The Rainmaker’s Flood
The quest to control the weather
From Growing Up Modern, a forthcoming collection of essays by Jennifer Kabat
I. To Manhattan—War, Water, and Weather
Weather modification has long been a dream of armies, mud being a weapon of war. Or, at least, a side effect that slows the advance of enemies. Greek historian and biographer Plutarch wrote in his biography of the Roman general Gaius Marius that “extraordinary rains generally follow great battles,” and well over a thousand years later, soldiers in the Civil War believed this as they slogged through the muck and mud of battlefields, attributing the rain that had made the mud to the booms and blasts of battle. One soldier, Captain Thomas Parker, describing the march to the Battle of New Bern, wrote of the “muddiest mud ever invented, being knee-deep and of a black, unctuous, slippery character.”
I was thinking of him as I hiked up a ridgeline in the Catskills in three feet of snow last February. I was headed toward New York City, but I’d never reach it; Manhattan was 107 miles away. I walked up vacant land I owned that bordered hundreds of acres the city had bought to protect its water supply. The snow here would melt and run into a reservoir that fed the city, adding to its water supply. Ever since moving to the Catskills a decade earlier, I’d been thinking about the uses to which the landscape here has been put: Hudson River school paintings and notions of nature in the nineteenth century, and now water to slake a city’s thirst. Every winter I did this hike, slipping onto land owned by New York City. It was also this snow that meant I was less likely to get lost in the woods.
I struggled uphill in my snowshoes. Sinking into the deep drifts, I pictured Captain Parker slipping in his unctuous mud. It was five degrees out, but I was sweating with exertion. The wind bit my cheeks, and as I got closer and closer to this mythic New York, there was not a sound—no cars, traffic, trains or taxis, no planes or horns—just a lone woodpecker, hammering against a tree.
The hemlocks’ boughs were laced with snow, and I felt as if I were passing through some magical kingdom. I was in a land of rubbed-down hills and scrappy mountains, where people joked that the soil was so poor, there were “two rocks for every dirt.” Here the nearest metropolis was Margaretville, a village of 596 people in New York’s Delaware County. The county is one of the poorest in the state, near the northern border of Appalachia. Along my path, the drifts blew in like desert dunes, the snow rippling in lines like sand. “Sastrugi,” these furrows were called, and they whipped themselves into knife-sharp cornices.
The ridge was about 2,000 feet up. It was not famous, not memorable, not even particularly high. It is called Kettle Hill, named perhaps for a man who had a farm nearby in the nineteenth century, or possibly for the Kittle family. No one knew for sure. I crossed a frozen stream, and that stream, this snow, and this ridge were all here for New York City, the water tying this place to that. When the stream thawed and the ice melted, it would take ninety days for the water to reach a tap in Greenpoint or Fort Greene, Williamsburg, the West Village, East New York, or the Upper East Side.
Downhill, just beyond the village where I live now, the Lenape had settled along the east branch of the Delaware River centuries before. Today the river flows into a reservoir, the Pepacton. Its shoreline is fifty miles long, and its name means marriage of the waters, and that reservoir connects this land and this water I was on to New York City, to snow and ice, water, weather—and war.
A snowflake is a grain of dust or pollen to which water adheres, causing crystals to form. One of the first people to study this was the mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, who in 1611 gave snow as a gift to his friend, a member in the court of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Kepler needed a New Year’s present; he was crossing a bridge in Prague, and as snow fell on his sleeve, he thought, This is it, my gift, snow. He wrote a treatise, a slim twenty-four pages titled The Six-Cornered Snowflake. The text, residing somewhere between poetry and philosophy, became the foundation of crystallography. More interesting to me than the science of crystallography was the word’s etymology, from the Greek crystallon, meaning “cold drop” or “frozen drop,” and grapho, meaning “I write.” Crystallon grapho: here I write of these frozen drops.
Kepler wrote in his essay: “There must be some definite cause why, whenever snow begins to fall, its initial formation invariably displays the shape of a six-cornered starlet. For if it happens by chance, why do they not fall just as well with five corners or with seven? … Who carved the nucleus … into six horns of ice?”
