writing the weather

For the past two and a half years, I’ve had the pleasure of a completely analog writing gig. I wrote the weather column for a small weekly newspaper in rural, agricultural Montana. The printed word on the page, un-Googleable and physically archived, viewable by some intrepid reporter 100 years from now, but also it’s fish wrap at the same time. It drained this webby writer of much ego, and much anxiety about how my words appear. Highly recommended for the finely wired, newly sober, the blocked and anxious writer, or all of the above, which I was.

There was a printing press, rolls of paper, a typist, a darkroom. The archives told the story of the intrepid first homesteaders in a speck of a Western town. Posters for rodeos past hung dustily from the walls.

I learned over time to reply “if you can write it better, you’re welcome to give it a shot!”

The best habit I gained from writing for the paper was being back in the flow of deadlines that were actually unmovable. I had to be on time if I wanted to stay on good terms with anyone in town from the postal clerk to the off-grid ranch matriarch who relied on the paper for her news as she had for the previous 70-some years. If I quoted a forecaster incorrectly, or misplaced a cow within the county, it was on me to notice and make my own corrections.

Taking the weather seriously in Montana meant knowing how to write the forecast for when the inevitable storms and snows would be blowing. More importantly, I was entering into the record with as much accuracy as possible the precipitation data from the previous week. The agricultural community’s livelihoods depend on weather and its resultant data. The readers would occasionally stop me at the grocery store to tell me that I’d gotten something wrong: “A person could write the inches of rain right, you know.”

Talk about a tough crowd.

I learned over time to reply “if you can write it better, you’re welcome to give it a shot!”

Occasionally, there was a space weather forecast to include, trying to hazard a guess as to when the northern lights might make their show.

Weekly, I’d write a paragraph about the area, the next would be news and forecasts for the country, then the world, expand in ever-widening circles further from this little dot on the map in the middle of nowhere.

I learned the ins and outs of weather forecasting from NOAA, through their Weather Ready Nation Ambassadors program. I would fact-check and shuffle sentences and eventually it became a joy to write. If the mood struck me, I could craft a tiny bit of weather poetry each week.

For fun, I would occasionally include if the forecast matched up to the predictions in the Old Farmer’s Almanac, or use the U.S. drought monitor as a source for state information as to if and when the fires might stop and rain finally arrive. “Maybe next year”, a phrase familiar to anyone who has lived in farm country, became the throughline. Climate change wasn’t something most of the readership set much stock by. Instead, they’d count the bad seasons by a sort of epoch. The 80’s, then the Dust Bowl: “there’s always been good years, and bad. But we’d rather have too much rain than not enough.”

I use my weather forecasting powers these days mostly to figure out when to walk the dog. (Helpful hint: the Scientific Weather Forecast available from Weather Underground has the most accurate information you could possibly find.)

The ritual of a deadline, though. That’s unexpectedly baked in.

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