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“Tornado #19 (1999-141)” by David Maxim. Charcoal and pastel wash on tinted paper. 19.5 x 25 inches.


Talking tornadoes


I hadn’t heard from Justin Nobel for a couple of weeks, and wasn’t expecting to, when an email came through around 8 P.M. on a Sunday in late April of last year. He was in rural Alabama at the time, reporting a piece for the Oxford American about a supercell tornado that ravaged the northern part of that state on April 27, 2011, three years prior to the day. His message didn’t mention the coincidence. It was brief and solicitous, and indicated it had been sent from his phone.

I see tornado has passed just south of Conway. I hope you are well. I am holed up in a motel as northern Alabama comes under the gun tomorrow. All is good here. Justin

I shouldn’t have been surprised that he was keeping tabs on the conditions two states away—Nobel is obsessed with weather. But I was. The storm he mentioned had just swept through central Arkansas and in a matter of minutes had decimated the town of Mayflower, which lies along the familiar stretch of highway between the OA’s editorial office in Conway and my apartment in Little Rock. A near miss. Things were so calm in the city that night, however, that I didn’t know of the storm until Justin’s email pinged on my phone, where I also discovered a severe weather warning had been issued. I spent the next two hours watching the #arwx feed on Twitter as responders and journalists posted descriptions, images, and videos of the destruction twenty miles away. The next morning, I saw it for myself: devastation with no discernible purpose, pattern, or plan—indiscriminate, inconceivable, merciless.

Four months later, Nobel filed his story. 

The black parted and I could see the core, and it was brown, and it was moving left to right, so wide it looked like it was turning in slow motion. When I saw it, I saw death. If you laid your eyes upon this there was death all around. It was like watching someone point a gun at you and pull the trigger, and watching the bullet come at you real slow. You know, chances are it is going to go in your head, and you have to accept it. That’s when I realized we were doomed.

Justin Nobel’s “Walking the Tornado Line,” which you can read here, is a quilted epic, gathering the unbelievable stories of the Alabamians who lived through April 27, 2011. Even three years later, the aftermath of the super tornado is visible in the landscape, and in the lives of the people Nobel met as he traced its 150-mile path. The words quoted above belong to Milton Crochet, a golf cart repairman who lives in tiny Oak Grove. Milton lost his wife that day, and his amazing tale, which Nobel weaves throughout the article, is brutal, sad, and inspiring.

Like all great narratives born of tragedy, the story is a taxing read but a worthwhile one. Nobel approaches his subjects compassionately and without reservations. Aside from his boundless curiosity—evidenced in every scene—I wondered what inspired Justin, who’s based in New Orleans, to undertake this project.

The following interview was conducted leisurely over e-mail in March and early April, as winter finally surrendered and tornado season was upon us once again.

There’s something about tornadoes that elicits a witnessing response: they are so unbelievable that humans want to see them; some even want to follow them. Your piece reads like a slow-motion, retroactive storm chase. Where did you get the idea to walk the path of this tornado across northern Alabama?

About ten years ago I learned of the Mass-Observation movement, which involved a group of 1930s British eccentrics who planted themselves in public spaces in London and other cities and observed things like the staggering of drunks and the flicking of cigarettes. The point was an anti-journalism, a belief that the big political stories were often biased, and truth lay in the minutiae. Inspired by this, when I lived in New York City I started a blog called the Absurd Adventurer. I spent all night in the ER Waiting Room, all morning in an elevator, all night on the subway, and just observed. So this is stillness, which I am interested in, but it is also movement, because when you string the observations together from A to Z you have motion across time. I am also interested in motion.

There is no greater motion than the tornado. Not only is there the motion of the whirlwind, which is devastating and mesmerizing and scientifically fascinating, but there is the motion across the maps of the storms themselves, which move in surprisingly straight lines—very different from hurricanes, for example, whose paths are often filled with squiggles and loops. And then there is the stillness of the people and their stories, these stationary points on the map who have become linked together by the motion of the storm, and also linked together by my walk. To walk along the path of a tornado sets up an interesting experiment between motion and stillness.

When I moved to the South three years ago, I didn’t know I would end up following a tornado, though because of my deep fascination with weather I was very intrigued by them. I began a project that was a reinvention of the NYC stillness project but with the whole South as my playing field. It involved planting myself in random small towns and observing absolutely everything that developed—again the minutiae—and using what developed to determine which small town I went to next. A sort of glowing aura would appear on the map based on something that someone said or did in the last town, and I would know where next to go. One glowing aura started to appear over Paragould, this town in northeastern Arkansas that appears to be a tornado hotspot, and I started thinking about the convergence of stillness, planting myself in small towns, and motion, in the form of tornadoes, which if they are long-lived often end up linking many small towns together in a line. Amazing! I could walk the line from A to Z and see everything the tornado saw through the landscape it chewed apart and the eyes of the people it affected. Only, Paragould’s recent tornadoes have not been that large. I wanted a more epic journey. I did a bit of research and learned of the massive April 27, 2011, tornado that tore across northern Alabama, and immediately knew that was the one to follow.

The process you describe—traveling freely, on foot, observing and allowing discoveries and encounters to set your course—reminds me so much of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. You put two very different epigraphs in front of the piece, one from an academic article and the other from Werner Herzog. Did you have any other books or authors or ideas in mind as you set out? And more broadly: who are your influences?

