What is it with our obsession with big weather? After this season's record-setting onslaught of tropical storms and hurricanes -- 23 from Arlene to Katrina to Wilma -- and after the hurricane-induced mega-disaster of New Orleans, one would think we might want a respite, an end to disaster for a time. Yet as another giant storm plowed into the coast of Nicaragua last week, we watched again with awe -- and perhaps, I will risk venturing, with an unacknowledged yen for apocalypse, a yearning that dares not say its name. But it has a name.
Call it catastrophilia.
There is still nearly a month left in hurricane season, which will give way to nor'easter season, followed by winter storm season, each with its own array of rain, snow and flu-season advertising tie-ins, which will bring us all, as the Earth moves around the sun, to the main disaster lineup of the year, tornado season. Hundreds of people will fly in from all over the world to chase tornados, as I did during the spring of 2004 while doing research for a book about the culture and commerce of severe weather disasters in America. And catastrophilia will reach its full flower.
Perhaps it was born, this obsession, in 1856. On any given day that year, a visitor to Washington could have observed a sizable crowd entering the Smithsonian to view what the institution's annual report called "an object of much interest" -- a "large map of the condition of the weather over a considerable portion of the United States." It was the first weather map ever to be put on public display and the first map to give a single, simultaneous snapshot of the nation's weather patterns.
Volunteer observers of temperature and pressure and wind direction, gathered weather information at more than 300 reporting stations and sent it to Washington by telegraph to be displayed on the map. "Circular disks of different colors," the report explained, "were attached to it by pins at each station of observation, and indicated by their color the state of the atmosphere -- white signifying clear weather; gray, cloudy; black, rain, etc." Looking at the color-coded disks, stamped with wind direction arrows, the viewer experienced what was for the time an exotic feeling of modernity: Electronic pulses traveling over telegraph lines across the great distances of the American continent were providing this "live data" on which way the wind was blowing at some far remove, in Chicago or Duluth or St. Louis, right then, as one stood in front of that map and tapped one's umbrella on the floor or whistled quietly through one's teeth.
The map offered a view of the country -- and the weather itself -- as God Himself might see it, a grand overview. It is the view we take for granted now, when watching the radar loops of big weather arriving from satellites in geostationary orbits 200 miles above the Earth. It gives us an illusory sense of control over nature and speaks to our desire to bend it to our needs, to make it useful.
But countering this sense of control has always been our sense of human vulnerability, our smallness as we find ourselves in the midst of nature, and our awe at nature's power. Our 19th-century forebears felt this, too. In the same years as the Smithsonian weather map was being displayed, great landscape painters such as Frederic Edwin Church were also achieving wild popularity. In canvases like "Storm in the Mountains," "Niagara" and "Twilight in the Wilderness," Church painted the weather looming above the land, evoking from within his very large picture frames a sense of nature's overwhelming force, and giving the viewer a delicious feeling of danger, of being in the elements, not "above it all."
Without squinting very hard, one can see Church's legacy today in every episode of the Weather Channel's "Storm Stories," or in the host of severe-weather documentaries depicting a planet that seems to spin and rage out of control, or in the cultural phenomenon of tornado and hurricane chasers -- people such as Sean Casey, an independent filmmaker who built a seven-ton armored tank to get closer to storms so he could film them with an Imax camera. Even the much-lampooned images of rain-bespattered weather reporters braving strong winds in front of TV cameras is born of an impulse to excite in the viewer a sense of awe.
Without the weather maps, of course, without all the software and computer models and radar that help us predict storms, we wouldn't be able to position our cameras close enough to evoke that awe. The map view and the landscape view need each other. And we want them both. We want to be both Oz, the techno-wizard with his radar weather maps, and Dorothy, struggling to make it to the storm shelter as the terrible twister looms in the distance. In the morning we look to satellite imagery to tell us if it's raining in Cincinnati, and at the close of day we want to bundle up and watch a hurricane swallow part of the Gulf Coast. How else to explain the proliferation of severe-weather drama? Why do we crave images of houses being lifted off the ground by tornados, seaside resorts being smashed to pieces by the winds and waves of a hurricane? How else to explain a phenomenon like the Weather Channel itself: an entire television network, with millions of viewers, dedicated to the passing clouds?
