The Southwest Monsoons:
The Gifting of Storms and Value of Extremes
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
Introduction: I find myself writing about the gift and lessons of our local monsoons, at the same time as villagers in Pakistan are dying by the hundreds in monsoon swollen floods. All the more reason, to measure not only the ferocity and cost of these patterns, but the depth of their lessons, the value of their example, and the blessings of their life giving side.
The latter part of every Summer, the Southwest United States is host to what even the weather forecasters call the “Monsoons,” a series of thunderous daily showers that have more in common with the weather patterns of flood and drought ravaged Bangladesh than the remaining three quadrants of this country we belong to. And sorry, friends, there are no monsoons in Oregon or east of Texas, no matter how strong your storms might ever be. This particular weather dynamic often involves a seasonal speeding up and reversing of predominate wind direction, and on the North American continent always involves powerful winds blowing Northeastwards, powered by the extreme disparity between the Summer heating of land and ocean. The resulting lower air pressure above the land acts as a siphon, drawing immense volumes of evaporated seawater high into the atmosphere and then releasing it in heavy concentrations on specific if seemingly random targets along its path.
They announce their start with the faint scent of salty ocean swells in deserts and mountains lying hundreds of Mexican desert miles from the Pacific coastline, and are characterized by dramatic dumps rather than slow and steady soakers. Whereas the Winter monsoon patterns are dispersive and often contribute to drought, their Summer counterparts can result in flash floods in otherwise dry arroyos, and rivers swollen beyond their bed’s capacity.
It is perhaps that which I relate to most, the consistent embrace of wild extremes instead, the roaring and quaking over the calm and quiet storm, full sun followed by darkest imaginable clouds, the chance to thirst as well as to gorge and stretch. There’s none of the uncertainty or equivocation of softer systems here, delivered on ever so gentle of winds. And none of the kinder if monotonous storms that subtly inundate other places, settling in over the land and mind like great gray sheets. Unlike with so many things in life from people’s characters to personal decisions, there are essentially no “gray areas” when it comes to the monsoons of the Southwest. The boundaries between dense cloud and clarified sky are stark and easily referenced, and natural shape and fanciful form result from the delineation and contrast. Sudden and severe fluctuations make boredom and desensitization nearly impossible, and contrasts and choices all the more obvious. Indeed, if storms had minds, these would no doubt come with strongly formed opinions, forcefully argued in thunder’s rumble, and with pointed lightning bolts for impossible to ignore exclamation marks. As a writer ultimately dealing with complexities and twists, I get relief from their certitude, feel gratefully affirmed by their make-no-bones-about-it honesty. I find inspiration in their example of not hinging their act on audience response, “doing their thing” regardless of whether the human throngs either dread or adore it. I only wish I could say as few lines as these storms, and understood as clearly.
I can intimately relate… to the monsoons’ immense energy, dedicated to what is in the end a life saving mission of bringing water to animals, people and plants that would otherwise perish without. To what feels to me like the freedom of the winds, of a great but guileless power answering to no authority other than its own true nature. To the myth-worthy act of rushing in, accomplishing a goal and literally “making a big splash”, then slipping out before the applause like the Lone Ranger, while the gringo’s scratch their head and ask “Who was that masked man – masked writer, masked activist, masked healer?”
What I can’t relate to, and seem to have resistance to emulating, is the monsoon’s often absurdly consistent schedule, punching in like clockwork and almost always checking out on time. Like a dinner date, these storms can usually be expected to arrive no later than 2 PM in the afternoon, and to pack up and leave that same night at a reasonable hour. In the Northwestern sections of the country, folks often wake up to find a laid-back storm still asleep on their couch. Not so in good ol’ New Mexico, where the Summer fronts storm in, perform a raucous rock n’ roll set for all assembled creation, and then get back on the road before before either their groupies or their detractors know they are gone.
Our monsoons begin after the July temps get up into the 80s. And in the same way, their clouds seem to wait each day until the the afternoon’s heat is nearly unbearable before rushing in to darken, dampen and delightfully cool the Southwest’s fabled air. It’s as if it were set up that way, so that we’d first have to really crave – and thus learn to better appreciate – the gift and relief of cooling moisture, before being subjected to what is often a discomforting deluge.
The clouds don’t roll in around here, they’re sucked in, on winds set to send fierce torrents splashing in great waves against the cliffs, bending over the tops of trees an hour before the first rain drop. The thunder calls from a distance at first, then tumbles closer and louder, causing birds to launch and flutter, and leading a number of insects to take shelter on the protective undersides of leaves. Magnificent white thunderheads suddenly rise up from behind the mountains like proudly unbeatable warriors, poised to overwhelm our bastion of relative tranquility and peace, a moment that arrests the prattle of the mind and bares the quaking heart. The lightning arcs just overhead, illuminating both our inescapable mortality and the immanence of resilient life. And with each thunderclap’s mighty roar, come the rains that pour, and pour, and pour.
Even with the lightning cause fires and the storms’ eroding of precious soils, the monsoons are still a sweep of the arm that bestows blessings. The land is not just watered but graced. The dusty greens of area trees and grass instantly brighten as if lit up from inside. Normally dull pastel rocks shine like polished gemstones. The seeps flow in serpentine patterns more beautiful than any artist’s design. And everywhere a rejoicing! Every person, plant and creature and even the soils themselves seem to give a glad shout! A resounding “Yes!” to the rains that spur growth, the winds that test, exercise and thus make us strong, to the thunder that awakens and the water and spirit that sates our thirst.
As the monsoons pass over our cabins and Sanctuary, we do our best to gather every drop that pours off the metal roofs, transferring the life-giving liquid from barrel to barrel in what must look to an observer like a ballet of buckets. We strive to make the most of these seasonal storms when they’re happening, to have our vessel emptied and waiting… and to be gladly willing to do the work of taking it all in.
As quickly as it starts, each monsoon storm stops. The pummeling wind quickly dissipates, no doubt. And what looks like a whole new set of stars soon pop back out.
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