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Finding Solace in the Secret World of Weather

Feb. 7, 2022 at 3:01PM

Where It All Started: A Weather-Induced Panic Attack

It was spring. I was sitting in my fourth grade classroom, when I noticed the sky darken from a misty gray to slate and rapidly to witch green outside the iron-framed windows. As I peered out at the unnatural light outside, the drone of a siren filled the room. This time, it wasn’t practice; it was real. A tornado was nearby and as the reality set in, I felt walls closing in. 

My teacher ushered us underneath our desks, telling us to grab our heaviest textbook and hoist it above our heads, a tall order for still-growing bodies. I frantically looked from my math book to my science book and back again, unsure if I was making the right choice. I remember chaos. I remember confusion. And the next thing I knew, my teacher was handing me off to another staff member who took me into the girls’ bathroom down the hall where a group of students younger than me were hunkered down in the windowless, sickly yellow room where students leave the soap dispenser chronically neglected. 

This is the first time I had a panic attack, the first memory across decades of navigating a sensitive nervous system. I don’t remember what it felt like in my body but I remember the terror. And I remember how my parents sent me to see a psychologist afterward, a middle-aged woman who at one point told me, a child, that I needed to recognize I couldn’t control the weather and to, essentially, “get over it.” 

In the meantime, I started watching The Weather Channel religiously, bypassing cartoons, to make sure I knew what was coming so it didn’t sneak up on me again. So I wasn’t left unprepared again. When thunderstorms rolled into the area, cumulonimbus clouds heavy with rain, lightning danced across the sky to the percussive soundtrack of thunder—I’d cower in the toy closet in our basement, hoping I’d be safe if a twister tore the house off its foundation. 

I don’t remember how long this fear lasted but at some point, it transformed to wonder. I wish I could remember what I did—the catalyst—for overcoming my fear. Because today, I crave a thunderstorm, eagerly watching the sky, closing my eyes as I feel the hair on my skin lift, prickling in response to the electricity in the air. While I can’t harness the weather, I can teach my mind, over time, to view the world differently.  

Today, watching the weather grounds me, keeping me tethered to the world around me. The shifts—the wind changing direction, the smell of impending rain, clouds dissipating across the lake—are reminders to be present. No matter what’s going on in the world, the winds keep blowing and the seasons always change. Instead of provoking fear, the ebbs and flows calm my system. 

Journeying Deeper Into the World of Weather

With its cartoonish cover and promise of in-depth weather lore, The Secret World of Weather by Tristan Gooley stuck out to me on a recent visit to ModGen. I saw it, lifted it off it’s stand, and said, “Oh! I have to buy this.” It’s a dense book, almost overwrought with details, text-heavy, and verbose. I hoped reading it would elevate my understanding, finely tune my weather-tracking skillset, building off the attention to detail I cultivated decades ago, born out of a panic attack and carried forward by neuroplasticity. 

While reading the book, I struggled, often rereading sections twice, three times to ensure I understood the complex causes of what I’ve noticed around me for decades. I wanted to digest the why instead of just observing the what. And reading The Secret World of Weather felt like trying to bind two puzzle pieces together that were never meant to fit. On the one hand, I was never missing the powers of observation. And as a fervid consumer of facts and figures, the descriptions of wind patterns and weather fronts were easy to memorize. At the same time, it was hard to marry the two as I took the book content outdoors, into my own world within a world. I wanted to be able to recall the facts and see the evidence outside. I wanted to be able to predict the weather. No apps. No Weather Channel. Just me.  

My plan was to apply the concepts from the book to the weather outside over Christmas break.

The Weather In Milwaukee, December 2021

The weather in Milwaukee can be wild. A few years back, Wisconsin had one of the most drastic yearly temperature fluctuations anywhere in the U.S.—from -45°F in winter to over 110°F in summer. Temperature, precipitation, cloud cover—I see it all here. When I lived in North Carolina for a few years, one of the first things I noticed when I came home was the greater variety of clouds in Wisconsin. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I was back. Weather here can also be fickle and completely unpredictable and while I predicted I would see a wide variety of weather patterns (fingers crossed for a blizzard), mother nature duped me again, the ultimate trickster. 


The wind yesterday blew the clouds away; it’s crystal clear, not a cloud in the sky. I’m accustomed to endless gray this time of year, and I’ve been surprised at the amount of sunshine lately. Though driving by the lake I can see a blanket of cumulostratus clouds exiting stage left over the waters of Lake Michigan. The promise of snow, unfulfilled for another day.  


Clouds have returned and the forecast shows rain. My favorite hikes have been in the rain, so it seems a good bet to go to the Schlitz Audubon. At the Audubon, myself and my partner explored the path by the lake. Besides seeing a flock of turkeys, pecking at the ground, we noted a robust breeze kicking up off the lake feeding a thick cover of low stratus-type clouds. At the same time, I can feel the reluctant energy of the clouds, holding in their moisture, gravity not yet at critical mass. 

