Thursday, January 26, 2012

My love affair with the Great Plains

When I began storm chasing, I was obsessed with seeing tornadic storms.  As it turned out, I wasn't often successful at seeing a tornado.  Therefore, I had two simple choices:  give up storm chasing, or persist in the effort.  Giving up was not an option.  No matter what the outcome, I was going to be on the Great Plains every spring, with the purpose of chasing storms in hopes of seeing tornadoes.  It still is not clear to me why I had this passion, but what was very evident was that my success or failure on any given chase day was not important.  I felt a compulsion that simply couldn't be denied.  Failure couldn't discourage me.

What few successes I had in those early years (beginning in 1972) made it obvious that the reality of storms far exceeded my dreams!  The few successes I had in pursuing my goal to see tornadic storms far outweighed my frustrations over not seeing such on most chase days.  If this was the price of success, then I was more than willing to pay that price!  Failure became both my constant companion and an incentive to succeed.  The rest is history, now.  But what's more important even than those occasional successes is what happened in the process of not giving up in the face of frequent failure.

Storm chasing in the nominal peak of the storm chase "season" puts me on the Great Plains.  And given the likely failure of my hopes to see a tornadic storm on most chase days, this meant that I had a lot of days when I was not going to see a tornado.  If storm chasing was only about seeing tornadoes, this was not going to be a process that rewarded me frequently!  With the prospect of a lot of days when I was going to "fail" to see a tornado, I was faced with the inevitability of frequent failure.  What was I going to do with that time when I did not see a tornadic storm?

Eventually, something else began to intrude in my consciousness:  there was more to the experience than tornadic storms!  I found that by being immersed in the Great Plains, something wonderful began to happen: I was falling in love with the place!  Upon my arrival in Oklahoma for graduate school in the late 1960s, I had the odd experience of feeling "at home" in a place where I'd never lived.  Somehow, it felt as if I'd arrived "home" in a place that had never been my home.  The sights, the sounds, the smells, the "feel" of the place made it evident to me that I never wanted to be separated from it again.   To this day, I can't explain that.  I can only bow to the inevitable:  I love it here!

The powerful storms of the Great Plains are an important part of the region's attraction to me - but it's become far more than just the storms.  It includes the people of the Great Plains, the history of the place, the oceans of emptiness, the infinite skies, the sensory experiences of being there - the total experience has become what keeps me here.

For me, a storm chase involves far more than just the potential for seeing a tornadic storm.  The chance to be on the Great Plains is an opportunity to experience something special in its own right.  If that experience includes a tornadic storm, so much the better, but it's become important to me just to be there.  The chance to see a tornadic storm adds another layer of significance to the experience, but it's no longer necessary to me.

Thus, it concerns me that the plains are under threat from those who would exploit them for monetary gain.  The Great Plains are far more than simply a dumping ground, or some sort of cash cow that can be exploited for monetary gain.  I wasn't an "environmentalist" before I became a storm chaser, but I now have become one, arguing that the plains have their own beauty and value that needs to be preserved, not destroyed for the sake of profit.  They have a beauty that may not meet the eye so aggressively as the beauty of the mountains or the ocean, but they are beautiful, nonetheless.  They're no more deserving of destruction in the name of profit than the Rocky Mountains, the national wetlands, or the coastal zones.  Unfortunately, champions for the Great Plains are few.

The economic viability of the Plains is declining rapidly.  Much of the land is absentee-owned now; the owners want to make their investments pay, without regard for the damage to the ecosystems this might cause.  The small towns that have characterized the plains are dying, and so the people who characterize the best of American human values are being squeezed out by the economics.  Corporate owners care little or nothing for the Plains, per se.  Only profits matter to them.  Anything, no matter how unsustainable it might be, that creates short-term profit is acceptable.  And the small towns increasingly have only empty storefronts and abandoned farm homes to show for a once-thriving local agricultural economy.

My chase images necessarily merge the storms with the environment in which they occur.  The two are inseparable.  If you like severe storms, you must also champion the Great Plains!  To appreciate the Great Plains, you have to slow down and feel in your soul the pulse of the land.  If you can't or won't feel that pulse, then I feel sorry for you. And you don't truly appreciate severe weather.


Social Toni said...

This is a very informative blog. During my work at U-Haul I've learned a lot tornado's and the advanced research efforts used to provide storm warnings. It would be great if you could check out our write-up and let me know what you think. Thanks for all the great posts."

Bob Maddox said...

Chuck - You're the Larry McMurtry of storm chasers!

Bob Maddox

Chuck Doswell said...

Very flattering, Bob - thanks, but I think I fall rather short of that mark.