For answers he looked to beehives and pomegranate seeds—and at stacking cannonballs on boats, whose geometry had been studied by British mathematician Thomas Harriot, navigator for Sir Walter Raleigh. Kepler included the cannonballs in his essay on snowflakes, as a part of what came to be called Kepler’s conjecture, in which he searched for, as he put it, the “formative principle” of the snowflake.
His essay was a play on language and meaning and evanescence. He wrote in Latin, whose word for snow is nix, which in Kepler’s German sounds like nicht, or “nothing.” Kepler got at snow’s fleeting nature, but that “nothing” had an additional meaning. Kepler was poor; the emperor avoided paying him fully, so the essay, the snowflake, nothing, was all Kepler could give his friend. “Here,” he wrote, “was something smaller than a drop, yet endowed with a shape. Here, indeed, was a most desirable New Year’s gift for the lover of Nothing, and one worthy as well of a mathematician, (who has Nothing, and receives Nothing).… Let us then go back to our patron while the little gift lasts before the warmth of my body dissolves it into nothing.”
The book explored the components of that nothingness, from dust to water. Kepler argued that dust has more substance than a drop of water but had no idea that dust was as intrinsic as water in making a snowflake.
“From this almost Nothing,” he wrote, “I have very nearly re-created the entire universe, which contains everything! And having before shied away from discussing the tiny soul of the most diminutive animal, am I now to present the soul of that thrice greatest animal, the orb of the earth in a tiny atom of snow?”
Good question. I’d say, probably, yes.
And, I’d ask another: What is rain? Just snow that’s melted before it falls.
III. Marriage of the Waters
Crystallized water has a hexagonal structure and at different temperatures creates different solids—plates, dendrites, needles, and columns. At 23 degrees Fahrenheit, snow falls as hollow columns, and Kepler’s six-sided star is found at both 5 and 28 degrees. I wondered as I walked what temperature it had been on the bridge that day in Prague?
Snow can also be bewitchingly alive. We need never touch it, the temperature doesn’t have to rise or fall, and still snow transforms simply as a result of the flakes themselves compressing, flattening, and joining together. When it’s fresh, soft, and powdery as a dream, snow swallows all sound, but give it a week and those flakes become like porcelain, noise echoing off their surfaces.
In 1950, before building the Pepacton Reservoir, the city didn’t have enough water. The year before only 0.02 inches of rain had fallen in June, versus an average of four inches in 2010,so that winter the citydecided to control the weather, to make it rain, which meant making it snow.
IV. Silver Linings
Let me tell you about that dream of water. In 1946, at General Electric just up the Hudson (this the same G.E. that contaminated the river with PCBs for thirty years, starting in 1947), scientists first made snow. Irving Langmuir, winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry—and also a physicist—was a man for whom many scientific developments were named. There were Langmuir waves, which are electron density waves, a Langmuir probe and a Langmuir–Taylor detector, even the Langmuir circulation that the scientist observed on the wide Sargasso Sea. Langmuir had round glasses and high starched collars, a pendulous expression and a backgroundin pure research, something G.E. supported. During World War II, he’d worked on plans to deice planes and from that got the idea for making snow. At G.E., he was given free rein to pursue his interests without having to know the end results. But if he could make it snow, which meant having the power to make it rain, it wouldn’t have been hard to see the possibilities that might lie in the offing.
Working under him in 1946 was Vincent Schaefer. The two men climbed New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, the tallest peak in the Northeast, and there experimented with producing precipitation using table salt, talcum powder, soils, dust, and various chemical agents. Then, one sweltering July afternoon in Schenectady, Schaefer tried an experiment.
Imagine it’s cold outside. You take a breath and exhale. What happens? A cloud forms. It’s water vapor cooling as the humid breath expelled from your lungs condenses.
Vincent Schaefer was going to create a cloud in a freezer, just an ordinary home chest freezer made by G.E., using his breath, but the freezer had been accidentally turned off, and the air inside wasn’t cold enough. So he added dry ice to supercool it. He lined the freezer with black velvet to better see and shone a viewing light inside. This time his breath became a blue haze.
