In the case of author-illustrator Lauren Redniss’ latest book, a joke precipitated a brainstorm.
“The story is that I finished my last book, Radioactive—I had to learn a lot of physics for it—and I was kind of feeling burnt out,” says Redniss. “I was just chatting with a friend and said, ‘Ugh, I’m exhausted, my next next book is going to be about clouds and rainbows.’ ”
“I was just being flip, but then I started to think about it,” she continues. “ ‘Rainbows’ sounds like we’re talking about unicorns or something but no, rainbows are real, a spectacular natural phenomenon. ‘Clouds,’ again, are something that we take for granted—this panorama that we watch unfolding every day in the sky—and they’re weather. Humidity, temperature, wind: those are the factors. So I just started thinking about the weather.”
Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout was named a 2011 National Book Award finalist, and Redniss was off on her next great adventure: a global trek yielding lush imagery and words for Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future. This extraordinary book presses beyond the predictive and descriptive to present the world’s weather as nothing short of sublime.
From Spitsbergen Island in the Norwegian archipelago (Chapter 2: Cold) to Chile’s Atacama Desert (Chapter 3: Rain) and beyond, Redniss explores the implications of inclement climates—of rain, fog, wind, and heat—interviewing inhabitants and drawing environments.
“The act of drawing is probably the most essential building block of my process,” says Redniss, who lives in Brooklyn. “I draw from life. I’m collecting drawings all the time from whatever I see—whether I’m on the subway or at a restaurant—so I have my own visual archive that I can pull from. What I do is take all my drawings and Xerox them, cut them up, and collage and combine them, to give them a new context. Then, once I have that new composition, I transform it into some kind of print, so the collage aspect of it becomes invisible.”
For Thunder & Lightning, Redniss worked with two master printmakers to produce black-and-white images, which she then hand-colored—with electric results. The first print in Chapter 1: Chaos, for example, features human figures and faces, a small longboat and a blue fish head floating on what seems to be an electrified dark green sea. The accompanying text clarifies that the image corresponds to a cemetery washout in Rochester, Vermont.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, she interviewed cemetery commissioner Sue Flewelling and deputy chief medical examiner Dr. Elizabeth Bundock. Redniss, a self-professed Studs Terkel fan, presents their commentary as oral history. She writes:
“Sue Flewelling: ‘That day we expected wind. That was the weather report. We prepared for the wind. We got hardly any wind. It was about water.’
“Elizabeth Bundock: ‘Part of the cemetery was washed out. The water carried with it dry bones which settled down onto the road and the field.’
“Elizabeth Bundock: ‘Vaults, which are 800, 1000 pounds or so apiece, tumbled down. Caskets came out of their vaults. Some of the caskets were partially buried by silt and rock and boulders. Some of them were dented and broken open.’
“Sue Flewelling. ‘Some were cremations so we’ll never find anything of them.’ ”
In Thunder & Lightning, weather is both foe and friend, life-giver and threat multiplier, marvel and murderer. Good wind is essential for distance swimmer Diana Nyad to set records. Global warming inspires imaginative mitigation measures from geoengineer Nathan Myhrvold (e.g., a hose suspended in the sky, pumping sulfur dioxide). In Chapter 9: War, weather is weaponized by the U.S. Armed Forces.
“Ben Livingston: ‘The object of the cloud seeding in Vietnam was to make the monsoon season start sooner and last longer. So that’s what I did. I went over there to seed the clouds and make them rain,’ ” Redniss writes of a native Texan who flew dozens of cloud-seeding missions, as part of Project Stormfury, to disrupt protests and wash out roadways and bridges during the Vietnam War.
Redniss juxtaposes extreme weather with the everyday—including an illuminating visit to the Old Farmer’s Almanac offices in Dublin, New Hampshire. Whether you’re sunbathing or subzero, she says, there is wonder in the weather around you.
“The book is about extreme weather, which can be traumatic and upending of our lives, but also the kind of extreme sensual pleasure we can get from weather—the simple sublime, like a blue sky,” she says. “You probably can look out your window at it right now, and I can, too, but it’s still magnificent.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.