Booms, Cracks, and Claps: Listening to the Language of Thunder

Jul 22, 2014

Credit joefutrelle / flickr

One night last week a dramatic summer thunderstorm passed over the Outer Cape. It wasn’t a violent storm – not like the giant one that spawned tornados and ravaged the western part of the state several summers ago, but even an “ordinary thunderstorm” – if I can use that phrase – is fascinating.

We were sleeping on our sunroom porch when the storm arrived. At first there were only distant, rumblings of thunder and vague flashes of so-called “heat lightning” far to the west. Then the storm gradually grew closer, louder, and brighter. Through the skylight I saw one large bolt flash horizontally across the sky. The thunder began to take on a more textured and articulated shape, tracing in “surround sound” the path of the lightning bolt before it. There is no sound on earth that compares in majesty and power to that of rolling thunder. It is the wrath of God, always beautiful. Each manifestation of thunder has its own identity. Some have the shape and sounds of waves crashing on a beach – a falling sound followed by a deep, grounded explosion. Others are more like skyrockets, expanding, flinging themselves out into space.

Thunder’s hold on the human imagination is expressed in its vocabulary and mythology. Lightning may be more dramatic, and dangerous, but it has a relatively poor vocabulary to describe it. Lightning is almost always a “bolt” or a “stroke” that “flashes” or “streaks.” And that’s about it. Thunder, on the other hand, seems to have inspired a vast lexicon to describe it. It can boom, crack, clap, bang, slam, crash, clash, burst, bust, bounce, report, rap, snap, flap, tap, smack, whack and thwack, peal, rumble and grumble, roll, roar and bell – and that hardly exhausts thunder’s percussive repertoire.

In mythology, too, thunder seems to have inspired far more incarnations than lightning. Over fifty different thunder gods have been identified in various cultures – from Thor (the inspiration for a recent spate of weak super-hero movies) to the Australian Aboriginal Thunder God Mammaragan. Some gods are identified with both thunder and lightning, but curiously, there are few, if any gods identified solely with lightning.

We lay on the bed, looking out the windows of the sunroom as the storm advanced. Eventually the bolts of lightning were breaking directly overhead. Our dog Sam showed no alarm, but quietly came up on the bed with us. This was probably the best place to experience such a storm: exposed on three sides to the sound and light, but more protected than in a gazebo or a shed. I wondered if this were going to be a “dry storm,” for there was no rain accompanying the lightning and thunder, but then, slowly, it began: the wet pelting of raindrops on the window panes; then the harder tapping of small hail just as the storm, at its height, began to move off to the east. It was perfect timing, a benediction beginning just as the storm was receding. Aside from the sheer excitement of it, I was, as always, impressed by how orchestrated it all was. It was, as Kathy put it, deeply “musical.” It seemed, in fact, to embody all the elements of primal drama, and was, perhaps, a template for it. Could it be that certain cultural forms – such as drama - are in fact, shaped in part by regional weather. It would make an interesting study.

In any case, the whole storm lasted no more than 45 minutes from beginning to end, and it departed with the same measured, muffled dignity with which it had arrived.