I believe, against the data, that the summers of my childhood were hotter. If pressed I will concede I only remember the weather felt worse, that its frustrations seemed greater, and that this has little to do with what meteorological instruments record. How we weather the seasons in our bodies and buildings is what comes back to us, not the recorded temperature of the days. What I remember is this: in Perth in 1991 you could run a hand across the fibro walls of our primary-school classroom and notice the metal struts within still radiating heat from yesterday’s sun.
At the beginning of last year – on an afternoon when over a fifth of the country darkened to wine-red in the Bureau’s schematics, indicating temperatures of above forty degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) – I sat in air conditioning and found it was not hard to ignore the weather of the future. Things were bad enough already. A schoolmate’s toddler had been rushed to Emergency having stumbled barefoot off the grass onto a metal manhole cover. I heard he had partial-thickness burns. Blackouts rolled through the western suburbs of Sydney as the grid crashed. On televised maps a streak south of the Australian centre keeled towards purple, a colour that had only been added to the range in 2013 to indicate temperatures above fifty-two (126 degrees Fahrenheit).
It helped to lie to yourself and think: no one lives out there.
Meanwhile, an ABC News 24 reporter surveyed a beach in Queensland and pointed to piles of what looked like soft grenades or little kids’ shoes, abandoned tread-side up. These were dead turtle hatchlings, surfaced from clutches buried months earlier by their sea-bound mothers.
‘Loggerheads,’ the reporter said in a neutral tone, ‘have cooked in this terminal sand.’
I went into the faculty kitchenette, turned on the tap and waited for water heated by the pipes to run cold over my forearms. Terminal sand.
What idiom or instrument captures how the weather is felt by the animals, in their bodies, their nests and niches? The planet’s atmosphere was never more quantified or monitored, but the uneven sensitivities of other species to the weather seem too alien, too interior and multiple to measure or articulate. Hard to picture, let alone describe, the way the summer is experienced by organisms arrayed with senses dissimilar to our own.
I want to suggest that this problem is like asking, ‘How do animals experience pain?’ But it is not like that question. Very often it is exactly that question.
‘Weather,’ writes the anthropologist Tim Ingold, ‘is not perceived, but is the atmospherics of perception.’ Ingold is most right, I think, apropos of heat. Lacking the visible theatre of snowfall or rain, heat stupefies and narrows the temper. Heat summons haze in everyday car parks, distorting parts of objects that touch or detach. Meddling with ways of seeing and states of mind, heat heightens attention to smaller, effortful labours. Heat dehydrates, forces squinting, stipples the skin with sweat or scorches it. When Ingold refers to ‘the atmospherics of perception’, my guess is that these are the sorts of things to which he is referring. Heat is intimate. Heat generates surprising intimacies with others, as when, for example, you find yourself discussing sleep and sleeplessness with strangers.
A scaly creature basks in the same weather as us, but in different atmospherics of perception. Schoolbooks still teach that reptiles belong to the category ‘cold-blooded’. A misnomer. Ectotherms internalise the temperature – their metabolism is sped on by the sun. Our human vocabulary seems inadequate to evoke the anguish of a reptile when it’s seared in its surroundings. Lacking the physiology to pant, perspire or otherwise shed temperature, turtles, reptiles, can only seek shelter. Their blood runs hot and hotter without it. Sea turtles (as the tortoises in fables) are slow on land and clumsier flippering through the sand. The rookery on Mon Repos beach looked mercilessly exposed.
I pitied the loggerheads, but as tap water overflowed my cupped hands, my attachment to their distress felt far-fetched. Anything to which we can compare life in an incendiary turtleshell, any notion we have of that infernal experience, belongs, I think, on a list of the ways hell is dreamt and suffered. Which is to say, the analogy is not of this world. Our only point of reference is existence, implausibly, post-biology.
More preoccupying than the turtles, though, in that minute standing over the sink, was something I had been trying to explain earlier about a remedy for heat stress. This was the trick I nightly swore by: you got a few handkerchiefs, bandanas, or any bits of fabric really, and soaked and froze them. Then you tied the strips around your wrists and neck to chill the radial arteries and jugular veins running up to the head. The reason it worked had something to do with returning colder blood to the heart and the brain. Those organs being most in charge of regulating the body’s internal thermostat, you wanted to cool them first, in turn to pacify the rest of the body. I had been going to bed during the heatwave in this lucidly scientific way – with bits of frigid cloth wrapped around my throat and cuffs, sprawled on a mattress stripped of all linen.
The associate professor in the elevator said, ‘What I’m wondering is, wouldn’t that constrict the veins? Isn’t this why the body naturally flushes – increased blood flow to the skin? What you want is to increase blood flow in hot weather.’ She popped the lid off her insulated cup and examined the inside. ‘Trapped heat. In your head? That’ll keep you awake, no question.’ Her own sleep was unfazed by the weather, though she slept, she added, in a town house with climate control.
This conversation had thrilled me. In the corridors I often heard the phrase ‘the human condition’ uttered – without irony! – but how rarely we talked about the animals we were in Arts. Mammal to mammal. We held in common our physical senses, our apparatus of perception, but although we experienced the same weather, we assimilated it differently in our bodies and in the places where we lived. And this whole business of the head as an impoundment where heat might become imprisoned: it sounded vaguely Ayurvedic. Reminiscent of the medieval humours, which once you might have used leeches to treat, drawing off instabilities of bile, blood and phlegm. Wasn’t that somehow about the weather too? I distantly recalled reading that malignancies of the humours were connected to the seasons, to peregrinations of weather inside of the body.
Through the kitchen window clouds were beginning to heap. Being heat fatigued you could readily believe in impossible truths. Like, even an average cloud weighs as much as a Boeing 747. Against the way technology has rendered ‘the cloud’ – a generic metaphor for the dispersed, electrical no-place – these actual clouds were glamorous, specific and finite. I saw a formation of clouds that will never be repeated throughout history. I saw that formation from an angle and at a moment in time nobody else did. The brightening blackening of their cores. Out of every window in the building, and all across the city, anyone who looked up shared in that prerogative: to claim to witness something that wouldn’t be repeated, the sky, that instant, from there, amassing. The idea that formed in our heads was everywhere alike.
Storm, we willed. A wish that was an atmosphere, palpable as a pressure front. Please, please, please. A storm.
The question what will happen with the weather is the central question of our age. Furnished by precision meteorological instruments and long-range computer modelling, our best international science describes weather systems changing in unprecedented, wildly variant, ways. A hundred-and-twenty-three temperature records are broken in fewer days – purple is added to the Australian heat index. A further category of bushfire risk is authorised, the official upper limit now ‘catastrophic’ above ‘extreme’. The weather works on editing its own phrasebook, striking through defunct terms and demanding new ones. Rubbed out of this lexicon for good is the meteorological force majeure. Act of God.
Artwork © Patrick Gries / Éditions Xavier Barral, Tortue molle, Chitra indica, 2007, from the photobook Évolution (Éditions Xavier Barral)