In that black-velvet box, the air was full of ice crystals. What’s more, it took only a tiny grain of dry ice to cool it enough to produce the cloud. A couple of weeks later, Schaefer’s colleague, atmospheric scientist Bernard Vonnegut (brother of novelist Kurt Vonnegut) discovered another method for getting ice from clouds. He introduced silver iodide into the box, which formed ice crystals. Schaefer’s experiment lowered the temperature of a cloud. In November 1946, Schaefer carried out one such experiment on Mount. Greylock, in western Massachusetts. He dumped six pounds of dry ice into a cloud from a plane after a sixty-mile chase from the Schenectady County Airport. Schaefer’s dry ice, however, fell too fast, and Langmuir wanted a substance that would remain in the cloud with greater impact. So Vonnegut sprinkled clouds with his purified silver iodide. It tricked water molecules into forming snowflakes around them, their seeds no longer dust but something more prized. According to G.E., Time magazine reported, “Here apparently was a tool of almost miraculous potency.” Langmuir calculated that pure silver iodide was so powerful that only 200 pounds … would be enough to seed the planet’s entire atmosphere.” Imagine a world covered in ice and snow from 200 pounds of anything. That’s less than the weight of two men.
General Electric called this research into making snow and rain Project Cirrus. This was an age of postwar optimism, of fission and fusion, atom bombs and neutron bombs that would kill people and level buildings. The most basic particles were being broken apart in streams of energy. War was now cold, and what in this war could come of making snow and ice?
V. Make Mud, Not War
In the mid-nineteenth century the U.S. government’s first official meteorologist, James Espy, had the idea to make rain from fire. He burned twelve acres of forest outside of Washington, D.C., but failed to make it rain—though it was said that the pines were “as thick as a man’s leg or arm.” The Civil War convinced many people of war’s power to make rain and mud. The idea was based on what was known as the concussion theory, which posited that setting off explosions (artillery fire, cannons, balloons and kites loaded up with charges, just about anything would do) would disrupt the atmosphere, causing rain to fall. Then came a severe drought in the West, and the concussion theory got wider attention: the Smithsonian Institution reported on it, as did the new National Geographic Magazine, and the idea was debated seriously in Science in 1892. Congress even appropriated money to test the possibility. General R. G. Dyrenforth, who was not in truth a general but a major—and a serial liar—was hired for the job. The experiments failed, and he became known as Dry-Henceforth.
Bernard Vonnegut’s brother Kurt, the Vonnegut most of us have heard of, also workedat G.E. after World War II. His job was to promote the research the company’s leading scientists performed, and later, in 1963, he wrote Cat’s Cradle, which was about nuclear holocaust and one Dr. Felix Hoenikker, coinventor of the atom bomb. Hoenikker was a fictionalized Irving Langmuir, who created something called ice-nine—based on Bernard Vonnegut and Langmuir’s work—which freezes everything so armies won’t be mired in mud. A few years later, in Vietnam (a war that launched rainbow herbicides: agents pink, blue, purple, green, and orange), the Air Force unleashed Operation Popeye. Its slogan was Make Mud, Not War, and its pilots seeded clouds to extend the monsoon season by more than a month over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, with silver iodide and lead iodide.
But back to New York City, to snow, to rain—back to 1949. Drought threatened California, the East Coast, and Western Europe. New York’s reservoirs were down to nearly half their capacity.
By early 1950, the city was desperate enough to try anything. The government consulted foresters, who recommended cutting all the trees along stream banks, believing their roots would absorb too much water (the practice was later discontinued, because it caused flooding). Langmuir suggested they hire another meteorologist, the so-called “cloud physicist” Wallace E. Howell.
At thirty-five years old, Dr. Howell was wiry and handsome, and in photos appeared tall and commanding. A graduate of Harvard and MIT, he was part of the circle that had made snow at Mount Washington. In fact, he was director of the observatory there and of the one at Harvard. He’d been a meteorologist with the Army Air Corps. A photo from the time showed him at his desk, hair Brylcreemed back, maps spread before him, phone clutched under his shoulder, ashtray pushed aside. He looked like a man who could remake himself and tackle anything, even the weather.
