On the weather in Austin

Leif Johnson — 20 Mar 2009, 21:03

The weather in Austin is a constantly changing and fascinating phenomenon. I wrote this little commentary one day after spending pleasant mornings walking down to campus from my house, inspired by the simultaneous lightness and atmospheric presence that surrounded me.

Some winter mornings Austin reminds me a lot of Kauai. The air is muggy, just warm enough not to be cold, and the sky is overcast but does not overtly threaten rain. Bird song resonates : grackels, doves, wrens, and many others I am too ignorant to identify. A strong breeze completes the illusion by swaying the palm branches on the tree across from JP's Java. As the fronds brush against each other, they make the noise of tropical forest, reinforced by the bird chatter. It's a short-lived impression of paradise, since the cars and bikes and pavement remind me quickly that Austin is decidedly more urban than Kauai, but the illusion is reinforced through repetition. Saturday, Sunday, Monday ... all of them make me think of paradise in the morning.

There's a lot of atmospheric effect like this in Austin. When I arrived in August, the humidity contrasted sharply with the preceding drive through the desert and instantly made me think of Raleigh. But often the weather here has its own personality and doesn't remind me so easily of other places. Today, for instance, is a decidedly Austin day, full of calm warmth that's a bit like midsummer days in Idaho or early summer days in North Carolina, but really only like spring days in Austin. East Sixth Street and several blocks of Red River are closed off to cars this week because SXSW is successfully welcoming pedestrians out into these paved areas of town. It's chaos down there, a bit hot, filled with offers of cheap beer and free loud music. Dyed hair and piercings abound. When you step outside your body says yes to the unique combination of warmth and coolness, when you walk down the sidewalk a few blocks your body starts saying that things are a little warmer than you'd first thought, and then when the breeze kicks up it cools you off momentarily and returns everything to the initial yes-ness for a little while. Repeat.

A few weeks ago the crickets started up in the evenings near my house, filling the space between the windows in my room with their soft insect music. The birds continue today with their chatter ; the doves are particularly vocal. One day last week a neighbor arpeggiated on the clarinet for a few hours around dusk, the smooth oily sound from the instrument wafting in through the windows on the cool evening breeze. It reminded me of the flat on Union Street where I lived with a girlfriend for a year : A neighbor behind our building practiced opera and violin pieces from time to time, and I thought but never acted on making her a pie for the peace she added to my life. Austin's got much more of an indie scene, and particularly a somewhat angsty feeling of trying to make it, but my neighbor here, probably without knowing so, brings me back to earth with those lilting notes among the insect solos under the clear skies.

Some of my reactions to the weather in Austin are certainly due to novelty—I love interacting with the natural world, even more so in new places. But something about Austin, more than San Francisco or Raleigh, really encourages this appreciation of what's happening in the air around us. Austin has this quality about it, and I think that's why so many venues in town feature the outdoors : roof patios, backyards, sidewalk tables, taco trucks. The constant beautiful heat of the weather here somehow challenges the notion that we take for granted the familiar. When hipsters flood Dolores Park on sunny days in San Francisco, this just gives the appearance of people appreciating the nice weather and not taking it for granted. But in reality, Dolores Park isn't full most days because the fog makes it damn cold to sit there, even in a hoodie and three t-shirts. But the people flooding the pool at Barton Springs, or the sidewalk on South Congress, or even the turtle pond at UT—these are all lovely proof that Austinites really do love the sun and the air here, because it is so lovable.

Unlike the temperamental, tropical warmth of Kauai, or the austere coolness of the Bay Area, Austin's warmth is confident, constant, equanimous, irrepressible, making it more approachable than the weather in many other places I've lived. It's a beautiful scene for sitting on the porch, for reading a book, for sipping a beer.