Monday, October 7, 2013

Barry Grass on Christine Hume

I was watching a program on Discovery Channel one day about killer bees. The program was detailing their spread. How their migration, their invasion, of the United States has gone and will go in the future. I probably saw this some fifteen years ago or more. The models that the researchers used indicated that Africanized Honey Bees (the correct name for what is a hybrid species of bee—the European Honey Bee was bred with the much more aggressive African Honey Bee—but is rarely used because the association of violence and aggressiveness with Africa is tricky business in a country like the United States and would actually be more scandalous than just naming the bees after their propensity to murder, a propensity that doesn’t exist as these bees are defensive creatures) would reach all parts of the American southwest by the mid 2000s, and could reach into Missouri, my native Missouri, before 2020.

I’m extremely afraid of bees. Wasps too. Of course, hornets. Anything with a stinger. Irrational fear. The other day I shrieked in a parking lot and walked to an entirely different row of cars than the one mine was parked in and then made a large loop around back to where my car was. Why? Well, there was a wasp on the ground, walking. In the interest of punnery, I make beelines for safety whenever I see things with stingers. Either that or I stand still as death, biding my time til the lil monster grows tired of my scent, my sweat-slicked arms, and flies away. I pull up, muscles tightened, fight or flight responses about to activate, even when I see a carpenter bee, which I know to have no stinger nor any aggressive streak. That’s the problem: I know how silly this fear is. I understand it to be irrational, yet I don’t prevent myself from acting irrationally.

The map that the Discovery Channel used to project the spread of Killer Bees looked like a meteorological pattern. It looked like a warm front, or like a swirl of wind. A storm that was coming to change the barometric pressure, the whole climate even.

Christine Hume’s 2012 (chap)book-length essay, Ventifacts, is about the wind. A long meditation contained in brief lyric bursts of thought or research, separated like the sections in this review are: by whitespace, by air alone. Two lines of whitespace separating different sections and one line separating paragraphs of an individual section (though this technique is rarely used).

A ventifact is a marking or characteristic in an environment that was caused by the wind. Think about a rock face and its well-worn grooves and lines from years and years of air currents travelling over it. This book, then, is the record of how Hume’s life has been shaped and altered and grooved by the wind.

Which is to say, Ventifacts is about Christine Hume’s daughter, whose biggest fear is the wind. Writes Hume, “She stops, shudders, and runs back for the door. It’s finally spring and she refuses to go outside. I have no idea how to help her, she’s not yet three, gripping my leg…with large animals, she’s brave; in the dark, she’s unfazed. But wherever wind touches her, she grows raw nerve” (10). It is a problematic phobia for Hume. As a mother. Kids need to travel places, need to go outside, if only to get to the car. Kids ought to play outside.

The cover of Ventifacts depicts the swirl of winds over the Pacific Ocean:

I can tell because those brown specks towards the top right of the image are the Hawaiian Islands. A caption inside the book explains that the arrows are wind direction and the colors represent differing wind speeds. The image was taken by a NASA satellite in 1978. It’s interesting to think about how satellite images can change over time. How there might be some record over the years of killer bees and normal honeybees; perhaps the killer bees give off a different thermal signature or perhaps there are giant images charting in lines laid over a map their swirling invasion.

“Anticipation—dread—makes her cower at the merest stirrings, and I seize up knowing what comes next: her diva-level belting out against it. In this instant my face mirrors hers: her shriek echoes against the wind. We are analogies hoping to lead ourselves out of passivity. Yet in the land of troubles, every wind is the same. Wind makes us both too permeable and too solid” (32).

You see very quickly into Ventifacts that there is a mirroring going on between mother and daughter. Hume never becomes afraid of the wind, but learns to become uneasy with the knowledge that her daughter, upon exposure, will soon get into a mood. Weather patterns can shift dramatically with no warning, and we learn that so too can the days and plans of Hume and her family. Some of the book’s most intimate moments come from Hume meditating on this mirroring, or simply on the relationship of mother to daughter. Hume will spend entire sections charting the progress of her daughter’s phobia. She will interject her own thinking about the history of wind studies or research into wind in literature with sharp questions, questions that each seem to be a permutation of How can I expose my child to what she fears and still be a good mother? In one of the essay’s most searing sections, she writes, “Is it sadistic not to shelter my daughter? Not to validate the experience of her own feelings? Am I squelching the power of her interior life by rejecting its vivid manifestations? Am I enabling her to develop the wisdom of not believing everything she thinks?” (30). Hume brings us on board with her narrator through these deeply human questions:
Coming at her from every direction, wind is her private terrorist threatening body, home, and family with a huff and a puff. She looks for a place to hide. Wind exposes and inflates instabilities. When she’s in it, she thinks the world makes her flinch. What will it blow away today? What has been accounted for? All things are equal exchange for wind, and we have lost her to the bargain (17).