In the forest, we walk down a steep, damp staircase into a ravine. There’s moss on the edges of each stair, growing in the shadow of the railing, which preserves the right balance of moisture to ensure its growth. On the other side of the ravine, we notice moss on the north-facing side of the trees, where the shade keeps the growth media damp. There are fungi throughout this patch of forest, reflecting the dense network of mycorrhizae tucked underneath the ground. I wonder what the trees here say to each other.     


It’s Christmas Eve, and it’s unusually warm with light drizzle. The warmth from the ground, with the cool wind blowing through the city, has traveled into the sky condensing into cloud cover—nimbostratus this time, thick, indistinguishable features. Living in the northern U.S., you’d think we’d see more white Christmases but the weather today is much more common. As the daylight diminishes in late afternoon, fog rolls in, and on a drive through the neighborhood to look at the lackluster Christmas light displays, everything feels damp. 


Yesterday’s fog cleared. It’s bright outside, with light winds. There are wisps of cirrus clouds high in the sky, formed by ice crystals. I notice the horsetail features that indicate strong gusts high in the sky.  


The conditions were right yesterday—clear, calm—and there’s a layer of frost this morning when I take my dog outside. It covers the fallen leaves, the twigs, and the grass, crunching underfoot. There are low gray clouds—stratus—rolling in, and I predict precipitation tomorrow. 


Overnight, it snowed. When I check our security camera, I notice flashes of lightning early in the morning. That tells me there were cumulonimbus clouds somewhere overhead in the night, though I wasn’t able to see them myself. The temperature is dropping—the storm last night must have been a cold front. 


It’s colder out today. It even smells cold. You know, that icy, clean, vaguely metallic smell that fills the air when winter comes to stay? It’s everywhere. We walked at Lion’s Den in Grafton, making sure we covered our skin with mittens and hats to prevent numb fingers and faces. 

As we walk along a boardwalk, I notice light winds. When we turn onto the stone pathway, ice crunches underfoot. When there’s less inherent warmth in a plant or object, it’s more likely to freeze first. We step off the stone path to one paved with wood chips, where there’s far less ice and risk of falls. The blanket of gray is back, this time stratocumulus clouds. Flurries fall but never transition into anything significant. 

We stop at Virmond Park in Mequon for another walk on the way home, this time through the cleared prairie landscape. Where there were once puddles, now there’s ice. I traipse through it with my waterproof boots, savoring the crackling noise underneath my feet. It’s my version of ASMR. 


Today, I’m treated to a mackerel sky, full of cirrocumulus clouds that look like the texture of fish scales. Mackerel skies can indicate changing weather and when weather changes—temperature, wind, clouds—it can indicate a front on its way.  


The clouds from a few days ago told the truth and on a drive through the country this morning, the sky was thick with slate-colored stratocumulus clouds. It’s cold out—in the mid-20s. Today we had our first major snow storm with about 3-4 inches total accumulation. It was a light, soft snow, glittering on the ground in the moonlight.

The Complex World of Weather

While my skills are not yet at the level of acute predictive powers (and I’m not ready to delete my weather app) I’m starting to connect the cause and effect instead of just watching outside my windows. I can tell you what clouds hold the promise of rain, guess whether we might have frost in the morning, and I’m starting to track why we see ice in certain places and not others. I’m seeing the connections.  

My biggest takeaway is that I’ve spent many years paying attention to the wrong things. 

No matter how expansive the Metaverse grows, there’s still a world outside of our devices. And there’s so much to explore, even if you’re standing still, even if you’ve paid attention to the weather for decades. And for me, those details are much more lifegiving than the latest trend in the digital worlds we’ve created. Weather comes with its own unpredictability but it’s cyclical, predictable with just enough mystery.  

Aliveness is always attainable without our constructs. And with a little intention behind it, the uncontrollable can be a respite, a reminder that the world outside our homes is rich, dynamic, and full of the life we so desperately seek.

In many ways, I feel like a baby bird, just getting my bearings in the world of weather. And I’m determined to continue watching for the signs of change, and what might come after. I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface—The Secret World of Weather discusses which trees are best to take shelter under in a rainstorm, for example, and I intend to test that knowledge in warmer months. And there are chapters about plant and animal behavior, too, like how crocuses close their petals tight during the day if rain is on the way. We’re only a few months away from their bloom time. 

So you won’t find me in the metaverse. You’ll find me outside, exploring the wonderful world of weather.

About the author

Caitlin Knudsen

Propagator of succulents, hobbyist baker, healthcare by day, pug wrangler always.