Published Tuesday, October 7, 2003 in the San Jose Mercury News

Weather Corner

Descriptions of weather help set mood in many literary pieces

Special to the Mercury News

No, Charlie Brown's beagle Snoopy did not invent the phrase, ``It was a dark and stormy night.''

This, arguably the most infamous opening line in literature, comes from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton (1830), author of ``The Last Days of Pompeii'' and the inspiration for Professor Scott Rice's annual bad fiction contest at San Jose State University.

But the use of weather in literature is pervasive, with elements of weather and climate used as both subject matter and to set the mood, in every genre. Novels, dramas and poetry through the ages are replete with references to storms, fog, wind and floods.

The next time you read a book or poem, take note of its weather. Most literary references to the weather are merely observational, with little thought to the real meteorology behind the phenomena. But there are notable exceptions. Percy Bysshe Shelley was particularly thoughtful about weather elements in ``The Cloud'' and ``Ode to the West Wind.'' And Shakespeare often used storms to set the mood.

In ``The Tragedy of Richard the Third,'' he wrote: ``When clouds are seen, wise men put on their cloaks; When great leaves fall, then winter is at hand; When the sun sets, who doth not look for night? Untimely storms makes men expect a dearth.'' And, of course, ``The Tempest'' has a storm as its centerpiece.

A favorite weather poem that seems particularly appropriate for the Bay Area is Carl Sandburg's very concise look at fog: ``The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.'' And on the whimsical side is Ogden Nash's ``A Watched Example Never Boils'' which begins: ``The weather is so very mild, That some would call it warm. Good gracious, aren't we lucky, child? Here comes a thunderstorm. The sky is now indelible ink, The branches reft asunder; But you and I we do not shrink; We love the lovely thunder.''

Q I read with great interest your San Jose Mercury News article describing in detail how lightning occurs, etc. I was wondering if you might write another article describing dangers, and what to do or not, when a lightning storm occurs, since it is rather infrequent in our area.

I was recently in that lightning storm the last part of August, when my grandkids and I were camping near the delta. We were already in the tent and sleeping when the first thunder and lightning occurred. I woke up and thought, boy, I could get some GREAT photos, but that meant I would have to open the tent and get my camera out of the car.

I was afraid to go out, or even to look at the lightning. I have become quite nervous about getting struck and was nervous being in the tent, as I have heard lightning can strike the tree and travel through it and hit you if you are under it.

A few weeks later we had another good storm, and even though I was in the ``safety'' of my own home, I was still afraid to go to the window and look out. Can you help clear up any misconceptions I have about lightning? Janie Hopkins - Campbell

A A good place to start is with the 30-30 rule. When you see lightning, count the time until you hear thunder. If that time is 30 seconds or less, the thunderstorm is within six miles of you and is dangerous. Seek shelter immediately. The threat of lightning continues for a much longer period than most people realize. Wait at least 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder before leaving shelter. Don't be fooled by sunshine or blue sky.

Remember that the first stroke of lightning is just as deadly as the last. Here are some of the most important lightning safety tips:

 Postpone activities promptly. Don't wait for rain to clear swimming pools and ball fields. Many people take shelter from the rain, but most people struck by lightning are not in the rain. Go quickly inside a completely enclosed building if possible.

 Be the lowest point. Lightning hits the tallest object. In the mountains if you are above tree line, you ARE the highest object around. Quickly get below tree line and get into a grove of small trees. Crouch down if you are in an exposed area.

 Avoid leaning against vehicles. Get off bicycles and motorcycles.

 Get out of the water. It's a great conductor of electricity. Stay off the beach and out of small boats or canoes. If caught in a boat, crouch down in the center of the boat, away from metal hardware. Swimming, wading, snorkeling and scuba diving are NOT safe. Lightning can strike the water and travel some distance beneath and away from its point of contact. Don't stand in puddles of water.

 Avoid metal! Drop metal backpacks, and stay away from clotheslines, fences, exposed sheds and electrically conductive elevated objects. Don't hold onto metal items such as golf clubs, fishing rods, tennis rackets or tools. Large metal objects can conduct lightning. Small metal objects can cause burns.

 Move away from a group of people. Stay several yards away from other people. Don't share a bleacher bench or huddle in a group.

Jan Null, founder of Golden Gate Weather Services, is a retired lead forecaster with the National Weather Service. Send questions to him c/o WeatherCorner, San Jose Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, Calif. 95190. You also can telephone questions at (510) 657-2246, fax them to (510) 315-3015 or e-mail, or fill out a form online at Please indicate in your e-mail what city you live in.