Jennifer Wilson | Longreads | August 2019 | 10 minutes (2,734 words)

“Why does a ripe apple fall?” Tolstoy asks in War and Peace. “Because the wind shakes it…or because the boy standing below wants to eat it?” Technically, the wind is the movement of air across space; but in our poetry, myths, and moving pictures, wind is something else entirely. For Tolstoy, it was the forces of nature tilting downward to meet man’s desire. For others, the wind is something that gives us permission, permission to move off course, to be blown away, to be held back longer from our destination, to act wild. In Homer’s The Odyssey, Aeolus, the divine keeper of the winds, hands Odysseus a bag containing all the winds of the earth. Aeolus conjures the west wind to send the men home. But just when they have Ithaca in their sights, Odysseus’s men, convinced the bag has gold inside, open it up. The winds escape and transform into a storm that sends their ship all the way back to Aeolus. However, this time he refuses to help them, certain Odysseus has been cursed by the gods.

We have rendered wind a metaphor for anger, passion, unreason; we use it as an excuse when we want permission to lose our minds. It is that extra push to be the person you really want to be, or to explain who we already in fact are. As Wallace Stevens put it “The wind shifts like this/ Like a human without illusions/Who still feels irrational things within her.” In Joan Didion’s Los Angeles Notebook, she writes about the strong, dry Santa Ana winds that leave coastal California in disarray, sometimes on fire. But for Didion, the Santa Anas are something else too; their arrival allows for a certain relinquishing of control. “We know it [is coming] because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air.” I remember reading these lines for the first time and wishing for a wind like that, something that I could surrender to.

There are lots of winds like this in Lyall Watson’s Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind (1984), but I couldn’t confirm all were real. Like the watakushi wind which he describes in his “dictionary of winds” as “the ‘private wind’ or ‘me wind’ of Japan.” In the introduction, Watson explains that he began the project meaning to write an “essay on the experience of the ineffable,” but that as he continued in his research, the wind started to “gather strength,” brewing like a storm into something heavier, something more meaningful. In time, Watson began to locate in wind, a force we can sense without seeing, the seeds of the divine. Wind, he writes, “was our first experience of the spiritual.” Heaven’s Breath has been described by its publishers as “the first history of the wind,” but I think Watson’s real point was that it’s wind that makes history. A sweeping study of trade winds, the imperial consequences of bad weather, and the philosophy of unseen forces, Heaven’s Breath is a poetic meditation on what it means to be moved.

Malcolm Lyall Watson was born in South Africa in 1939. He spent much of his youth in the bush, unsupervised. He attained an early love of nature and wildlife and would go on to earn degrees in botany, zoology, chemistry, geology, marine biology, ecology, as well as a doctorate in ethology (the science of animal behavior) from the University of London. He wrote two dozen books including titles like Whales of the World: A Field Guide to the Cetaceans (1981) and Monsoon: Essays on the Indian Ocean. He served as commissioner for the Seychelles Whaling Community, spent 12 years living on a converted shrimp trawler in the Amazon, and led expeditions to Antarctica. The Telegraph described him as “A dapper, shimmering figure, often dressed for the tropics in a safari suit of white linen.” He was essentially a character in a Wes Anderson film, and Heaven’s Breath feels like a real-life cousin of The Peculiar Neurodegenerative Inhabitants of the Kazawa Atoll by Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray) or Wildcat by Eli Cash (Owen Wilson). Like the latter, Heaven’s Breath is “written in a kind of obsolete vernacular”; Watson cites Franz Boas, gives the Latin roots for words (tornado from the Latin tornare, to turn), and spends perhaps too much time on kites. But his subject matter is so evocative and his approach to telling the story of wind so tender, that it’s surprisingly easy to forgive this white man his linen.

He began the project meaning to write an essay on the experience of the ineffable, but…as he continued in his research, the wind started to gather strength.

Scientists reading Watson’s work have often found much to criticize, including his attempt to revise Darwinism with a bizarre theory involving a hundred Japanese macaques and sweet potatoes (see: the hundredth monkey effect). Watson called his detractors “Self-appointed committees for the suppression of curiosity.” Indeed, what ultimately interests Watson is not how the natural world works, but how we make it work for us, what we use it to signify, explain, or explain away. That fascination with allegory is the driving force of Heaven’s Breath; he calls wind “the most vital of metaphors.” The same holds true for most other weather events. In a 2015 review of recent books on weather and meteorology, Kathryn Schultz, writing for The New Yorker, remarked on this fact: “While our earliest weather stories tried to explain meteorological phenomena, subsequent ones used meteorological phenomena to explain ourselves. Weather, in other words, went from being mythical to being metaphorical.” But wind has the distinction, unlike rain or lightning, of being invisible, making it all the more vulnerable to symbolism.