In an era when the wilderness, the untamed natural world, seems largely to have become circumscribed -- all the great rivers dammed, the forests harvested like Christmas tree farms -- violent storms give the lie to the old Enlightenment fantasy of control over nature; in this record-breaking season, they have revealed the boundlessness of nature, its sheer unpredictability, its daunting scale. And they feed our catastrophilia.
It's a term whose signature we recognize in disaster films, or any version thereof -- in the blanket coverage of war or weather on CNN or Fox; in the slowing down of traffic on a highway when we see the hissing roadside flares of an accident, exposing a car upended in a ditch. We turn our heads toward the sight, like watching drive-by pornography. Now a hurricane is bearing down upon a hamlet on the Gulf Coast or in Central America. In a few hours, the tiny town will no longer exist. Maybe you should care more than you do, but the spectacle of the real does not allow much time for this.
In May of 2004 I drove 6,000 miles through Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas trying to get close to big weather. The people I met, some of whom had paid thousands of dollars to go on tornado tours, weren't in search of other people's misery. They wanted to get close to something powerful. They wanted to experience what the Greek philosopher Longinus called the "sublime," to be lifted out of themselves for a moment, transfixed by fear and fascination. Some sought a sort of mastery -- like the scientists who surrounded the tornados with radar trucks, gathering information to be studied later at leisure. Others came like primitives to stand near their quarry, to capture something of its spirit in images. They brought their cameras the way Indian warriors brought coup sticks to battle, to touch the enemy and to bring proof of their exploits home as trophies.
But catastrophilia is the sublime's bastard cousin, arising from the discovery of a marketable product -- disaster -- in the violence of natural phenomena. And it is the marketing and sale of that product for public consumption that rides beneath the surface of good intention that we see in coverage of big weather. Catastrophilia's signature formal element is the presence of a frame -- a television set, a windshield or window, a video lens, some form of transparent barrier that creates the illusion of involvement yet provides the safety of distance. The frame creates the sense of spectacle, which one watches but in which one does not participate. One can walk away as one pleases, press down on the accelerator, write a check to the Red Cross, change the channel, and the entire situation -- the destruction of New Orleans, say -- evaporates as if it had never happened in the first place. Ask any tornado survivor -- or anyone right now in the Gulf Coast, anyone recovering from the seven hurricanes that have struck Florida since August 2004 -- how long it takes to piece one's life together after such a disaster. But catastrophilia rides on momentum, needs another hurricane forming in the tropics. After Hurricane Rita, which, in catastrophilic terms, was a bit of a disappointment, donations to the Red Cross became sluggish. You're only as good as your last disaster.
The truth is that catastrophilia is an absolute end in itself, a phenomenological cul-de-sac, a sideshow tent. Its fixation on big weather is a distraction from history, rather than an engagement with it. It draws us to what historian Daniel Boorstin called a truly "spontaneous event," like sports or crime stories, that offer a momentary respite from the daily deluge of "pseudo-events," manufactured news, "spin" spun to a fare-thee-well.
Maybe, as we move through the Greek alphabet in what's left of this hurricane season, having run through the list of names for storms pre-selected by a committee at the World Meteorological Organization in Switzerland, we have become what a storm chaser I met in Kansas called paparazzi del cielo -- "paparazzi of the sky" -- all of us lying in wait for some variation on the end of the world to arrive. Waiting for weather disaster, the new star of the hour -- or era -- to make its unpredictable, spectacular appearance.
Mark Svenvold, a New York writer and poet, is the author of "Big Weather: Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of America" (Henry Holt).