The Beaufort Wind Force Scale was created by the Royal Navy Officer Sir Francis Beaufort in the 1830s to allow for less subjective weather forecasts and assist in the alignment of the sails on ships out at sea, because up until that point what one man saw and felt and what another man saw and felt were narratives defined by their experience, without a confined vocabulary, and therefore, unreliable in their variances.
I’m older now, living in a big city, far from the oceans on the coast where I was born, far from the prairie seas of tall grass and wheat where I was raised. Where I live now, I hear the brakes of the school bus churning as it reaches the end of our block, I hear car alarms and dog fights, I hear my young neighbors slamming the gate closed after a long night at the restaurant, I hear the birds—so many birds, so early in the morning—in the giant maples that line my street, in the catalpa just outside my bedroom window—and I feel anchored hearing the sounds you can only hear when the wind is quiet and the air is still. But even now, I wait for sounds of the storms of my youth, the movement and upheaval of things to come—the moves, the lay-offs, the loss of friends, and schools, and roads I knew well but only for a moment, the changes I must endure, the events I cannot escape—those winds carried me here, brought me this peace.
An empirical scale, tied to the experience and observation of the senses, the Beaufort scale once described the effect of the wind on the sails of navy ships, but when the sails were retired, the scale changed to define the effect of the wind on the land and sea, so that at zero the sea was a mirror, but a light breeze, a two, would set small waves rolling through the water, softly rustle the leaves, or sway the old rooster wind vane.
There is something easy about the waves on the lake, the way they rise and fall, an unexpected wind on Labor Day rocks the rusty pontoon, we aren’t seaman, we aren’t even lake people, but we’re out here, mothers and fathers and children, to enjoy the waning days of summer under the clear sky, clear but for the haze, “from the Canadian forest fires?” And we stare up at the sky—as if the answer is above us, as if we can see the trees burning in the blue sky, see the brush glow red with embers—and then the motor dies on the far side of the lake and we laugh, someone will come by, someone with a bigger, stronger boat will tow us back to the dock, someone will come along soon, and the kids lean over the edge of the boat and the wind makes slow rolling waves, and I wonder how long it will be before we are rescued.
A four on the Beaufort scale is a moderate breeze that causes small waves and a few white horses, a breeze that raises the dust and blows loose paper about, a breeze which you might notice or might not.
Late in November when my son was still young, I walked through the woods along the flood plains of the Missouri, east of the Bad Lands, north of the Black Hills, where there are waves of flax and seas of wheat, not too far from the town where I learned to drive, where I played football in the yard with my brother, where I graduated from high school, and I followed my son who was born sure-footed as he raced through the dead prairie grass over the frozen ground, and watched as he scared a wild turkey up into a tree, and waited with him for the horses in the neighboring pasture to adjust to his presence so he could sneak under the barbed-wire to pet them, and listened as the winter wind rushed past in bursts, as if someone was blowing us around from above, and when my cheeks were frozen and my eyes began to water, I told my son we have to go inside, ignoring his protests, because I couldn’t take any more of that wind.
The telephone wires whistle when there is a strong breeze, a six on the Beaufort scale, the waves get larger, heavy tree branches rock, power lines sway, and umbrellas fly from the hands of their unsuspecting owners.
On a late summer evening, just before sixth grade was going to start, I looked out from a hill top in the small town in North Dakota where I lived and thought that cream-colored aluminum siding must have been the only option at the local hardware store because it’s all I could see, and I wondered when or if we would ever return to the coast where we had lived just a year before, where my old friends lived in the houses all along our block, where my room was painted pink, where the cities smelled like cherry blossoms and the air was heavy with heat. I listened to the sound of the semis rolling along the interstate, a good sound, the sound of consistency, the sound of travel, the sound of things going by—a comfort—because if not for those semis, the only other sound would have been the wind, which I hated, then and forever, because that’s what angry sixth graders do in new places, because it was the wind that picked the dirt up and carried it across the prairie, the wind that delivered cold Canadian ice storms, the wind that moved the heavy spring rains south, away from the wheat fields that need it, that pulled down tree branches and mangled the shingles on our roof, the wind that had the power to bring things, and had the power to take them away.