Thirty years after his work for the city, he finally wrote about it, in what he called “The Precipitation Stimulation Project.” In the text’s preface he described how he came into the job:
“In 1949 drought struck. LIFE ran a photograph showing stone walls on the bottom of Croton Reservoir that had been covered since 1852. By Christmas, Cardinal Spellman had asked the faithful to pray for rain, Mayor O’Dwyer had outlawed car-washing, and Water Commissioner Steve Carney had launched Shaveless Fridays….
On January 25, 1950, when Irving Langmuir read a paper at a New York meeting of the American Meteorological Society, reporters were ready. Could cloud seeding help the city? “Highly probable,” said Langmuir. “* * * ought to be consulted,” said a New York Times editorial. In mid-February, Langmuir came to visit Carney. When they emerged from the Commissioner’s office to face the reporters, they were smiling. No, for liability reasons General Electric would not seed the city’s clouds, but they would recommend “a meteorologist of the new school of thinking.”
That day Vince Schaefer [he of the blue breath in the black velvet box] telephoned me. “You might get a call from New York City,” he said. I called Ken Spengler for advice, not knowing at the time that he had been in close touch with Dr. Reichelderfer, Chief of the Weather Bureau, about how to keep the city’s enthusiasm from going off the track. “It might as well be you,” he told me … “It would benefit the profession if you asked a top fee, $100 a day.”
The LaGuardia terminal had just opened. When I got off the airplane there a few days later, I hurried through its cold, sagging arms where the fill was still settling, unaware that a red-carpet delegation with reporters in attendance was waiting to conduct me to the Mayor’s office. By bus and subway, I beat them to City Hall. On February 21st, O’Dwyer announced my appointment as special rainmaking consultant, and by March 15th a plan of action had been agreed upon and funds appropriated. Weather modification turned over a new leaf.”
Those funds, $50,000 and Howell’s fee, made Howell famous. Life and the New Yorker ran profiles of him. He was interviewed on TV, his movements were tracked in the New York Times. As he searched the Catskills for a suitable base for his operation, ten reporters and photographers followed him. They hiked after him up Overlook Mountain near Woodstock in the snow on St. Patrick’s Day, and the Times reported, “Commissioner Carney looked ruefully at the natty suit and coat he had planned to wear in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Fifth Avenue at about that moment. ‘When I planned to parade today,’ he said, ‘I didn’t have any intention of parading up here.’”
Headlines published the water statistics, how much had been conserved, how many days’ worth of water were left, which boroughs saved the most, and how many millions of gallons a day the city would need to restore its reservoirs.
Two days later the paper reported another hike up Slide Mountain, the Catskills’ tallest peak, and there was a climb up Balsam, not far from my own snowy walk. Then Howell settled on Walton as his base. Because Walton was west of the watershed, the choice made sense. Prevailing weather patterns meant clouds would move east, and as they hit the mountains, would draft up and drop their rain on the peaks. But imagine those clouds seeded with silver iodide: the silver would stay in them longer, so they would drop even more rain.
Worried about the legal risks, G.E. declined to join the project and curtailed the company’s research into rainmaking, while Howell went on to undertake the first large-scale experiment with cloud seeding, taking an unproven technology and seeing what it might do across a region of nearly 6,000 square miles.
Howell’s first attempt was on April 13. It snowed from the Catskills to New York City. Howell’s snow, it was called, and the New York Times headline asked, “Is It His or Natures’?” A photo in the paper had him in profile downtown in front of City Hall, looking to the side as if deep in thought.
The paper reported: “Two generators spewing silver iodide smoke into snow-laden clouds were drawn through many miles of the Catskill watershed in an effort to squeeze more water from reluctant clouds … two Park Department station wagons drawing the generator-laden trailers.… The generators burned a solution of silver iodide, giving forth particles so fine as to be virtually invisible. Wafted heavenward in the smoke, the particles were spread by the winds, serving as nuclei to form crystals within the clouds.”
The two cars with their generators and fine silver smoke drove a path north and west, a route of some ninety miles each, traveling outside the watershed.
Silver iodide is an inorganic compound. It’s not water soluble so it can poison fish. Probably people too, though many groups, such as the Weather Modification Association, insist that there is not enough of the compound in freshwater to cause problems. One such potential problem is argyria, the medical condition caused by consuming too much silver, which results in organs and skin acquiring a silver hue.
