David 'Mas' Masumoto

Weather used to be a simple way to start a conversation. But not anymore

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. hydrologist Ted Baker marches across a meadow in Blackcap Basin in snowshoes during a snow survey Monday, March 25, 2019.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. hydrologist Ted Baker marches across a meadow in Blackcap Basin in snowshoes during a snow survey Monday, March 25, 2019. Fresno Bee file

What do you think of this weather? Can you believe this weather? You hear about the weather in ...?

This is how I love to begin a conversation, especially with strangers. Growing up on a farm and in a rural community, these daily exchanges were part of the culture of a place. Families depended on the weather for their livelihood and well being. Asking about the weather was the proper greeting and salutation. It also carried a deeper significance: it implied you cared enough to ask and strike up a conversation.

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Mas Masumoto Fresno Bee file

I can even recall weather being interwoven into a spring funeral. When they lowered the casket into the ground, farmers craned their necks slightly to see how deep the winter rains had soaked into the ground. They were calculating when the vines or trees needed their first irrigation.

The inherit characteristics of weather — unpredictable, changing, widespread and visceral nature — all contribute to upheaval in our world today. In our modern lifestyles, we believe we can control our lives. Technology has empowered us to manipulate and oversee the world. Except the weather.

We farmers have long ago accepted this seemingly incompatible duality. Agriculture has always been based on a manipulation of nature. We plant seeds, we tend to plants, we irrigate and choose when to harvest. But weather will wreak havoc with loss of work and complications in schedules. A wet spring will launch diseases on peaches and nectarines. A warm winter reduces the required chill hours and influences quality of stone fruit. A rain on raisins will destroy the year’s work trying to dry from grapes into cured morsels of sweetness. Historical winds will topple trees and snap branches as we realize why some trees were always planted downwind of the typical storm in our valley, thus avoiding farm houses and barns.

Yet we struggle even with the language of weather. We cannot comprehend when a 100-year flood occurs in back-to-back years. We forget that the accurate interpretation is that every year we have the potential of a 100-year phenomena, a 1% chance that might happen two years in a row. Instead, we interpret it as if only once in a hundred years bad weather happens. Nature doesn’t work that way.

Today, weather carries extensive economic and political baggage. With bad weather, productivity falls immediately and consumer spending drops. People can’t get to work and they do not go out shopping. Ironically, local sales may temporarily increase as consumers purchase emergency supplies like water and batteries. Higher utility bills will be felt weeks later with the next bill. The cleaning up from damage will stimulate regional economies with repair and rehabilitation. Communities may bond and a shared solidarity and unity can initially follow adverse weather. A natural disaster cuts across class, ethnic and geographic boundaries.

Yet the talk about weather has morphed into a jumble of politically stained exchanges, resulting in discord and estrangement. Weather related crises spur debate about emergency relief efforts, such as FEMA and the role government plays. People who hate government suddenly turn to government for disaster relief and help. Even weather reporting becomes contentious — especially when a cautionary forecast is made and the storm peters out or the weather does not strike at full force. Instead of relief, individuals resent the false alarm and then do not take heed of the next warning. The result is potentially greater expense and resources required when the next weather crisis strikes. And who foots the bill for this added expense?

Weather conversations often explode with a flurry of emotions when you mention “climate change.” Weather politics stirs opinion and debate, whether climate change is real, how should we respond, who is responsible. The arguments permeate national, state and local politics. It’s not just opinion, research and reports fill our minds and then feed opinions. Weather is no longer a simple forecast of sunny days or rainy clouds. Climate change accompanies every cloud or drought or extreme weather pattern and forecasts a charged political climate.

I cannot ignore the fact that our valley weather is no longer as consistent as when I grew up. If anything, volatility is the new reality, extremes become a fact of life, such as record-breaking May rains or heat spells that will inevitably strike this coming summer. Farming with this new nature becomes even more challenging and divisive. I wish I could add a climate change assessment to my organic peaches and nectarines. I’d use the funds to help educate all: uncertainty and unpredictability is the new normal in the present and not something in a distant future. The clouds of change are approaching. Get used to it and it’s impact on what we eat: food.

Weather used to be a unifying topic, the basis for conversations. When learning a new language, often questions and responses about weather become training tools. It’s a safe way to engage with others and strangers, a public act that’s lost in today’s private digital world. It’s part of a conversation starter, a connective force between two individuals because weather affects all of us.

I miss talking with people about weather. It was a simple method to engage, start a relationship, fill in awkward silences. Weather talk helps us overcome social inhibitions and demonstrate that we care about each other. So look up from your phone or device and ask about the weather and mix in a little about economics, politics and, most importantly, stories about life.

How’s the weather affecting you? Are you under the weather? Did you get wind of some news? Come rain or shine, we still need to be neighbors and need to find a way to engage with strangers. So stay dry and cool and let’s talk.

David “Mas” Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and author of several books, including “Epitaph for a Peach.” He can be contacted at masmasumoto@gmail.com