Chasing Tornadoes

Indederminacy and the Sublime in Nature

Walt McLaughlin

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Photo by Nikolas Noonan on Unsplash

Smart people head for the basement when the tornado warning comes — whenever the threat is imminent. That’s what my mother always did, ushering my siblings and me down there to crouch against the wall and listen to the radio until the all-clear report came.

I lingered upstairs once, hoping for a glimpse out the window of that menacing force of nature, but she whisked me away before I could see anything. Consequently, tornadoes were more the stuff of nightmares than reality in my early youth. I knew them only through the devastation shown on tv.

I was ten years old before I saw one. It was only a funnel swirling down from dark clouds, but it looked like a tornado to me. Technically speaking, a funnel isn’t a tornado until it hits the ground. I was playing outside at the time. There was no rain falling, no freight-train-sounding wind blowing, no big storm. No warning had been issued either. A funnel suddenly materialized overhead then disappeared just as quickly. I was astonished by it. That twisting protrusion of cloud was not like anything I had ever seen before. It seemed utterly fantastic to me.

Terror and the Sublime

Like hurricanes, tornadoes demonstrate the power of wind. Hurricanes are much bigger than tornadoes, of course. So big that they are clearly visible from space. They last for weeks and can do much greater damage to life and property. But tornadoes are more terrifying. They come out of nowhere, wreak havoc for an hour or two, sometimes only minutes, then quickly dissipate. Unpredictability is their salient feature.

We know what kind of storm systems generate tornadoes, but we do not know when or where any single tornado will materialize. And where there is one, there are usually more.

Seeing a tornado instills a visceral sense of horror in us. That dark vortex moves erratically across the landscape, tearing a path of destruction through our otherwise orderly world. Add to that its hellish, earsplitting roar and fear overtakes us. Fear, that is, if we have any sense of self-preservation at all.

A tornado is sublime in the truest sense of the word. The 18th century Romantic thinker Edmund Burke understood this all too well…

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Walt McLaughlin

Philosopher of wildness, writing about the divine in nature, being human, and backcountry excursions.