The history of photography after the 1870s is laced with examples of such silver poisoning. Silver iodide is probably harmless in small amounts, but what happens when it’s deposited in fish, smaller animals, invertebrates, and thus moves up the food chain, bioaccumulating as larger animals—humans included—ingest it.
But maybe that doesn’t matter if the rain is used for war.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s darkly satirical novel Cat’s Cradle, the book’s narrator attempts to understand the atomic bomb by determining what various Americans were doing the moment it fell on Hiroshima. He tries to track down Dr. Hoenikker, fictional inventor of the bomb. He discovers that Hoenikker is already dead, so he seeks out the elderly Dr. Breed, who’d been Hoenikker’s supervisor at a company that bears remarkable similarity to General Electric. The narrator learns that Dr. Breed has created a substance called ice-nine, which he describes as follows:
The atoms had begun to stack and lock—to freeze—in a different fashion….
How this had come about was a mystery. The theoretical villain … was “a seed” … a tiny grain of the undesired crystal pattern. The seed, which had come from God-only-knows-where, taught the atoms the novel way in which to stack and lock, to crystallize, to freeze….
“Now suppose,” chortled Dr. Breed, enjoying himself, “that there were many possible ways in which water could crystallize, could freeze. Suppose that the sort of ice we skate upon and put into highballs—what we might call ice-one—is only one of several types of ice. Suppose water always froze as ice-one on Earth because it had never had a seed to teach it how to form ice-two, ice- three, ice-four … ? “And suppose,” he rapped on his desk with his old hand again, “that there were one form, which we will call ice-nine—a crystal as hard as this desk—with a melting point of, let us say, one-hundred degrees Fahrenheit, or, better still, a melting point of one-hundred-and-thirty degrees….”
… That old man asked me to think of United States Marines in a Godforsaken swamp. [The book came out in June 1963. In August of that year, the military first experimented with weather manipulation in Indochina.]
“Their trucks and tanks and howitzers are wallowing,” he complained, “sinking in stinking miasma and ooze.”
He raised a finger and winked at me. “But suppose, young man, that one Marine had with him a tiny capsule containing a seed of ice-nine, a new way for the atoms of water to stack and lock, to freeze. If that Marine threw that seed into the nearest puddle…?”
“The puddle would freeze?” I guessed.
“And the muck around the puddle?”
“It would freeze?”
“And all the puddles in the frozen muck?”
“They would freeze?”
“And the pools and the streams in the frozen muck?”
“They would freeze?”
“You bet they would!” he cried. “And the United States
Marines would rise from the swamp and march on!”
As Irving Langmuir said, it would take 200 pounds of silver iodide to cover everything in snow.
In Vonnegut’s novel, Dr. Breed explains that ice-nine is a myth—the substance doesn’t exist. But as the book unfolds, it turns out that ice-nine was in fact the last thing Dr. Hoenikker, made before he died. The real world seemed to mimic fiction as seeding rain—making monsoons—began in earnest in 1967 in Vietnam and continued until the summer of 1972. I can remember watching Walter Cronkite narrate the war’s atrocities on the news with my family that year. I was four.
“What’s worse,” one unnamed State Department official asked Seymour Hersh, according to an article published that July in the New York Times, “dropping bombs or rain?” The answer, I know, might seem obvious, but what if that rain included lead, potentially affecting everything the water fed—rice, fish, plants, people—and resulting in lead poisoning? What if that rain were the cause of heavy flooding, as happened in North Vietnam in 1971? Or if what another official called “a refinement” to the program added a chemical that produced acid rain, water so tainted that it could ruin motors and engines and mechanical equipment? What would that do to people, to soil, to life?
In a 1980 interview in The Nation, Kurt Vonnegut said, “Langmuir was absolutely indifferent to the uses that might be made of the truths he dug out of the rock and handed out to whomever was around. But any truth he found was beautiful in its own right, and he didn’t give a damn who got it next.”
Remember Kepler’s cannonballs? He’d studied them, as well as pomegranate seeds, as a model for snowflakes. The cannonballs reappear in Cat’s Cradle, and they’re not just metaphors for war. Describing the crystals to the narrator, Dr. Breed explained:
“There are several ways … in which certain liquids can crystallize—can freeze—several ways in which their atoms can stack and lock in an orderly, rigid way.” …
[He] invited me to think of the several ways in which cannonballs might be stacked on a courthouse lawn, of the several ways in which oranges might be packed into a crate.
“So it is with atoms in crystals, too; and two different crystals of the same substance can have quite different physical properties.”
Kepler was back. In his treatise on snowflakes, he had considered that one explanation for snow’s existence might lie in the packing of small spheres. He was knocking, as he put it, “on the door of chemistry,” and his answer to snowflakes was as indebted to cannonballs as both Vonnegut brothers were centuries later. In 1591, the mathematician Thomas Harriot had advised Sir Walter Raleigh on the most efficient way to stack cannonballs on the deck of his ship. It was called hexagonal close packing. In 1606, Harriot had written about it to Kepler, who used the idea in his essay on the six-sided snowflake. (This was the Kepler conjecture. Who can say why Harriot didn’t get any credit for it.) Harriot posited that the best way to pack cannonballs or oranges or any other sphere was this stack, a pyramid. Proof of the conjecture, logical though it seemed, remained elusive for more than three centuries after Kepler’s death. In Cat’s Cradle, Hoenniker had a hobby, photographing cannonballs “stacked,” as Vonnegut wrote, “ on different courthouse lawns,” as if Hoenikker too wanted to crack the conjecture.
So, from Kepler to cannonballs, Kurt Vonnegut, and ice-nine. We’ve gone from a seed—the tiny grain of dry ice that created a cloud in Schaefer’s freezer and the single molecule of silver iodide and dust—to snow and rain.
That gets us up to Thanksgiving 1950 with our rainmakers. It was November 24, and six deer hunters in the Dry Brook Valley just beyond Margaretville reported a soft substance falling from the sky that they thought was silver iodide. The local paper, the Catskill Mountain News, wrote, “The hunters were Mr. and Mrs. Lyman Todd of Dry Brook and their four companions, J. P. Carlton, Henry C. Olmstead, Paul Singerwald and Hiram Mallinson, all of New York. Mrs. Todd”—Esther is her given name, though the paper never tells you this—“was so saturated with the substance that she had great difficulty after reaching home, to wash it out of her hair.” Wallace Howell’s team had cloud-seeded only from the ground that day. The generators were on cars, as they’d been when Howell’s snow fell in mid-April, and those generators were probably what the six hunters had heard.
The storm that resulted was extraordinary, the biggest yet on record in the state. The Dry Brook Valley, most of Margaretville, and the village of Arkville “lay almost exactly in the path of the silver iodide smoke as carried by the wind aloft between 10,000 and 14,000 feet above the sea level,” Howell wrote in his report. “The region of very heavy rainfalls,” he explained, “coincides almost exactly with the carry of the wind near the ground from the point of seeding…. The heaviest amounts are in the region of highest terrain.”
Rain funneled downhill into the valleys. Roads were washed out, houses and barns collapsed, a dozen bridges were carried off their foundations (including one covered bridge in Pepacton, now the site of the reservoir). The one-hundred-year-old bridge was moved 1,000 feet, never to be replaced. Cars on bridges crashed into streams; passengers fought their way out, and one gas tank that reportedly weighed over seventy-five tons (which is about the same as 150 cars or one Boeing 737) was picked up, carried downriver, and dropped in the middle of the state highway. Under the headline “Flood’s Best Joke,” the local paper wrote, “New York rainmakers went out in the Ashokan section Saturday morning with a generator crew to make rain. Shortly after 5 p.m., the department hurriedly called the gang back to help in the flood emergency.”
The next year, Margaretville, Arkville (named in the nineteenth century for its ability to survive floods), and dozens of private citizens sued the city and Wallace Howell for more than a million dollars. The case was dismissed because it wasn’t filed correctly, and Howell’s records of his six months of rainmaking in the Catskills were locked away for three decades. As he wrote in a paper on the work that was published in the early 1980s: “When I handed in my final report, the city’s Corporation Counsel tucked it into a black attaché case, which he locked.”
