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A Norther

In 19th century Texas, a new state to the union, a norther forces one to reevaluate one’s decisions for a day or night. Do I go into the frigid cold to help protect my livestock or stay sheltered with a blazing fire that makes “one quite independent” of a norther? Will I make it through the night if I am stuck traveling between protective places? Today, we Californians are so use to our comforts to have a passing thought about a bitter cold, that we might not fully grasp its consequence unless we are stranded on snowy Interstate 80 with a dead battery.

Northers, observed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who would become our country’s first professional landscape architect and coined the title, brought with them that chill felt right to the bone. Olmsted experienced northers firsthand while traveling on assignment to report about slavery leading up to our Civil War. His journal, Olmsted’s Texas Journey, takes readers through the state’s banal landscape documenting his observations of people and places…not in real time…but later from his notes and impressions while on the trail. Reading the journal is understanding Olmsted before becoming a landscape architect, a landscape and people observer. If reporting accuracy was tantamount, this trope on the American south could be an anthropological study of a cultural landscape. It is impossible for me to imagine what it might have been like to sit by a dying campfire while trying to capture a day’s observations on crusty writing paper. Frozen fingers or not, his insight is invaluable today.

Presumably, Texans refer to northers today. The term pops up in online references as “A Blue Norther, also known as a Texas Norther,” and can be considered as a continuum of the same basic reference. Yet, as a Californian, I never heard (or fail to remember) the term until reading Olmsted’s book. Upon reflection, our cold northern winds were simply known as winter. Not until recently have biting Arctic winds reaching California been newsworthy, conceivably because they are less frequent than in my youth. With their infrequency, perhaps Californians are ready to adopt the term or create one of their own. For now, I just feel it in my bones!

Clearly, names for climatic phenomena are not new. While studying in southern France one summer, locals warned that if Les Miserable blows in across the Mediterranean Sea from Africa, murders could occur with only a charge of temporary insanity if at all. The wind is so hot that one could be forgiven for losing one’s humanity for its duration. As a Californian, I grew up knowing about the Santa Ana winds that were synonymous with “Indian Summer,” that mid-Autumn moment when we stop believing in heavy fall cardigans and remember to pack the beachwear for a day trip to an uncrowded coast. Thankfully, Santa Anas do not stand up to Les Miserable status.

In California, a 21st Century reference is the Pineapple Express; its origin is unclear to me. A 2008 stoner movie by the same name appears to have started the trend. Since then, meteorologists warn Californians of an approaching Pineapple Express, bringing heavy rains and warmer temperatures that could cause severe flooding. I easily remember my first Pineapple Express (no, not the cannabis by the same name) that might predate the movie.

While living along the Russian River, locals understood what heavy rains meant as the likelihood of local flooding. Our home was safely above the historic flood line, but the feeling of waiting for the waters to come was still unsettling. Visiting my favorite bar during this event, Too Tall Larry (how locals would affectionately refer to this 6’-9” imposing but friendly bartender) announced a new drink special, the Pineapple Express. Medicine for patrons growing weary of pending power outages and canoe rides up main street. When life gives you lemons, or in this case pineapples, you pour another drink!

A Norther, Les Miserable, Indian Summer, and Pineapple Express are names imbued with meaning, compelling people into sometimes involuntary actions. The expressions connect me to places I have visited and lived in, and for California, become part of the lore of living a sometimes-unpredictable existence. Soon, I dare say, we may need a term for our growing fire season and add them all to the list that starts with The Big One. Despite our best attempts to lead a mundane life, California seems destined to maintain its “live for the moment” reputation.

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