Ever since she was a little girl, Susan Strom has been fascinated by lightning. When she moved to Arizona from California about a decade ago, she discovered how violent and unpredictable monsoons here can be. At first, the storms frightened her. But Strom sought information about them and soon developed an obsession of sorts with taking lightning pictures. A self-described "weather nerd" with impressive knowledge of all things meteorological, she went on to drive through 10 states in search of electrical storms. Her work has been published internationally, and she has made numerous television appearances. An exhibit featuring pictures taken in Arizona runs through Aug. 28 at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior. If you miss that, a selection of images is also available at www.lightninglady.com.
I had studied lightning and loved lightning ever since I was a little kid. Even my dad used to go out and photograph lightning a little bit in the Sierra Nevada, because it would come up during the monsoons. It (monsoons) actually goes all the way up to the South Lake Tahoe (Mountains)--you can get a little bit of activity up there.
So you've had a lifelong love affair with lightning.
When I was really small, I was obsessed with it, and I used to read all these books. My dad's a mathematician--he's a science major and is into electronics--so we had all these books on things like lightning in Switzerland. I would be the kid who, instead of reading all the things little kids read, would be looking at all these lightning pictures, trying to figure out where they were and wondering how you can actually take pictures of lightning.
How did you become so enamored of weather in the Southwest?
In early September of 1994, I was alone at home in Scottsdale, and there was a tornado warning. And I was like, "What? In the desert? You've got to be kidding." So the power went out, and the Weather Channel was on saying, "Funnel cloud spotted, tornado warning in Scottsdale." I was an earthquake person. I was thinking to myself, "Where do I go? Do I go into a room? Do I go under a table?" I was really kind of scared. I went out my front door. The power was out, and the sun had almost set. It was kind of blue outside. I looked to the south, and there was this wall--I swear. It wasn't a dust storm. It was just a wall of moisture-laden thunderclouds that was coming right toward me. It was the color of blueberries--you know, really dark and ominous looking ... It was so violent; I'll never forget it.
Did you encounter any lightning?
I went into my kitchen looking for candles, and a lightning strike hit a tree that was touching the roof of my house. I dropped to the floor; it was the loudest thing I ever heard. And, actually, I had this tree that was nice and round. It was trimmed, you know, like a (topiary) tree, and it was two stories tall. When the lightning hit, it hit right down the middle of it. It made the tree into a Y shape. ... It was the most violent thing I'd ever experienced. After that night, it changed my opinion about monsoons.
I thought up until then that the monsoon was the rainy season. It might throw things around a little bit. There could be a little lightning. It might get a little intense sometimes, but it was not typical for it to get that violent. ... In the beginning of 1995, I got really nervous when it started to storm outside. ... I was really pretty skittish about the lightning back then.
Even though you were fascinated by it as a kid?
Exactly. I loved lightning up until that point. I thought maybe my romance with it was because I didn't have to put up with it.
So how did you overcome that fear?
In '95, I kind of came to the realization that if I was going to live in Arizona, then I needed to figure it out and learn about lightning so I wouldn't be afraid of it. What I started to do was look into educating myself about how lightning physically works.
Has lightning become a spiritual thing for you?
In what way?
Lightning is always portrayed as spooky and scary and dark--it's Frankenstein, mad scientist, B movies and all that stuff. Everybody thinks lightning is a scary thing, and it's horrible. Lightning--I sometimes wonder if life would exist without it. It creates ozone, and it also creates nutrients for the soil. It's nature balancing itself out. That's all it is.