Before Howell had even started making the rain and snow, upstaters had tried to stop him. In the spring the Slutsky family, resort owners, sued him. The Slutskys owned a country club in Ulster County. They didn’t want to lose business. The case was dismissed by the State Supreme Court on May 11. The city’s need was greater. It was the first ever ruling on weather modification. Somehow that case has an ironic edge to me. The Catskills depend now on the technologies Howell developed. Skiing draws tourists to the region, and the same tricks he used to seed clouds helped develop snowmaking in the 1950s. Howell has numerous patents to his name for rain and wind and snow and ice. Snowmaking itself is an economic imperative in the Catskills. The region is poor, and skiing boosts the winter economy. One of the most expensive parts of running ski resorts, snowmaking also takes something like cannons, even if the balls here are only drops of water, at best a few hundred microns in size.
Man-made snow is not a six-sided snowflake. It is created by combining water and air, which is compressed and pressurized through hoses, and forcing the two together. One machine Howell designed works like a perfume atomizer; another that looks like a cannon fires tiny particles of ice into a stream of subfreezing air that is then sprayed with microscopic drops of water, which crystallize around the ice into something akin to snow. I wonder what Kepler would have thought. Would he have called it magic? Or science?
Kepler’s mother, Katharina, was first accused of witchcraft four years after he’d written about snow. A forty-nine-count indictment laid out the many charges of sorcery brought against her by her community. She was headstrong, ticked off her neighbors, and made potions for the sick. Her aunt, who’d raised her, had also been burned as a witch, and Katharina was accused of bringing on illness, becoming a cat, and tripping a girl carrying bricks and paralyzing her hand. Kepler returned home and stopped working on nearly anything else to oversee her defense. He managed to get the charges against his mother dismissed, in spite of the fact that he’d never liked her. According to him, she’d never been particularly kind.
Meanwhile, Kepler finished his book Harmonices Mundi, which looked at harmony within all geometric forms and physical phenomena. Harmony, Kepler theorized, resulted from the tones made by the souls of heavenly bodies, and in the volume, he articulated what became the third law of planetary motion. I love the idea that science combines with the souls of heavenly bodies, that the two aren’t distinct, that he found joy in the world, in ideas, in heaven, after a bad childhood and defending his mother for ridiculous crimes. Kepler himself had trod a fine line in a perilous age, where faith was concerned. He was a Protestant but often worked for Catholic rulers, dependent on whoever had power or money enough to pay for his combination of science and faith, mathematics, astronomy, and astrology. In his book—its title translates as “The Harmony of the World”—he said that at very rare intervals, all of the planets would sing. It might happen once, maybe only at the moment of creation. Would he think it witchcraft, this snow from cannons? Or, in his era of wars and inquisitions, would it just seem benign?
VII. Black-Fingered Frost
Up the hill, as I walked through a forest of hemlocks, the branches reached for the sky like spires. A posted sign was pounded onto the back of a tree; orange spray paint blazed a property line, and a blue placard nailed to a trunk announced free passage to New York City. The sign promised that anyone was allowed to cross this line, to hike and to hunt here. It was public-access land owned by New York City, more than a hundred miles away. I stepped over a rusted fence that was trampled down and bent double. The bark of a tree had grown into its rungs. I walked into the city, or, at least, its representation here. A clearing opened in the woods, and I stared up at the sky.
Because the land was New York City’s, the snow here was part of the city too, part of the water, part of the reason why I’d slogged up here in the drifts. Even though the land was now open for anyone to use, to my knowledge the only other person who came here was my neighbor, in hunting season, and I always felt a private thrill slipping onto the city’s property. There was a secret of the land revealed, though I didn’t need to visit this particular parcel. The city owned countless others in the Catskills. Still, these 500 acres on the ridge in a sense represented the city, just as any embassy in a given country is still considered sovereign territory, no matter how far from its homeland. The city even has its own police force upstate to guard this land and water. The city now pays much more for its upstate holdings each year than the $50,000 it spent in 1950 to make it rain and snow. It continues to buy up property to protect the water and satisfy the dictates of the Clean Water Act. The city is the biggest landowner here and anathema to many residents, in part because it’s always trying to buy their land. Its Department of Environmental Protection, which controls the water supply, recently sent a letter asking if I would sell up too:
In the past few years we have written you regarding your property listed above. While you have previously indicated no interest in our program, I am writing today to see if your situation has changed…. In today’s real estate market, perhaps our program may be of interest to you.
