Only Thirty Percent Chance?
by Jaime Berry
Eight years ago, Tim Brookes, award winning author and professor at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, received a phone call from an editor at National Geographic. National Geographic was looking for someone to write an article about weather forecasting; having just finished Alexander Frater’s Chasing the Monsoon, Brookes proposed a focus on monsoon forecasting. National Geographic agreed, and Brookes was scheduled to fly to India in early September of 2001.
In India, Brookes planned to watch the monsoon come ashore at in Trivandrum, in the southern state of Kerala, and then interview meteorologists working for the India Meteorological Department to dissect the complex art of monsoon forecasting.
“If everything had gone as planned, it would have been a very dull trip,” says Brookes.
“Luckily, that didn’t happen.”
Two days after arriving in India, Brookes’ plans to experience the monsoon through meteorological forecasting and the observatory windows in Trivandrum took a sharp left over the edge of a very tall cliff. Due to miscommunication and a clerical error, Brookes was banned from every single office of the India Meteorological Department.
Driven by a heady blend of suppressed panic, dismay, and journalistic obligation, Brookes set out on a cross-India trek in a car provided by an Australian spiritual tour guide.
“If I couldn’t talk to meteorologists, I had to talk to ordinary people,” says Brookes. “I found that everything I’d been told about monsoon forecasting was wrong; nobody paid the slightest bit of attention to it.”
In place of forecast maps and predictive equations, Brookes discovered something far more essential and profound: the sublime nature of weather. In the part one of Thirty Percent Chance of Enlightenment, Brookes discusses what he has termed the “Golden Age of Weather,” a 65 year period beginning in 1783 during which scientists made no distinction between the quantitative and the qualitative, when the study of weather fell under the auspices of science, art, and spirituality collectively. Painters of skyscapes considered their work science; scientists regularly acknowledged the beauty and divinity of weather, the raw, awe-inspiring intensity of it.
“That word `awe’ is such an important word,” Brookes explains. “It’s connected to fear, excitement, majesty. There are very few experiences left that inspire awe; weather is one of them.”
Pre-dating his experience with the monsoon in India, Brookes has had several brushes with the awe-inspiring power of weather, one of which changed the course of his life. At 26 years old, while teaching college in England, Brookes found himself questioning his future in writing.
“Part of me was saying, ‘You’ve got to see if you’ve got it in you,’” says Brookes.
In the spirit of self-discovery, Brookes set off for a writers’ retreat near the tiny city of Wells. While the retreat itself was less than inspirational, the weather was not: during his stay, the city was besieged by a sudden, violent downpour that turned the streets into rivers and scattered fieldstone from the surrounding mountains across the city centre. Exhilarated by the sense of freedom, by the excitement, Brookes phoned the college and quit his job.
“It was invigorating,” says Brookes. “It really became all about what was exciting in life: the risk. Our whole lives are about experiments; if we weren’t afraid, there would be no thrill in the choice. Our helplessness and our vulnerability make life interesting.”
That same sense of helplessness and vulnerability, of risk, eventually drew Brookes into travel writing. In the early 1990’s Brookes began writing for the US Airways magazine, Attaché, travelling within the US and abroad to cover unusual sports, including competitive aerobics in LA and the World Bog Snorkeling Championship in Wales.
For Brookes, traveling is less about idyllic hours of lazy relaxation—
“I hate lying on beaches; I get bored.”—and more about exploration of the unknown and departure from familiar situations. When you travel “you’re constantly off-balance,” says Brookes; “Traveling destabilizes the psyche and makes you vulnerable. When you’re vulnerable, remarkable things happen to you; there’s an opportunity for profound change.”
Following the complete derailment of his original assignment in India, Brookes was left especially vulnerable. That derailment, however, enabled Brookes to embark on a journey of enlightenment, to discover the story beneath the one he had planned. Upon his return from India in late September of 2001, Brookes penned the majority of the book that would become Thirty Percent Chance of Enlightenment in two months.
“I couldn’t end it,” explains Brookes. “I didn’t know what it was about yet.”
Finally completed in fall of 2009, Thirty Percent Chance of Enlightenment is still proving itself a lesson in unpredictability, running into unexpected snags in printing, computing–almost anything to do with modern technology.
Brookes seems to be taking the mishaps in stride:
“In a weird way, this seems to be part of the whole story. The Indian response is that you have to learn to live with uncertainty.”
AUDIO: listen to a terrific interview by Write the Book’s ace interviewer Shelagh Shapiro: