Redefining Weather–and Who We are in Relation to Nature: Lenora Castillo’s poems ”Second Guessing the Storm” and ”Tornado”
by Maria Nazos
Lenora Castillo’s poems “Second Guessing the Storm” and “Tornado” take on the Great Plains’ landscape and its occasional volatility, by using unique language which interrogates the terrain, as the speaker describes her father’s warning:
He says, ‘You can smell the rain
before you see the blue streaks
on the horizon. You can smell hail,
see the gray-green blush in the clouds,
just before the hail drops. (Castillo 4)
However the central tension of the poem stems not only from the speaker and her family’s doubt; the speaker also engages nature’s power and humanity’s powerlessness against these fluctuations. Castillo’s sublime description of the coming storm also infuses the Nebraskan landscape with a lesser-known element of danger.
The Nebraskan landscape is known for many attributes; be it wide-open prairie, unblinkingly blue skies, or erratic weather, one thing is for certain: danger, exoticism, and unfamiliarity are not often associated with this particular region, which adds a deep and important layer to the poem:
Yet, when it comes we’re startled, unsure of what to do.
The first fat drops of cold rain
sends us sprinting toward the pickup,
leaping over rows of fragile pinto beans,
past Momma, who refuses to run. (Castillo 4)
Castillo’s natural moments in poetry describe the landscape through the eyes of Mexican-American immigrants who are brave enough to literally weather the weather, but who also rightly fear this abrupt climate change. Suddenly, the speaker and her family are transported to a place where they are fully aware of not only their newness, but also their potential alienation as Mexican-American immigrants in a new and predominantly white state, which is further realized with the onset of the storm. Therefore, there is an element of spiritual insight to this particular piece as well.
Nebraska doesn’t “own” a climate, and that’s one reason it’s exciting to live here, according to Dr. Ken Dewey, professor of climatology in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources, “We’re not the snowbelt, we’re not the sunbelt, we’re not a tropical climate, we’re not Florida, we’re not Hawaii, we’re not a coastal climate. We have to share whatever somebody’s going to send us…” (Dewey qtd. in Garbacz).
Moreover, according to Dewey, Nebraskan weather can be best described as unpredictable due to the geographical positioning of the state: “We’re open to the Gulf, and all that heat and humidity can come up here. And the mountains off to the west can mess with our weather…This is the only place that can have 70-degree weather in January, then plunge to 20 below zero within hours.” (Dewey qtd. in Garbacz).
In other words, with humid summers and frigid winters, then a sizable drop or spike in temperature, Castillo’s speaker’s fear and awe is a fairly accurate reaction to the untamed Nebraskan weather, although this attitude may be less common for someone who has spent the majority of her life in the state. To Nebraskans who have been born and raised with this fluctuant climate, the wayward weather has become as naturally occurring as the landscape itself.
For Castillo’s speaker, this “excitement” is more emotionally taxing. Whereas Castillo does feel some strikingly similar sentiments, it could also be noted that many native Nebraskans might not feel the same sense of shock and awe, if only because this volatile weather has become so ingrained in daily life. These feelings have been forgotten by those who live here, and has been ignored by others who dismiss the Midwest as a flyover tornado zone, when in fact the weather according to Castillo is a sublime force.
Similarly, in Castillo’s poem “Tornado,” the speaker once again uses her surroundings in order to interrogate not only the Great Plains, but also to question a world that is strange, foreign, and volatile towards its immigrant population:
“We know, from the heat and humidity
of the day, that it could be a wisp of mad air,
a column of air rising, tearing bits of cloud
as it spins. We know that it might grow long
and twisted like rope that drops to the ground
then whips back and forth as if by some unseen hand.” (Castillo 5)
Again, there is a subtle sense of racial tension with the tornado’s presence being likened to a whip. Also, one gets a sense of the narrator and her family’s disbelief, fascination, and horror upon witnessing their first tornado.
With roughly 50 tornadoes occurring per year (stormhorizon.org ), both the unstable weather and the potentially hazardous natural occurrences have become adaptable entities for Nebraskans. For Castillo’s speaker, however, because she has not yet become fully used to the Nebraskan weather or disastrous events, she feels a natural shock and awe that is often not as apparent for those Nebraskans who have grown up with tornadoes throughout their whole lives. As a result, the speaker’s senses are heightened, her vision seizes every single detail:
“In the middle of the tree-lined drive,
the explosion of an electric pole stops us,
splinters and sparks rain down on our car
that rocks softly back and forth in the wind.” (Castillo 5)
The feeling of danger and tension once again infuses the landscape with an unconventional but truthful sense of shock and fear for a natural force which residents of the Great Plains have become used to; however what is revealed to the reader is this: neither a tornado nor its powers is be taken for granted, especially seen through the lens of a family who is thus-far unfamiliar with this force of nature, a family who has been uprooted— both culturally and almost literally—from their car, their life, and their familiar landscape, which transforms the Nebraskan landscape once again into an unpredictable, sometimes frightening backdrop.
In addition to being occasionally dismissed, Nebraskan weather (especially tornadoes) may also be a subject of fascination and close study among those who are interested. According to Dewey, tornado-chasing is still alive and well, as his students “not only chase tornadoes, they chase snow storms and ice storms, determining where the snow will be deepest and the winds strongest…” (Dewey qtd. in Garbacz).
Castillo once again combines this sentiment of terror with that of intrigue. As seen through the lens of a child who has recently immigrated to the Great Plains, Castillo’s attitude towards this particular moment has the surprise, and reverence of someone who studies the Great Plains weather for a living, but also the fear of someone who dares not come close to this intense funnel. Given the nature of The Great Plains’ weather, its unpredictable nature, and the mixed reactions of dismissal and strong interest, it is impossible to articulate the precise attributes this unique region boasts.
Castillo’s poetry captures these romantic and conflicted emotions. Castillo’s sense of foreboding and awe of the natural world hearkens back to the Romantic era when the poets celebrated and feared the sublime properties of unforeseen forces, but also saw these moments as poetic inspiration. Castillo’s poetry not only possesses these sensibilities, but also these sensitivities as well, in the speaker’s self-awareness of her humanity and identity within the larger world, as a woman, a child, a Chicana, and finally, as a Nebraskan.
Castillo, Lenora. “Tide-water Baptism.” MA thesis. Iowa State U, 1998. Digital Repository at Iowa State University. Web. April 2015.
Garbacz, Mary. “There’s No Place Like Nebraska–for Weather.” Strategic Discussions for Nebraska. Vol. 2 U of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2014. Web. 25 April 2015.
“Some Tornado Statistics.” Stormhorizon.org., n.d. University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources. Wed. 25 April 2015.