I feel silly for beginning this review with a mention of my fear of stinging insects. It’s quite easy to avoid them. I can’t think of a single instance where we had to leave a place, where my mom had to bring me to the car and go home, because I saw a bee. Wherefore this fear of mine? Was there some formative experience that I can point to? Not really, no. The earliest memory I have of stinging insects (which because it is the earliest means it is closer to genesis) is of being in my own backyard. Our driveway reached around to the back of the house, where our garage doors were. My dad’s bass boat was too long to be parked in the concrete out back, lest it block the driveway from other cars. So we had a sort of extension built onto the driveway. It was basically a pit of gravel, fenced in with treated wood. Up through the gravel sometimes grew some especially hardy weeds. In this memory, there was clover shooting up through the rocks. The three-leaved kind, though I was searching for that elusive lucky one. Not only did I not find a four-leaf clover, but I got stung in the shoulder by a wasp. There would be no swelling. I am not allergic. But I remember being in considerable pain. I ran inside the house, where my mom treated the wound, which inevitably made it hurt worse for a few seconds that seemed to last for minutes. Maybe that wasn’t the first experience. Maybe I was afraid before then. But whatever the case, I have it easy compared to Christine Hume’s daughter. You can’t very well escape the wind unless you’re inside of a building. Hume and daughter are contained. They are contained inside their home, or they are contained in a larger cell: movements restricted because the wind never stops for good.

I’m thankful that I’ve never been afraid of the wind. Annoyed? Sure. I have long, very fine hair. If I’m in the car and the windows are down, the wind doesn’t blow my hair back. It blows my hair every possible direction, especially the directions that go right into my face. It gets tangled. Ugh. Close the windows, please. Turn on the AC.

That was a lie, of course. I’ve always been afraid of the destructive possibilities of the wind. There was a stretch of time in my life were I would pray each night to Jesus Christ and His Father. When that time had ended, there was one thing that could get me to pray once again, as if no lapse of faith had ever occurred. That thing was the wind. Tornadoes, specifically. I have always been more afraid of tornadoes than bees or wasps or my father or anything in the world. They were the one natural disaster that I always had to be worried about growing up in Missouri. You learn to read all of the signs, you learn when to be cautious and when to understand the normalcy of storm. Be worried when the skies tinge green. Be worried not when there is rain but when there is hail, be worried about updrafts. Learn to look on the news channel’s Doppler radar for hooks or tails on the southwest corner of a storm cell. Don’t be worried at a tornado watch; you’re always under a tornado watch in a west Missouri summer. Be worried about a tornado warning. With a warning comes the sirens. With the sirens always came prayer. My freshman year of college: I was driving back to campus from my hometown. I was in the car of this girl, Stephanie, who I wasn’t close with but we graduated high school together and attended the same college. The storm was so bad that we had literally zero visibility. Everyone on I-29 near St. Joseph, Missouri, was driving about five miles per hour, hoping not to collide with anything. The radio broadcaster said that just beyond the sheets of rain, so thick as to be opaque, was tornadic activity. Stephanie had an aunt in St. Joe not too far from a highway exit. When the rain began to let up we were able to exit off and find her aunt’s house. Call it instinct or Spidey Sense or chalk it up to the vermillion sky, but you could sense the danger. We went to her aunt’s basement and watched the news until the power went out. Maybe I felt a small comfort in that dark basement: no one could really see me as I prayed to God for safety for the first time in years.

