Relief-block print from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening; 1984
THE DISAPPEARANCE of lizards and mosquitoes is the first sign of the coming storm in Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica. In their stead, he writes, other creatures “sought the open: land-crabs wandered about aimlessly, angrily twiddling their claws, and the ground seemed almost alive with red ants and cockroaches.” Thunder starts murmuring in the distance. The murmuring gives way to a clatter. In tropical latitudes, Hughes writes, “a thunderstorm is not a remote affair up in the sky […] but is all round you. [...] the thunder seems to proceed from violent explosions in your own very core.” The storm in question is unfolding over the West Indies estate of an English family, the Bas-Thorntons. But the house and humans seem like chess pieces on an upset board as Hughes describes the escalating storm. Lightning blasts are so frequent and intense that they provide almost unbroken illumination. The shutters bulge until the rain comes pouring “like the sea into a sinking ship.” The wind flattens bushes, snatches pictures off the walls, and causes branches to leap upward, swirling through the sky. Hughes writes that the gusts, “to push against,” are “more like a solid block than a current of air.”
Hughes’s detached lyricism brilliantly serves the nature of a hurricane. To depict such an event at the level of human emotion is to lose its hugeness and ferocity — and its apathy to the lives in its midst. “Hurricane” derives from Juracan or Yuracan, a colonial phonetization of the Taino and Maya god of tropical cyclones and other forces of nature. In Hughes’s 1929 novel, the word does not appear until after the storm has pulped the vegetation and splintered the Bas-Thornton house into matchwood. Surveying the leveled landscape, Mr. Thornton is awed that air had done this. Before the advent of warning and monitoring systems in hurricane-prone areas, a stolid summer day could swiftly be transformed by a ferocious storm, a reality Hughes depicts with tight-ratcheted menace.
Tropical cyclones are part of the rhythm of life on the tropical coastlines of the Caribbean Basin and northwestern Pacific — their ravages part of the collective memory, the preparations for them part of a yearly rhythm. But this acceptance of storms belies the pain their destruction causes, and the particular ways nature defeats a human tendency to assume that what we have today we will have tomorrow. Various rituals in these regions call for appeasement and intercession: in a tiny village in southwestern Japan at the height of typhoon season women in black-sashed kimonos and men in straw-stranded hats dance a path around the sea. Catholic bishops and priests in Southern Louisiana recite hurricane season prayers: “The Sea of Galilee obeyed your order and returned to its former quietude. You are still the Master of land and sea. We live in the shadow of a danger over which we have no control…”
Since the advent of oceanic navigation and trade, people have been drawn to storm-beset coastlines. The discord between a desire for stability and the very real possibility of destruction is intractable. Chronicles of hurricanes from before the mid-twentieth century are often epics of under-preparation: pre-dawn drownings in unexpected floodwaters, overturned ships, the boundaries of cities beat b...read more