The Nature Corner: Three ways of experiencing a thunderstorm

Published 7:07 am Thursday, September 23, 2021

By Ernie Marshall

I enjoy watching a summer thunderstorm — rain, wind, thunder, lightning, the works — that is, from someplace snug and dry such as my roofed back porch. The sound and light show can be as impressive as any Fourth of July fireworks display.

Something this grand can be viewed from different perspectives and three come to mind. Let us allow Thor, the hammer-wielding Norse god of thunder, Benjamin Franklin and the Dalai Lama to represent each of these in turn.

Thor has left his imprint on our culture via our calendar, since Thursday is named for him, “Thor’s Day.” (Three other days, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday — Tiw’s Day, Woden’s Day and Freya’s Day — are also named after Norse/Germanic deities.) Also, since the 1960s Thor has had his influence with the younger set by way of being added to the Marvel Comics cast of superheroes (creations of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby). This also spawned three movies and a TV series.

The ancient Greek god Zeus throwing thunder bolts from atop Mount Olympus (or his Roman counterpart Jupiter) is likely more familiar than Thor, but all of these mythic figures identified with storms, thunder and lightning, are the way ancient peoples gave a face, so to speak, to forces of nature which they feared and felt were dangerous and beyond their control.

And well they might, as Thor’s thunder bolts, a direct lightning strike, can pack a whopping 3 million volts and 30,000 amperes. (Ordinary house current is 120 volts and 15 amperes. The electric chair, primary means of execution in this country for a period of time, used 500 to 2000 volts of current for 30 seconds.) We in coastal North Carolina know the destructiveness of hurricanes and nor’easters first hand, and growing up in Texas tornado season kept us nervously looking to the skies.

This encounter with fearsome and unpredictable forces of nature has become embedded in our consciousness and language to the point of attributing emotions to these powers, for example, in speaking of the “wrath” or “fury” of a violent storm, or of angrily “storming” about the house because one has mislaid the car keys again. Shakespeare’s King Lear captures this connection in the scene of the storm on the heath reflecting Lear’s raging madness and wrath at his daughter Cordelia.

I, like others, have experienced a thunderstorm in this way. I was almost caught in a squall out on Pamlico Sound in my 21’ foot sailing skiff a couple of times, but most memorably being “pursued” by a lightning storm at Bell Island Pier on the Swan Quarter NWR. The two-mile dirt road from highway 264 to the pier was behind a locked gate at that time, so I parked my car there and walked to the end of the 1000-foot pier. A thunderstorm developed over the Pamlico Sound while I stood admiring the view from the end of the pier. I was entranced watching it, lightning streaking across the sky, from one cloud to another and to the water below, filling the darkened sky with a succession of instants of dazzling light.

I was speechless except for a whispered “Wow!” — followed by a louder “Oh #*%!!! It’s headed this way!” I had been counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder to follow and dividing by five to get an estimate on how many miles away the storm was. Very quickly there was hardly any pause to count. “To heck with the math, time to get out of here!”

It seemed the leading edge of the storm was chasing me and was constantly gaining. I walked faster until I was at a jog before I reached the (relative) safety of my car. I heard the deluge of rain hit its roof just as I jumped in. By then, lightning was striking all around me and the sound was deafening. Thunder at a distance is like a rumble, but this close it was more like a giant whip cracking and sizzling noises like bacon — or me! — in a frying pan. I was in the midst of a black needle rush marsh, so was the tallest thing around, a lightning rod of sorts.

It almost seemed as if the high voltage battle between Thor and his foe from Valhalla had redirected its fiery fury toward me. No wonder battles were ended by the panic caused by a solar eclipse and sacrifices were performed at winter solstice to coax the sun’s return to longer, warmer days.

Mention should be made of the Judeo-Christian tradition, or rather, a word as to why it has not been mentioned. The various thunder gods, Thor, Zeus, the Aztec Tialoc, Hindu Indra, Shinto Raijin, et. al. are in religious traditions that are more or less polytheistic and have a separate god for storms, the harvest, the sea, etc. Judaism has been a monotheist religion almost from its beginning, since Abraham, perhaps as much as 4000 years ago. Christianity and Islam followed suit as monotheistic religions.

Next time, we’ll hear from Ben Franklin’s standpoint.

TO BE CONTINUED

Ernie Marshall taught at East Carolina College for thirty-two years and had a home in Hyde County near Swan Quarter. He has done extensive volunteer work at the Mattamuskeet, Pocosin Lakes and Swan Quarter refuges and was chief script writer for wildlife documentaries by STRS Productions on the coastal U.S. National Wildlife Refuges, mostly located on the Outer Banks. Questions or comments? Contact the author at marshalle1922@gmail.com.

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