What Hume is after in Ventifacts is not immediately clear. She’s not after making readers feel what it’s like to fear the wind, at least not in full. She’s not really after making readers sympathize with her difficulty in raising this child, either. She doesn’t treat these experiences like I just did in the preceding section. This is not memoir. This is not narrative. Only sixteen of Ventifacts’ fifty pages make explicit mention of Hume’s daughter. Only thirty-two percent of the essay is directly about the inspiration and occasion for it. Some of the book of course is lyric writing meant to convey an experience of wind that isn’t that of her daughters. As we all know, a good breeze can be the most welcome thing in the world. There is a beauty in wind, and Hume does well to capture that. She writes, “Wind arouses amorphously, omnisciently. It excites water, skims the skin in little slanting waves. Whatever the sun intensifies, whenever it boils, the wind comes along as its ecstatic relief. Wind is sun cum. Spewing seeds, debris and rays. It is all tentacles, all jellyfish experience; a weathervane theater with hooks and stays” (16).

What makes up much of the remaining pages are facts. Facts conveyed and research done, about wind. Hume uses these facts to different effects. Allow me to quote from page thirty:
I’m in line at the grocery store about ten days after Japan’s massive earthquake-induced nuclear reactor leakage. I have heard Yukio Edano, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary’s words, “With evacuation in place and the ocean-bound wind, we can ensure safety,” but I can’t say I put any stock in them. The woman in front of me puts a white bottle on the conveyor belt: “Potassium iodide,” she volunteers, “protects the thyroid from radiation.” We are both staring at the bottle as she adds, “I heard it on the radio; a recent ocean wind brought it here. The radiation is just now hitting Michigan.”
Now I know I said this book’s chief aim wasn’t narrative, and that what I just quoted from was narrative. A scene. Still, it’s useful to see how Hume can drop knowledge or facts into a scene in order to create a sense of uneasiness or even fear. A narrative section such as this one, even if the narrative is secondary to the strange feeling caused by nouns like “thyroid” and “nuclear reactor” and “potassium iodide,” feels important because so much of the book is non-narrative. Narrative shines in this book through Hume’s careful use of juxtaposition.

For all of my years of being afraid of tornados, even laying eyes on them approaching from a distance, there had never been one that actually hit my town or my neighborhood. That post-Thanksgiving basement shelter my freshman year of college? A tornado never ended up touching down in St. Joseph that night. Through all of the tornado warnings I heard I remained safe. This was perhaps the most convincing argument for God’s existence to a selfish little boy: the causation fallacy that my prayers worked, that God kept me safe. On April 27th, 2011, a fierce EF4 tornado devastated a large part of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where I currently live. Millions of dollars in property damage. Dozens of people were killed, more than sixty in all, with perhaps many dozens more deaths of undocumented persons in the Alberta City neighborhood that were never officially counted. My house? Safe. Myself? Safe.

It will interest you to realize that a section of text that I quoted earlier in this review—“Is it sadistic not to shelter my daughter?”—immediately precedes the section I quoted about wind-swept radiation set in a grocery store. There is no smooth segue from penetrating questions about how to be a mother to a scene exposing wind’s unreliability and the paranoia that can come from it. There’s only white space separating these two sections. The white space also connects them: it is Hume’s mind that jumps from meditation to memory.

What comes after the grocery store scene is also revealing as to how Hume’s book works. She follows up the self-probing and the brief scene with the following passage: “Take the shape of music: chimes, bells, Aeolian harp, the natural minor key. All the rushes whisper at once when the wind blows through. Wind is the first music, a soundscape for an ecosystem…” (31). When Hume isn’t straightforward with personal reflection, she’s waxing poetic. So much of this book is lyric-driven examinations of how wind has operated in the minds of people throughout history. Thrown into the lyric meditations are diverse sources such as Laura Riding, painters Jeff Wall and Katsushika Hokusai, sound artist Stephen Vitiello, a Webster’s dictionary from the 1800s, the way that the National Weather Service used to name all tropical storms and hurricanes after women, Virginia Woolf, Pliny the Elder, and many more. Each new fact or thinker or artist exploring the notion of wind enhances and complicates the reader’s understanding of everything in the book. Wind is rendered peaceful, confusing, scary. I was most struck by how Hume could carve a fear of wind into me that works purely on an adult/intellectual level. She writes, with equal use of lyricism and fact, that:
We breathe a military climatology, it’s the leitmotif of terrorism. Instead of traditional body-to-body combat, we re-design, re-assign, resign the air. Designing killer environments for our enemies consolidates the most salient givens of our world: terrorism, design consciousness, and environmental thinking…imagine the U.S. fighting a powerful drug cartel in South America by controlling the target area meteorologically. By engineering wind flow patterns—an air theater, a perfectly orchestrated wind opera – we can engineer vulnerability. (11)
Hume is writing about HAARP, or the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, and she writes about this “military climatology” so effectively that I forget that I had previously known talk of HAARP-driven warfare to be the stuff of kooks and conspiracy theorists.