The Greek Goddess Leucothea was welcomed to her immortal life in the sea after she leapt from a cliff into the ocean with her youngest son to save him from her husband’s murderous rage. Sailors in distress believed Leucothea could protect them from the perils at sea, they called her the goddess of spindrift, the ocean’s spray, the salty water that flies from the swells and breaks at open sea, the sign of a fresh gale, the distinguishing marker of an eight on the Beaufort Scale.
Before the big city, before I had a son to chase after, before North Dakota and all the small towns that came with it, when my family lived in a city on the coast just inland from the Chesapeake Bay, I was regularly directed to comfort our shaggy white dog, Eleanor Rigby, who was panting and immobilized by fear from the constant stream of thunderstorms that seemed to last from early spring until late summer, we would sit huddled together in our mutual panic, me with the guise of comforting the dog, so that I was left alone by all the others bustling about, noticeably unalarmed, my mother continued her dinner preparations while one of my older sisters complained about her geometry homework and the other coiled the phone cord around her thin fingers talking to her friends in code about boys and their weekend plans, and my younger brother sat under the sturdy grey television mesmerized by warriors and magic elves, and Zeus, clearly ambivalent to my growing anxiety, showered us all in raging thunder.
A whole gale—a storm wind—a ten on the Beaufort scale, causes long waves where crests curl and hang in the air coughing and spraying until the sea is white, and if the storm reaches land, trees may be uprooted and there may be considerable damage to persons and properties—and their psyches, and their patience with nature, and possibly their understanding of value, and permanence, and home.
In the early fall, when we were still out on the coast, when I was just barely old enough to remember, not yet in school, my mother parked the car half-way down the block because “a storm was coming” and she didn’t want to be under the Elm tree in front of our house, which seemed strange because all I saw above us was a blue sky and a few wispy clouds, but then, in the short moments it took her and I and my toddling brother to walk up the block, the wind picked up, the leaves flew from the trees, and my mother started to hurry, sweeping us into the house, grabbing candles and a flashlight, throwing open some windows and closing others, unplugging the television and air conditioner, and finally placing my brother and myself in her lap in the corner of the living room, because “the basement was sure to flood.”
Moments later, at three in the afternoon, the power went out, the sky turned yellow, not like the flowers on my favorite bedspread, not like the buttercups in the yard, but milky yellow, an ugly yellow stained with green, and then the rain pounded the roof and the windows, like they say it does, like a train that is much, much too close, and the wind grabbed the leaves from the trees, ripped the ivy branches imbedded in the brick walls of our colonial bungalow, and tore a 100 year old branch the size of pickup truck off our Elm tree and threw it to the ground, taking the power lines right along with it.
Hurricane force winds, a twelve, the end of the Beaufort Scale, whip the water into driving, stinging spray making it hard to see your hand in front of you, hard to see the sails wild above you, and great waves will rise and ships will disappear behind them, and on land the only description provided is devastation.
Everything was dark, the power was out and the sky was black, and just when I thought it was safe, when I could open my eyes again, the wind broke through the windows with a frightening crash, tossed roof shingles into the alley, beat hard against the walls and fences, crushed cars in the street, and screamed, for nearly an hour, screamed something desperate, something about power, reminding me that I am small, and easily taken, where ever it wished to blow me, and I can still feel the wind when it first picked up, when my mother’s steps first hastened, when the sky first swirled and the leaves first rustled, the portentous rush before the storm, and I still have the urge to run.
Mary Mullen is a writer and policy analyst living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She was a finalist for the 2016 Indian Review Half K Prize, and her short essay, “It’s a Long Way to Empty” recently appeared in Storm Cellar.