon light, fronts the north side of the road. In the distance, a farmstead hides behind a shelterbelt of trees, a small tower with what I assume are augers for moving grain into storage bins rises above them.
Got the spot, I think. Be patient. I am at the spot, I think. Just wait. I get out of the Jeep with the camera and walk to the road’s edge. I adjust the settings. The clouds are growing—growing taller and growing nearer. A pickup truck slows and a farmer asks me if I’m okay. He thinks the Jeep is broken or out of gas. I tell him I’m just taking pictures and he says okay before he shakes his head and smiles a bit. “Have a good one,” he says.
I start taking pictures. Every 30 seconds, maybe not even that long, the shapes are changed. The light, the dark and white of the clouds, shifts and moves. All I want, I think, is a picture of size. A picture I can show to someone and say, This is where I live. Not a picture of my home. A picture of the breath of a way of thinking. A picture of what it’s like to live here. Just a simple picture of how the prairie feels.
Towering cumulus. A cell moves through the frame I’ve imagined over the farmstead and I take one picture, then a dozen. Wide angle. F8, the best I can do. Black and white. I take a picture that seems close. It’s not perfect. No picture is ever really large enough to hold what the human eye can see. Or what we remember. Or what we feel. But it’s close. I would say, for this day, it’s even accurate.
I have no idea where this cloud started, but I smile as I think about the many possible ways, as I think about its invisible edges, the updrafts and downdrafts, the sheer, the hail and deliquescence and adiabatic cores, the rushing into a vast, sublime cosmos with no end.
Gallery | Trying to Get It Right By W. Scott Olsen
All images in this gallery copyright W. Scott Olsen; images may not be copied or otherwise used without express written consent of the artist. Click image to view in larger size or to begin slideshow:
W. Scott Olsen’s most recent book is Prairie Sky (University of Missouri Press, 2013). He teaches at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where he also edits the literary magazine Ascent. His website is wscottolsen.com.