In today’s stories about weather, humans are the villains. At least, that’s how it feels. When reservoirs run dry, when a wildfire burns, when a “historic” flash flood or freeze arrives—we feel responsible, even ashamed. Climate change. We shake our heads. This is what we get for driving cars and eating meat, for being unable or unwilling to reduce emissions. In reality, of course, it’s impossible to determine global warming’s precise impact on every hurricane or tornado, much less our individual responsibility for these catastrophes. We’re not just perpetrators, but victims, too: evacuating, rationing fuel and food, and shivering in our apartments. Still, we’re pitiful in the way of a crook who’s had his comeuppance, suffering, at least to some degree, because of our own hubris.
George R. Stewart’s novel Storm doesn’t think about weather this way at all. Written in 1941, and recently re-released by New York Review Books, the novel takes place before any code red for humanity has sounded. People aren’t responsible for the severity of Maria, a storm that washes over the novel’s drought-stricken California. She brings rain and snow. She causes a fair degree of damage, plus sixteen deaths—but not because of anything we humans did.
Indeed, one of Stewart’s grand theories of nature is that it’s indifferent to us. He writes scornfully of the “high-priests and shamans and medicine-men” who “beat drums for rain, and cried that the gods were wroth.” Though eventually more scientific minds prevailed (Plato, Galileo), and man “no longer babbles a charm, or tears his flesh in supplication to a storm-demon,” he has not yet attained “that dream of Magaian, witch, and druid—not to predict weather, but to control it.”
Each of Storm’s twelve chapters, representing a day in the life of Maria, begins with this kind of discourse from Stewart—a heady proclamation about history and geologic time and the futility of human endeavors. “Air is so bound up with a man’s life that only with difficulty can he realize its existence as something in itself,” he writes. Perhaps we owe our durability as a species to weather: “With each storm and passing front, blood pressure rises and falls, nerves react, secretions alter.” Stewart, who was a historian and professor of English at UC Berkeley, proposes theories about ancient civilizations and faiths. He questions free will and progress. He imagines the end times, when man will have “run his course and vanished” with “sky-towering crags reduced to gnawed stumps of granite” and a “stormless climate” covering the earth. He quotes from Hamlet. He quotes King David. He has little sympathy for the storm’s victims, reminding us that “the sixteen died not because of the storm, but because of their own mortality...after a few years they would in any case have died.”
You could read all this grandiosity as irritating or entertaining. Either way, it’s part of the book’s intention to take weather seriously, not just a physical reality, but as essential to religion, culture, and the endurance of our species. This concern with survival and extinction appears throughout Stewart’s work. From his post-apocalyptic novel, Earth Abides, to his historical study of the Donner Party, to a volume of speculative anthropology, he wonders where we came from and where we’ll end up. His hunch is prescient: our environment will determine our fate.