Review of “Storm Cloud: Understanding Climate Change Conversations through Historical Sources”

Today’s post was written by library student assistant Kaylee Tokumi.

On a warm Thursday afternoon, I had the opportunity to visit the “Storm Cloud: Understanding Climate Change Conversations through Historical Sources” exhibit at the William H. Hannon Library. The exhibit, which is on display in the Terrance L. Mahan, S.J., gallery on level 3, documents how people have recorded weather patterns for centuries. It was carefully curated by English graduate student Kemi Ogun ’21. This was my first time seeing a project that explored climate change through historical artifacts, so I was excited to get started.

When I first walked in, I was struck by the design of the entrance wall. The wall was decorated in grey with dark tree branches crisscrossing the scenery. It was a dreary and haunting sight. The image initially reminded me of the proverbial “calm before a storm,” but as I continued to stare at it, it made me think of how smog and pollution are stealing the color from our environment.

word cloud with words describing weather
Word cloud visualization of civil war diaries.

The “Slavery and Climate” section of the exhibit was one of my first stops. It taught me how climate change and social injustice have been intertwined since the birth of the United States. One book by Bryan Edwards, an English politician and historian, featured a dancing pair of African Americans who were “joyous contributors” to colonization, according to the book’s caption. In reality, the image seemed to be degrading the African Americans. The Black dancers are dressed far less lavishly than the white onlookers, who are wearing elegant clothes while the enslaved are shoe-less. Another book showed an enslaved African American standing in front of a forest that was made of nothing but tree stumps. The image exemplified how slavery and environmental destruction are linked. As colonizers focused on profit, they destroyed the forest and ruined the lives of many.

The next artifacts that caught my attention were the carefully preserved diaries from two Civil War soldiers, Frederick Barlett and John McConnell. The soldiers wrote about their experiences and, of course, the weather. The curator created a word cloud to track which terms the soldiers used most. Some of the most frequently used words were “rained”, “warm”, “cloudy”, and “pleasant.” I find it interesting that the writers did not intend to document the weather; it was just something they noticed and jotted down. It was creative of the curator to look through documents that had no clear relations to weather when researching this project. I believe this shows how artifacts can teach us more about the past than we may initially anticipate.

The letters from LMU professor Daniel T. Mitchell were unexpected but highly informative items. Mitchell’s letters were from his time serving in Italy during World War II, and wouldn’t you know it—he talks about the weather. Like the Civil War soldiers, Mitchell noted how it was raining hard and the coming winter would be wet. He also remarked how the summer was atrociously hot and uncomfortable. I found it intriguing that people over different centuries continue to mention the weather, especially if it’s unpleasant. We do not have full control over nature, so we might as well complain about it.

Image of the special collections gallery
View of the fall 2021 gallery exhibition, “Storm Cloud.”

My last stop reminded me how humans and the environment are intertwined. As an English major, I love a good metaphor, so I was excited to see how John Ruskin tied human morality and pollution together in his lecture. During the Industrial Revolution, Ruskin wrote how the clouds of smog created by the factories were an indicator of a darkening human morality. His metaphor still stands true, because as we continue to neglect our surroundings, the smoke around us inches closer. While nature can be ruthless, it still provides for us, so we have a responsibility to protect it, instead of using it for profit. Blue skies and fresh air are not things we should take for granted.

harndwritten shipping log
Log of the whale ship Spartan, 1859 Jan. 1 – 1861 Apr. 12.

As I finished touring the exhibit, I was struck by the how our attitude toward weather has changed over the centuries. Judging from the oldest artifacts in the exhibit, it seemed that people saw weather as something to observe, but as time went on, they began focusing more on predicting and understanding the scientific underpinning of weather patterns. As time moved forward, though, people began to understand how climate was not just something we observed—it was something we could control (to a certain extent). Our actions have a significant impact on the climate, as seen through global warming. We shouldn’t think of our environment as something inanimate. It’s alive, and we should we recognize that it plays a major role in our daily lives.

Whether the weather is hot or cold, I’d recommend visiting “Storm Clouds” on the third floor of the library. The exhibit gives you the opportunity to interact with history and learn about how our understanding of the weather has evolved over time. By stepping into the past, we can hopefully learn how to protect our world in the future.

(Pictured at top: “Daniel T. Mitchell. Letter to Doris Hamilton sent from Caserta, Italy. September 10, 1945”)