In 1952, geologist Don Miller was conducting a petroleum investigation in the region surrounding the Gulf of Alaska when he encountered a vaguely disquieting geological anomaly. While surveying a remote fjord known as Lituya Bay, Miller found that the dense, mature forest that surrounded the bay ended abruptly hundreds of feet upslope of the water. There was some vegetation growing below the distinct line, but it was all upstart grasses, saplings, and such. It was clear that at some point in recent history, an unknown, massive force had scraped the shores clean, and the vegetation was only beginning to reclaim the land.
There was no evidence that a fire had passed through—none of the surviving trees were charred, nor were the few remaining tree stumps. Instead, it appeared that the trees had been bent and twisted away by some powerful lateral force. The damage resembled a “trimline” like those left behind when a glacier recedes, exposing a line of bare rock alongside vegetation, but there was no glacier in a location that would account for it. A tsunami could also theoretically cause such destruction, but the boundary was much farther upshore than any tsunami in recorded history. Upon investigating further, Miller discovered other, older trimlines around the bay, suggesting that the destructive event had occurred multiple times prior, each a few decades apart. This was not typical bay behavior.
In his series of black-and-white images, Bad Weather (1980), English photographer Martin Parr captured some recognizably damp, gray scenes. Shot across northern England and Ireland, but largely in Yorkshire, Parr used flash and an underwater camera to light up thick falling raindrops or wet snow. Behind these, one sees a sodden street; a tea towel flapping on a washing line; a deserted park bandstand; pedestrians under umbrellas or holding newspapers and cardboard boxes over their heads; a Jubilee street party abandoned under a downpour, with a thin glimmer of light illuminating only a backdrop of industrial decay. These photographs reinforce the question of how weather relates to national identity. It’s no surprise that “mizzle,” a Devonshire word for a thin drizzle, is the name chosen for a dull gray-green paint color manufactured by Farrow & Ball: nothing could be more quintessentially English.
What was, and is, English weather? How does this weather relate to national identity? And will that weather, and therefore this identity, ever be the same again? Three books each tackle these questions from different angles, but all are grounded in the belief that how we talk about the weather reveals much about how we view ourselves.
There's so much in this book. I could talk for ages about how mesmerized I was by the depiction of research and development in wartime; how happy to see same-sex desire represented with loving complexity; how riveted by plot-twists that further complicate the world Liu is building. When I said Liu was building a dynasty, I imagined his material was a single family; instead I see that time, physics, and settler-colonialism are all load-bearing elements of his epic architecture.