Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Weather and Memory

Which of our senses most powerfully gives rise to memory?  Proust would argue, of course, that it is taste, given that a book of 4,300 pages came from the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea.  Some scientists think that our sense of smell--our most complex and primitive sense, one we still can't fully explain, takes its stimuli right to the stem of the brain.  Cinnamon.  Pine trees.  Baking bread.  Our young children. Apparently women can recognize their biological children--but not their stepchildren--from their smell.  If you're a mom, you'll remember that powerful whiff of recognition.

But I'd like to argue, for today anyway, that it's touch. And I'm making the argument backwards, as it were. Who doesn't have powerful memories associated with the crisper, drier air of fall? Or of first snowy days?  Or of endless sunny summer days? A week ago, when our muggy weather broke and delivered a couple of cool days, I was catapulted right into fall. My reaction was contradictory. On the one hand, I was jubilant when the humidity lifted. And like many academics, who are really lifetime learners, I associate fall with adventures and new beginnings--new people to meet and new things to learn and teach. On the other, I thought the weather was delivering us a taste of fall way too soon. I hadn't had enough of the hot dry heat that infuses my bones with something that's crucial to surviving winter here. And on my third hand (proof that I'm a Martian), I felt nostalgia and grief, partly because fall is the end of summer and prelude to winter, and partly because I've come to the point in my life when fall is going to mean making crabapple jelly and putting in tulip bulbs.

Or several weeks back, our thunderstorms reminded me of standing out on our front porch when I was a child watching the rain come toward us in sheets.  Or we would brave the storm and put large pans under the downspouts to catch rainwater to rinse our hair. (Believe it or not, once upon a time cream rinse didn't exist, but rainwater was a great substitute.  Man, I'm getting old!)  I remembered the week when we took a cottage at Silver Lake, a three mile hike over the dunes to Lake Michigan, when it stormed for much of the time.  I learned to play double solitaire with my sister, who was 7 years older and beat me every time.  I can still see her making incredibly neat and tidy piles of her cards as she laid out the game, something I could never do. I remembered the time my family was on vacation and literally drove out of a storm.  You don't think storms have edges, but they do--often quite definite ones.  Or I remembered the time Bill and I were driving to Calgary to visit his sister and brother-in-law and were inundated with thunder, lightning, and hail.  We were driving my car, and Bill said he could see me simply putting my head down and drawing inward.  I was telling myself that my car was not my livelihood--unlike the crops in the fields around us.  Grabbing for perspective.  The hail was too soft to hurt anything, but by the time the storm was over, a half inch of slush covered the car. 

Some of these memories, like those of a new school year or the December holidays, are created by cultural rituals, with a supporting cast of smells, like the smell of pine and baking, or the scent of fallen leaves. (Can you tell the smell of a fallen maple leaf from the smell an oak?  I can, even years after oaks have ceased to be part of my environment.)  But I wonder if the cultural rituals like the return to school, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter are placed on the cusp of new seasons so that the weather can play a supporting role, add something to the drama, even provide a magnet for memories?

Weather literally touches us. Our skin, as you will remember from high school biology, is our body's largest organ, filled with receptors. Humid air touches us differently than dry air.  A breeze touches our skin lightly, while air that is heavy and unmoving seems to envelope and stifle us. I had such a strangely strong reaction to the hot humid weather and whined on FB, only to find lots of sympathy from other people who were struggling with the sense of being trapped. And as anyone with headaches or arthritis will tell you, changes in air pressure or humidity affect the inside of our bodies. That day on the highway in Alberta, the sudden cold touched my skin in a way that was subtly threatening, while the drier, cooler air of the last couple of weeks makes me feel free and yet vaguely sad. As I work in the garden more this fall than I usually do, though, I'll have chances to gather new memories of the way weather touches us.   



  1. Ah, how I enjoyed reading this piece, Kathleen!

  2. For me the trigger is sound. The patter of little feet across the floor become my chidren's, the call of a coyote evokes an evening walk years ago, and the particular ring of a cell phone resonates the rotary dial phone of my childhood and give rise to the entire household complete with the view out the kitchen window. Sound keeps me balanced and drives me astray.
    Thanks for your posts Kathleen. I am still considering metaphor. :)