Thunder & Lightning: An Extraordinary Illustrated Celebration of the Weather and Its Role in the Human Experience
Elemental enchantment at the intersection of art, science, and storytelling.
By Maria Popova
“Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer,” E.B. White wrote in his elevating letter of assurance to a man who had lost faith in humanity, adding: “I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly.” Our most steadfast companion since the dawn of our species, the weather seeded our earliest myths, inspired some of our greatest art, affects the way we think, and continues to lend itself to such apt metaphors for the human experience. Its reliable inconstancy constantly assures us that neither storm nor sunshine lasts forever; that however thick the gloom which shrouds today, the sun always rises tomorrow.
That abiding and dimensional relationship with the weather is what artist, Guggenheim Fellow, and American Museum of Natural History artist-in-residence Lauren Redniss explores in the beguiling Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future (public library).
Part encyclopedia and part almanac, the book is a tapestry of narrative threads highlighting various weather-related curiosities, from Eskimo dream mythology to the science of lightning to the economics of hurricanes to Benjamin Franklin’s inclination for “air baths.” Although Redniss’s selections might give the impression of trivia at first brush, make no mistake — these are not random factlets that trivialize their subject but an intentional kaleidoscopic gleam that shines the light of attention onto some of the most esoteric and enchanting aspects of the weather.
Like Redniss’s previous book — her astonishing visual biography of Marie Curie — this project is enormously ambitious both conceptually and in its execution. Redniss created her illustrations using copperplate etching, an early printmaking technique popular prior to 1820, and typeset the text in an original font she designed herself, which she titled Qanec LR after the Eskimo word for “falling snow.”
In telling the stories of the people, places, and phenomena in the book, Redniss traveled to some of the world’s most remote regions and gathered first-hand impressions of Earth’s most extreme climates. From witchcraft trials to fog legends to conversations with such diverse weather-wranglers as climate scientists, politicians, and endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, she examines the weather as a pervasive phenomenon that permeates every aspect of human culture.
As someone incurably enamored with clouds, I found Redniss’s paintings in the chapter dedicated to clouds especially captivating.
Complement the magnificent Thunder & Lightning with the story of how an amateur astronomer classified the clouds and inspired Goethe, then revisit poet Mark Strand and painter Wendy Mark’s beautiful collaboration celebrating the skies.
Illustrations © Lauren Redniss courtesy of Random House
Published November 9, 2015