Happy Columbus Day!

12 October 2009

Monday


Featured in LIFE magazine, this photograph by Wes Luchau captured the collapse of the bell tower of Campbell Hall at Western Oregon State College (now Western Oregon University).

Featured in LIFE magazine, this photograph by Wes Luchau captured the collapse of the bell tower of Campbell Hall at Western Oregon State College (now Western Oregon University).

In Oregon Columbus Day is remembered not for any great parade or great celebration, but for a great storm: the Columbus Day Storm of 12 October 1962, which is sometimes referred to as an extratropical cyclone and sometimes as a hurricane. We don’t really have an adequate vocabulary to describe severe temperate zone storms, just as we don’t have an adequate popular vocabulary to describe temperate zone rain forests. When you say “rain forest” most people simply assume that you are referring to the tropics, whereas temperate zone rain forests once covered the Pacific Northwest west of the Coast Range, and some of this remains on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and especially the Hoh Rain Forest Reserve, a UNESCO world heritage site.

Rain forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Rain forests of the Pacific Northwest.

In the Pacific Northwest we are not typically subject to cyclones or hurricanes, and while there is a history of earthquakes and more earthquakes will come (we are, after all, living in the Cascadia subduction zone), except for Alaska there has not been a major earthquake here in living memory. We have had a volcano, the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens on 18 May 1980, so we are not without natural disasters, but these disasters are mercifully rare. Despite the relative rarity of natural disasters, however, life in the Pacific Northwest is very much a life within nature. Nature here is no abstraction, not something you read about in textbooks, but is always with us.

We have had some natural disasters in the Pacific Northwest (everyone who was here on 18 May 1980 will remember that date ever after) but events of the magnitude of the Columbus Day Storm are fortunately rare.

We have had some natural disasters in the Pacific Northwest (everyone who was here on 18 May 1980 will remember that date ever after) but events of the magnitude of the Columbus Day Storm are fortunately rare.

Nature manifests itself to us in a very immediate way by the four seasons that are characteristic of temperate zones. Of the seasons, autumn is perhaps the subtlest in its early manifestations. If the weather remains nice, as it has this year, one scarcely notices the transition from summer to fall. The autumn is not announced by anything like the colorful explosion of spring flowers, the glowering heat of the summer sun, or the transformation of the landscape by snow. A storm like the Columbus Day Storm can offer a convenient temporal discontinuity that allows us to feel in our bones the transition from summer to fall, but this is merely the seizing upon of a pretext, the contrivance of a convention.

Spiral galaxies in collision, demonstrating a glacial lack of incident such as Jonathan Meades saw in the paintings of Jan Pietersz Saenredam.

Spiral galaxies in collision, demonstrating a glacial lack of incident such as Jonathan Meades saw in the paintings of Jan Pietersz Saenredam.

There are discontinuities in natural history as there are in human history, but like most things in nature hidden to us by our temporal parochialism, the discontinuities of nature tend to come in the form of events like punctuated equilibrium, which, from a human perspective, is still glacial, or even the collision of galaxies, which in terms of one’s temporal perspective is beyond glacial in its stately stillness. There is the occasional supernova or comet to remind us that even in the superlunary world events can develop rapidly, but this is the exception not the rule. The rule is natural continuity, such as we experience (by experiencing the absence of a transition) with the onset of the fall.

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Vine maple in early fall colors, last week in Clatsop County.

Vine maple in early fall colors, last week in Clatsop County.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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