In high school I read a paragraph in my history textbook about these people, the Beats, and this guy, Jack Kerouac. I was real insulated and had never heard of any of that, so I checked out On the Road from the library, read it, and was like, “Holy shit, you can do this with a life?” From my nook deep in suburbia the walls began to rattle. Then I read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and the walls completely crumbled. I knew I had to make journeys, I needed to see the world. I needed to get lost in it. From that point on, inspiration has come from reading things that reconfirm my need to journey, additional highlights and addendums to the original message. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars, which says for the magic to happen you must disappear into a landscape you do not understand; Gauguin’s Noa Noa, which says escape comfortable circles and go to the end of the map; As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, this breathtaking haiku memoir written by Lady Sarashina in eleventh-century Japan, which says that the most important thing in life is to tell tales.

In terms of magazine journalism, inspiration has come from pieces like Matt Power’s “Mississippi Drift”—a Harper’s story about a trip he took down the Mississippi River with a group of anarchists—and “The Magic Mountain,” about daily life in a Philippine garbage dump. Not only is the writing stunning, but these stories are a reminder that the dreams you have in the night are real. Literary journalism is a much more flexible form than many of us allow ourselves to believe. The secret for me has always been to stay close to the hum of the people, and to the hum of yourself, to your own reasons for why you are there and why you are doing this, and then know exactly when to shut your own voice off and just let the people talk, and let the landscape talk.

I think when I set out on the tornado walk my main concern was to just keep going, to remain enthusiastic, to talk to absolutely everyone, to take absolutely everything in, to never turn off the observing mechanism. As for the epigraphs, the Herzog is a reminder of that, a mandate to stay low to the ground and keep the eyes open. The Michael Marchand lays out the main conflict I think this story is all about, that there are things out there in the world that go beyond science and yet cannot be called religion. I suppose that this nether space can be termed shamanism, and that is the thing I am often seeking.

Was it difficult to get people to talk about the tornado with you? Being constantly on the move, walking north, you had such little time in each place, yet you were able to retrieve these incredibly personal stories of destruction, loss, and pain. How?

Journeying is an ancient and biblical act, and that sort of quest is often appreciated by people in small towns. In walking you also make yourself vulnerable, which inspires others to reach out and help you. The people of northern Alabama were so eager to help me, and so friendly, that I actually did much less walking than anticipated. I couldn’t go a few miles down the road without someone offering me a ride, and it usually ended up being someone who had knowledge of the tornado, or could lead me to someone who did. Word travels fast in rural areas; there are no media-relations officers or gatekeepers. One thing I found is that people had spent a lot of time telling each other their stories right after the storm, but then they stopped talking, though the tornado had not loosened its grip on them. So it was ripe time for people to talk again. I also don’t really resemble a journalist, or what many people imagine a journalist to be; I am more like this scruffy wanderer with a notepad, and I think the novelty of my mission, and the mutual curiosity between me and the people I was speaking with, helped create a desire to talk and a desire to be heard on both ends.

I also think it’s important to mention the end of Milton’s story, which I didn’t include in the article. He buried his wife in the spot out back where she was found pinned under a tree, and the stump of that tree is still there. There is a rose bush beside the grave, and Milton told me he has never seen such a prolific rose bush. On either side of the rose bush are small concrete markers, which his two younger children, Skyler and Georgia, have decorated with handprints. Milton realized he put the lives of his family at risk by not having a storm shelter, and the first big purchase he made after the tornado was a state-of-the art underground concrete storm shelter. If there is severe weather anywhere in the area, the family cuts their day short and heads into the shelter. These days, even the sound of thunder or the flash of lightning gives many people in Oak Grove anxiety. Storms are taken very seriously.

A tornado hit the area while you were reporting, the first since the 2011 storm, and in the piece you describe being outside, watching it, and you write this incredibly scary, haunting line: Now I understand, there is never just one tornado, there are infinite tornadoes: the air wants to become lethal. Naturally, globally, weather-wise, things are getting worse. I guess my question is: are you afraid?

My fear is not that the storms will get worse—that indeed seems likely—my fear is that, in the face of these ever-larger storms and the risks they bring to the increasingly mechanized civilization we are installing across the planet, humans will find a way to smooth out the ripples and silence the weather. The general response to climate change has not been and probably will never be for people to live simpler, less consumptive lives more in harmony with nature. The response has been to keep speeding forward, away from nature, and in fact speed forward so swiftly that our acceleration itself rains down a shower of technological solutions to protect us from the storms. And once we have gained this knowledge, why stop? Why rein the climate in to pre-industrialization levels. Why not alter things exactly the way we want? Why not make it so the whole world is a sunny day, and have it rain just enough to grow our crops? A weather-less world may seem fantastical, but our rejiggering of the weather system has already begun. Consider the rise in popularity of geo-engineering as a solution to climate change, consider climate change itself, consider the growth of weather-modification companies aiming to seed clouds with rain and break up hailstorms. I can imagine a world where tornado and typhoon have become forgotten and laughable words, and we no longer remember what it’s like to feel rain fall randomly from a cloud onto our faces or to be buffeted by a cold wind. That world frightens me.

What’s next for you? What’s in your headlights these days?

There is the tornado walk story, and there will be a lightning story, a typhoon story, and one on blizzards and one on droughts, and together they will compose a book, but the book won’t just be an amalgamation of these journalistic pieces, the stories will be woven into a dystopian science fiction novel. Another project involves a journey along the Gulf Coast in the face of sea level rise that I’ll be taking this summer and am scheduled to publish in installments with The Weather Channel. I am also working with a New Orleans man wrongfully convicted of murder, turning notes he compiled on death row into a book about his life, which will be published by UNO Press. Looking deeper into the future, I want to write a novel on John Muir’s adolescence, and there is a book on stillness I want to write where I’ll observe the lives of bamboo, cows, mushrooms, bacteria, and rocks.

 Read “Walking the Tornado Line” by Justin Nobel, from the spring 2015 issue

Maxwell George

Maxwell George is the Oxford American’s deputy editor. He is from Charlotte, North Carolina, and lives in New York City.