In the early morning hours the other day, I awoke to the sound of light rain outside my window. It felt good to stare into the dark and listen to the familiar rattle of rain falling on a tin roof. I was warm and comfortable and thought about all the times I spent out in the rain.
Back home in Attawapiskat we did our best to stay out of downpours when we could. In fact, whenever rain was forecast by our Elders, no one bothered to venture out on the land. We did not mind living in freezing cold for most of the year but to be cold and wet interested none of us.
As I lay in the dark, the rain eventually slowed. Just before I fell back to sleep, however, a loud blast shook me from my slumber. It was something I had never heard before in my life. It was nearby and it was just a simple loud discharge similar to the sound of a shotgun or rifle firing. I could tell from the deep resounding blast that was created that something big had happened.
Just seconds later, a flash of lightning lit up the room and loud rolling thunder reverberated through the house. The rain started again and this time, the sky opened up and it poured heavily for the next hour.
I lay in bed wondering what had created the sound. I thought of hunters or a neighbour firing a shotgun or rifle at bears. I also wondered at why anyone would do that during a downpour at two in the morning. The only other thought I had was that lightning had struck somewhere and I waited for the possibility that the power would go out. Fortunately, the electricity survived the strike.
There are many familiar sounds and sights I associate with rain, thunder and lightning. When we were young there were moments when the power of some storms made us feel we were in danger, but our parents and Elders assured us that lightning was not the problem they experienced years before.
Back then, unprotected houses were commonly hit by lightning. When that happened a strike meant at worst the possibility of being hit directly and at best your home catching on fire.
In the early days there were few buildings in Attawapiskat. The community was home to a small population living in wigwams and tents around a tall church and six or seven large buildings occupied by the missionaries and the Hudson’s Bay Company. All these structures sat on an open field making them the only high points on the banks of the river. That of course would draw the lightning.
We live in a part of the world where weather is ever changing. right over our heads. There are no obstacles such as mountains or hills to impede fast-moving storm systems. On the James Bay coast, you can spot a storm miles before it arrives. Fortunately for us, as quickly as a major storm arrives, it can just as quickly disappear.
In the grander view of weather systems in North America, we are just on the northern frontier of storms that are capable of generating tornadoes. In the past, there have been reports of hunters and trappers coming across the twisted and blown remains of forests in the wilderness where a tornado touched down.
It is no wonder that many superstitions and traditions were born out of fear of the weather. There are stories of how shamans believed they could channel the power of the storms for good or evil. The thought was that when something as powerful as storms can invade your life perhaps in some way a person could take advantage of all that energy and direct it for good or evil.
As children, we were warned to stay indoors during a lightning storm and to keep away from metal objects. Any shiny object was considered dangerous when lightning was around, so we were told to hide mirrors, glass objects and shiny metal.
The next morning after this strange blast that I heard in the dark, I did some research on where the sound might have come from. I wondered if it would have been lightning striking a tree during the peak of the storm.
I discovered that a bolt of lightning travelling at 160,000 kilometres an hour with an average delivery of 100 trillion (million million) watts of power can generate 28,000 degrees Celsius of heat as it travels through the air. When this amount of energy hits a tree, the electrical current flows through the tree’s sap, which literally explodes as it instantaneously evaporates under the extreme heat. That creates an explosion.
My Elders were on the right track with such great respect for powerful storms and lightning. We think we are so crafty and inventive with all of the powerful machines we can create in this modern age. It is very strange to think that Mother Earth dwarfs us when it comes to power and control and she has been doing this since the dawn of time.