In closing, the city promises to treat any conversations in “the strictest of confidence.” I’ve looked at the letter over and over again, wondering about the money I might get, money I could use, and about what goes unsaid in “my situation” possibly “changing” and its authors presumptions to write when I’ve had “no interest in [their] program”—this in a place where most of the population lives at the poverty level. What do they know about me—or my finances? And where did that word “strictest” come from, where confidences are involved?
The Lenape were here long before Europeans, and private land ownership was a riddle to them too. The $24 in trinkets that supposedly paid for Manhattan was not intended for buying it but for sharing it, the Lenape had thought. They had no concept of the European model of owning land.
Down the hill, near where Margaretville sat, a Lenape chief, Hendrick Heckan, had lived at was called Papakonk, or Pepacton. Heckan’s name was adopted, and he took on other foreign customs too, like making cider, fermenting alcohol from apples the British had brought over from England. The trees did well in the rocky soil, and he did too. He sold the land his trees were on to the British in 1739.
The Lenape gave us names like Pepacton, which meant either “marriage of the waters” or “sweet flag place,” for the calamus flower, which grew there. They had many legends about snow as well. The Snow Boy was an infant who sucked on the fingers of other children who’d angered him. Their hands then turned black with frostbite. When the Snow Boy was older, he declared that he had to leave but promised to return in another form: snow, to give the tribes the ability to track animals and survive winter. He told his mother to put him on an ice floe in the river. She sent him off with sweetened cornmeal, and in the winter the Lenape put an offering on river ice to make the snow come.
There was another myth, about the rainbow crow. In this story, humans didn’t exist yet, and snow had buried all the animals. They were stuck with no escape, and the snow kept piling up. One of them had to go talk to the Great Spirit to get it to stop snowing. Countless animals volunteered and were rejected. They’d either get lost, wouldn’t know the way, or not be diplomatic enough … but the crow he had a sweet voice and brilliantly colored feathers, and he was the one elected to go.
He went up to the Great Spirit, who said he couldn’t stop snow but had something else to help—fire. The bird returned carrying a burning torch in his beak. For three days, he flew, and soot and ash choked his throat. He lost his voice. His feathers were charred, turning black. On the way the crow stopped and cried, and the Great Spirit promised the bird a gift, freedom, when the foretold two-legged came. The crow would never be hunted. His meat would taste of fire and ash; his song wasn’t sweet. He would escape. He’d be free, and we’d have fire.
In a clearing, a crow squawked, but I couldn’t see it. I heard a flap of wings. The drifts had transformed the landscape, making it feel like I’d slipped into a fairy tale. There have always been plenty of stories about snow. Now the snow made it easy for me to find my way out. I just followed my tracks back as if they were a trail of bread crumbs. As I did, I pictured what the hillside would look like in three months, when the mud was so prevalent it got its own season, mud season. What had made the mud at New Bern “unctuous?” How was that mud different than in the other instances when Captain Parker had written of the substance? In a skirmish the next year, the mud had “baffled all descriptions;” other times it was “unfathomable.” I thought too about making rain for war and Kepler with his harmonic theories. He’d combined astrology and astronomy, faith and mathematics, with his love of snow, its nothing and nothingness, nix and nicht. He died in 1630 still waiting for the emperor to pay his debts.
In 1977, the U.N. General Assembly passed a treaty banning any weather modification in warfare, and Wallace Howell died in 1999, nearly fifty years after his experiments here. Three years before his death, the Air Force released a research paper on warfare in 2025. The future? Controlling the weather. This would offer untold possibilities, from inducing drought to flooding lines of communication. Drones would seed clouds and space, weather would destroy enemies’ satellite communications. Eisenhower’s advisors had promised in 1957 that controlling the weather was akin to having the atom bomb; now it seemed true.
On a hill piled with snow that had magically transformed a mountain, I pictured Captain Thomas H. Parker fighting in the Civil War. In the frontispiece of his book, he appears as a handsome man with baleful eyes. I thought of drought in California, people forced to flee environmental disasters, and wars over water. When he was working in the Catskills, Howell had said, “Only God can make a cloud.”