Jana Harper | You Call It A Cloud

Pete McCormick

mccormickPete McCormick is the Director of Program in Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO. Pete is an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and his professional interests include: historical landscape change and land use; ecological and cultural ramifications of human migration and settlement; imaginative and discursive constructions of place, space, and identity; American Southwest and Southern Plains; Latin America. 

October 13, 2013

Jana Harper:
There are different aspects to this project. One of them is about that specific photograph and my relationship to it and trying to get a universal read on it or trying to put it in perspective from the position of different professions, occupations, cultures. So part of the project is about that photograph. But it also has opened up a whole conversation about clouds in general in relation to all of the occupations and professions. I feel like as an environmentalist and a geographer and someone who is watching change on the land and the planet that you have a unique perspective: from your training, and from your geographic position.

Pete McCormick:
I think you have to come to those questions from the point of view of place and location. When you think about climate change or weather patterns or cloud patterns. For those people who have been in those locations for a long amount of time, they can, from looking at the sky or looking at the land, they can tell that there are going to be shifts in the weather and the climate seasonally and they are used to those shifts or norms. It doesn’t matter if you are looking at that from the point of view of your backyard garden or looking at it from the point of view of worrying about your cattle out on the range or if you are thinking about, out in the west, trying to store water in your local reservoir for consumption in the dry period. You learn with an untrained eye, but a local vernacular trained eye to look at the sky and look at the clouds and in combination with the wind, you can get a pretty good sense of what is about to happen and those predictive models are pretty resilient and trustworthy. You don’t have to have had Introduction to Geography or Climate Science to understand that. It helps.

But one of the things that has been really interesting at least in Colorado, are the extreme weather events that we’ve had over the last month and how those extreme weather events are defying the models. They are not fitting what we understand to be possible, even here. And I’m stepping out of my bounds because I’m not a mathematical climatologist but I am a weather geek because I grew up with farming and you watch the weather all the time and that included looking at radar, the weather channel, but also looking at the sky and understanding different wind patterns and clouds and how that meant that there would be rain or there would not be rain or if there would be snow. Or whether or not you should send someone out to look for the cows because they were lost in a blizzard… So, those clouds are harbingers of change, but that change has been normalized over generations: when I talk about change I’m talking about daily change or moving in and out of seasons. Normalized over generations so people understand patterns and normalized through statistical modeling that understand what kind of patterns you can expect. But now we’ve got patterns that do not fit the models. And the models I’m talking about are the massive number crunching machines that [are used by] the weather service, but I’m also talking about the models in people’s minds. And so you look up at the clouds and they may not be the harbinger of what you think they are.

I think when I saw that picture I thought, “That is something I’ve never seen” in the valley or in the four corners southwest or on the southern plains. It’s not something that’s normal-to me. And I think that triggered [thoughts about how] we’re entering into this massive era of not knowing what normal is and trying to figure out how to adapt to that. And part of that is going to be on science’s side to figure out these new models, but I don’t know-and here comes this question again-where do you get a baseline when things are moving so quickly out of normal. Right? And then how at the local level and on the individual level and on the cognitive, imaginary level, how do you make sense of what’s happening in the sky if it’s not anything that you’ve been able to predict.

So besides statistical meteorologists, you know, people who are studying the math and the stats-if they are on one end of the spectrum-and ranchers and farmers are on the other end of the spectrum-who do you think are the most natural people to be watching and paying attention to the changes. [If] you are talking about looking at it from a more universal perspective…

I think there are a couple of ways that you can look at weather and landscape. [There are] multiple points of view from the humanistic perspective, but what you just set up was an and/or between the scientific and the colloquial or the local. I don’t think that we can afford to privilege one over the other.

Yeah, I’m not trying to set up a duality of the situation, because I think this is all about plurality [and] it’s a really big question.

Well, it is about plurality, but there has to be some consensus building and there has to be collaboration. There’s going to be major noise and errors in those models and on the same end from the human point of view, there’s going to be a lot of guessing.

It’s a massive question and I’ve always been on the side that you have to go down into the well of place and the local and individual [in order] to really understand what it means to be on the planet, living on the landscape, and understanding the patterns, and the seasons, and the movement of time, and the clouds, and the stars, [because] that’s something that defines the human experience.