Saturday, April 17, 2010

Volcanic Ash, Weather, and Creative Process

I am fascinated beyond reason by this Icelandic volcanic ash phenomena. I am not as interested in the air travel disruptions, although it is interesting to see how dependent we've all become on airplanes to move goods, not just people.

No, I'm thinking in terms of the summer ahead. Will we have a cooler summer if the volcano keeps spewing ash? And if so, what will happen?

Ideally, we'd just have a touch cooler weather, but wishing for a cooler summer is a gamble. I'm thinking of 1816, which came to be known as The Year Without a Summer; weather patterns were disrupted because of the eruption of Mt. Tambora in 1815. It was a year of catastrophic crop failures in Europe and North America (and likely Asia too, although I don't know as much about that side of the planet during the time period). This event became a major force in migration, as many people left the New England states and headed west, looking for better weather and more fertile land.

I'd be happy with a cooler summer in South Florida, where our summer lows never dip below 85 degrees. At 4 in the morning, it's 85 degrees. Maybe we could have cooler evenings. What I really want is for our current weather to continue.

What I really want is another passive hurricane season (year after year of them, please), but I doubt that atmospheric conditions have too much immediate effect on ocean temperatures.

I'm also interested in the effect of weather on people's creative patterns. The Year Without a Summer drove people inside, including the group who had come to spend some time with Lord Byron at Lake Geneva. They issued writing challenges to keep themselves amused, and out of this came Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

I realize that our current Icelandic explosions aren't nearly large enough to affect the weather, the way they've affected air travel. But they could be large enough to affect our creative processes.

As the ash settles to the ground, we could see spectacular sunrises and sunsets, the way the world did with the explosion of Mt. Krakatoa. In a recent piece in The New York Times, Simon Winchester notes the many artists influenced by the weirdly colored skies, including Munch. Winchester writes of other artists too: "An obscure Londoner named William Ascroft, astonished by the nightly light show along the Thames, turned out a watercolor every 10 minutes, night after night, working like a human camera. More than 500 Krakatoa paintings survive him. 'Blood afterglow,' he jotted down on one canvas, noting the magic done by refractive crystals of dust; 'Amber afterglow,' on another."

It's like our poem-a-day process on steroids. I thought I was doing a great job writing one poem a day. Maybe I should try one poem every 10 minutes!

I was in South Florida during the summer of 1999, a very wet summer. Month after month we broke rainfall records. It was one of the most prolific periods of my life. I taught an early morning Composition class, came home through streets that were already flooding, and sat in my chair, watching the rain, feeling cozy and writing poem after poem, and working on a novel and short stories. I submitted to every journal that took summer submissions, and when the fall submissions opened up, I had my envelopes stuffed, stamped, and ready to go.

Of course, if the weather gets really severe, the impact on my writing life can be negative. During our disastrous hurricane season of 2005, I got very little written, and almost no submissions in the mail. I stored up lots of great images for later poems, which I've proven lucky enough and resilient enough to be able to write.

I'm haunted by the experiences of people who survived Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I doubt I would have proven as resilient if I had faced the complete loss of my house along with my livelihood (many schools closed and never reopened, and I've always wondered what happened to all those workers).

I also listen to the stories of volcanic ash and think about what metaphors I'll create. The ash is actually tiny particles of glass. I have glass on the brain too, because I knocked over a wine glass this morning and sent tiny shards of crystal spewing across my kitchen. Perhaps I'll start drinking my wine out of coffee mugs--they're much more resilient.

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