Storms teach England a lesson

It’s rare to think of the weather when it’s being gentle. Few of us are like John Constable, who was so interested in what was going on in the sky that for periods between 1821 and 1822, he spent several hours each day on the slopes of Hampstead Heath, intently examining the moods of the weather, producing 150 precise and quietly stunning water colour, crayon and oil studies of the vaporous shapes drifting over his head – in a process of devoted observation he called ‘skying.’

John Constable, Cloud Study, 1821

But then, at moments like this, suddenly we pay attention. There are giant waves off the coast of Devon, a tree that’s been standing for 200 years in a Somerset church yard is ripped from its roots and the wind tears the giant metal petals off electricity turbines as if they were daisies.

Living is something of an emergency anyway, but our struggles usually have to be strenuously concealed. Our anxieties churn away within us, yet on the outside we must smile and deliver upbeat answers to enquiries about how we’re doing. The dramatic storms call a temporary end to this charade. With the wind howling like crazy, we’re allowed to be worried and even more blessedly, we can direct our worries towards something large, objective and (however odd this might sound to the rescue crews who are out there saving people from floods) relatively simple – for it is ultimately easier to rescue, save and resuscitate than to meet the challenges of those quieter, more temperate days when we are left alone to bear the responsibilities of making a living, staying in love, raising sane children and not wasting our brief lives.

The storm helps us to reconnect with other people too. At normal times, we can’t presume what is on their minds, but now we have a ready-made point of connection and communion with just about anyone. Normally our impressions of what other people are like, largely formed by news bulletins, can inspire the conclusion that everyone must be either a murderer or a paedophile, but in the storm, it hardly seems that way; in fact, they show a proclivity for swaddling shivering dogs, serving soup to the stranded and pushing strangers’ SUVs out of flooded roads. Against the backdrop of gusting winds, the value of any fellow human is thrown into relief. Criteria for compatibility drop to the modest level at which they should perhaps always have been. As when we are drunk, it feels as though we could love anyone.

There is poetry in the names of distant parts of the country which we have never been to nor perhaps even suspected existed: Dawlish, Gunnislake, Menheniot, Washaway – where people know about livestock and flowers and taking their time; rebukes to ignorant, technologically overconfident city ways.

Everything is upside down. Aircraft that can normally soar to 35,000 feet now sit idle in serried ranks, immobilised. The power goes out in the headquarters of an insurance firm, and everyone is sent home and it feels like when school was cancelled as a child. After the pipes burst at a boutique hotel on the south coast, the guests exchange the isolated luxury of their rooms for the brightly lit conviviality of a nearby indoor athletics centre.

Nature puts us in our places. Being made to feel small isn’t something we welcome when it’s done to us by another person, but to be told of our essential nothingness by something so much greater than ourselves is in no sense humiliating. Our egos, exhaustingly aware of every slight they receive and prone relentlessly to compare their advantages with those of others, may even be relieved to find themselves finally humbled by forces so much more powerful than any human being could ever muster.

In former times, we would be put in our places by the threat of God. He would speak in a thunderous voice and remind us not to exceed our stations. But in a largely secular age, it falls to nature, and in particular to so-called ‘bad weather’, to take up this role and to the news to spread the word. It is the isobars and vengeful cold fronts that remind us that – for all our clever machines and ingenious ways – we are still weak and must learn at times simply to surrender to events. We fret and complain, but have no option other than to succumb to an enforced meteorological Sabbath.

Humbled by nature: Caspar David Friedrich The Big Enclosure

Across the south and west of England, the mobile masts are down, the power is out, the lorries are stranded, the supermarkets are closed, water is falling over Somerset and the river Fowey has burst its banks. It is a disaster, a calamity, the worst storm in a generation: the news isn’t holding back. But it might add, this disaster is a strange lesson in wisdom, too. The storm recalibrates our sense of ourselves, we experience a reassuring reduction in our power; less is expected of us. Tidy modern technological society, marked by a lonely individualism and competitiveness, has done most of us sufficient harm that we may not mind so very much when, for a time at least, it gets a little roughed up by nature’s awesomely indifferent hand.