On conspiracy theory forums (and, increasingly, on YouTube videos that your weird uncle links to on Facebook), there’s many people who, for an area hit by a strong tornado, look back at Doppler radar of the day before the tornado. They show in their posts evidence of “chemtrails” that show up over a city about a day or so prior to a massive storm. These look like abnormal rings on the radar. It is the contention of conspiracy theorists that the HAARP satellites affect the climate in the ionosphere over these cities, causing these chemtrails. That the tornado that leveled Tuscaloosa was a test by the U.S. government, or an act of weather war by China or Russia.

I’m reminded a bit of John McPhee’s Oranges when I read Ventifacts. What seems to always be said about McPhee’s book is something like “Wow! An entire book about oranges!” Hume has written this entire book/essay on wind. Both books are full to the brim with facts and research about their subjects that widen our understanding, that broaden our entire conception of the thing. But there are key differences. McPhee uses his facts and research to establish a cultural history of thinking about the orange. He wants to know everything there is to know about the orange. For Hume, the research seems more personal. There’s more at stake here. Or at least it is personal for Ventifacts’ narrator. Narrator-Hume needs to understand the wind to better understand her daughter, but the more she learns about wind the harder it is to concretize her ideas about it. You don’t walk away from Ventifacts an expert on wind, though you certainly will know a lot more about it than any non-meteorologist or climatologist around you. You walk away from Ventifacts feeling confused and awed by the wind. Whatever inroads Narrator-Hume makes towards understanding are crafted by Author-Hume to bewilder us, to translate to us the feeling of being lost in the depths. This is lyric writing; you feel its impact. Wind as a character and as a subject in this book constantly swirls and shifts from one thing to another. Hume’s brief, lyric sections swirl around too in a highly associative manner and order. This is nonfiction with a poet’s eye for how content and form can bolster each other.

Another lie: I don’t have long hair anymore. I shaved it off two months ago after 13 years. I like my tight buzzcut. I like being able to roll the windows down, being blasted by wind. Each little hair though is extremely sensitive to touch, like hundreds of antennae. If a bee flies near my head, I may not be able to stand still anymore. Or maybe I’ll get over it: the bees, the fear.

I didn’t pray on April 27th, 2011. I did call my mom to tell her I loved her. I was in Gorgas Library, on the campus of the University of Alabama. I was with some classmates and friends and some total strangers, all of us huddled in a side hallway near the music stacks. I don’t remember if I made a deliberate effort not to pray. It’s possible; a test of my anti-faith. I do remember that some of my friends were more scared than I was. While I had grown up with tornadoes as a constant threat and knew exactly the kind of damage that they do, it occurred to me that some of my friends didn’t know precisely how damaging tornadoes could be. Which meant that, in their minds, tornados were even scarier than they actually are. When the movie Twister came out, it put up middling box office numbers in the states where tornadoes are common. But along the coastal cities of the U.S. the film did extraordinarily well. It was an early-summer blockbuster because those Americans didn’t know what tornados could really do. It was plausible to them, the exaggerated breakout of EF5 tornadoes in that flick. I’m not saying my friends in the library had Twister on their minds that April day. I am saying that there’s a phenomenon; that we fear more greatly the things which we are told to fear and that we haven’t been exposed to before ourselves. I didn’t pray that day. Instead, I tried to keep my friends calm. I tried to explain what would be going on outside the thick library walls, how we were surely safe behind them. In the coming weeks—and in the coming years really, when some friends would begin to show signs of post-traumatic stress when the weather forecast mentions the possibility of tornadic activity—I would try to be a figure of experience. I would remind people that where I’m from, towns and families do pick up the pieces, scattered by wind though they may be. People do move on. I tried to be an emotional rock. The thing about rocks, though, is that they don’t hide anything. When the wind carves into them over the years they can’t help but show it.


Barry Grass is originally from Kansas City, and now lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he has served as Nonfiction Editor for Black Warrior Review. Recent work appears in The Normal School, Hobart, Sonora Review, and Annalemma, among others. Send your cures for bee-fear to

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