Wind, as something that touches every exposed part of our bodies and can travel up dresses and down shirts, is a great metaphor for lust. This is a fact not lost, but in fact, dwelled upon by Watson. “Wind is like massage,” he writes, “stimulating ten million nerve ends on the surface of our skin. We experience it as a form of vasomotor gymnastics for the superficial blood vessels, and it feels good, up to a point.” In the Second Circle of Hell, Dante finds encounters “carnal malefactors,” people whose sin is that they succumbed to lust. Their fate is to spend the afterlife being blown back and forth by violent winds, “an infernal hurricane that never rests.” The wind represents their restlessness. Cleopatra and Helen of Troy are there, as are Paolo and Francesca, two contemporaries of Dante who were killed in bed when Francesca’s husband, Paolo’s brother, discovered them in the act. Wind appears again as a harbinger for ill-advised passion in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Anna, feeling hot and frustrated from her Moscow flirtation with Vronsky, needs some cool air. She steps onto the train platform amidst a snowstorm and howling winds, trying to remember her husband and child at home, when suddenly she sees Vronsky in the shadows, him having followed her: “The wind, as if only waiting for her, whistled joyfully and wanted to pick her up and carry her off.”

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Wind is not just a symbol of lust, Watson reminds us. People, animals, plants have direct physical contact with the wind, and it can be sensual. In a section of Heaven’s Breath dealing the sexual reproduction of plant life, Watson writes about flowers that rely on the wind, rather than flying bugs, to spread their pollen. “Wind lovers,” he calls these anemophilous plants, “are more austere” than the brightly colored flowers designed to attract bees and the like. Wind lovers “eschew sexual frills and have only small, green, unscented, inconspicuous flowers.” Less inconspicuous was the scene in the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch where Marilyn Monroe famously stood on top of a subway platform, titillated by the feeling of wind blowing up her dress. “Do you feel the breeze from the subway?” she squeals, “Isn’t it delicious? This one’s even cooler; must be an express!”

And sometimes the wind just sounds like someone saying “I love you.” Take for instance “The Joke,” Chekhov’s short story about children going tobogganing: “The sled flew like a shot out of a gun. The wind lashed our faces; it howled and whistled in our ears, and plucked furiously at us, trying to wrench our heads from our shoulders; its pressure stifled us; we felt as if the devil himself had seized us in his talons, and were snatching us with a shriek down into the infernal regions.” The “yooo” sound of the wind is strikingly similar to the Russian letter ю, which appears twice in the one Russian word that makes up the two English ones in “I love.” In the Chekhov story, a boy convinces a girl, Nadya, to go sledding with him, and each time he whispers “I love you” as they go rushing down the hill. But Nadya can’t tell if she’s hearing him right or if it’s just the natural howl of the wind making out those words. Eventually she stops caring which it is, and only knows she wants to hear it again. She slips him a note in class: “If you are tobogganing today, come for me. –N.” Watson’s literary references for wind are essentially Anglophone, which is a shame considering no one writes extreme weather (and extreme feelings) like the Russians.

But not all winds are strong, blustering, and passionate. There are light winds and gentle breezes that recall lost love, unrequited passion, or worst of all — timidity. In Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name, there’s a scene where Elio looks at the curtains in his family’s Italian summer home and sees the wind ruffling through them. He thinks back to Oliver and the summer they spent together there: “when theres a breeze and [the curtains] swell and I look up from down here or stand outside on the balcony, Ill catch myself thinking that youre in there.” Or Claude McKay who in his poem “Subway Wind” called the same subterraneous breeze that delighted Marilyn Monroe a “weary wind” made up of “sick and heavy air.” In her poem “The Wind’s Visit” Emily Dickinson compared a light wind to a “timid man” who leaves her alone in the end.

He is less concerned with the power to predict the winds than he is with human beings who believe they…have a say in its path.

For Watson, wind is fundamentally important because we cannot see it or even depict it. You can paint lightning and rain, but the wind has to be visualized in relation to the things it touches. If you do a Google image search for wind in paintings, you’ll find boats overturning, leaves swirling in the air, women holding onto their hats, small children losing their balance. “There are no photographs of the wind,” he tells us. And for Watson, this is what makes wind the sourcebook for all feelings, beliefs, and other investments in the intangible. He is less interested in meteorology than he is what he calls “ritual sayings and fragments of weather lore.” He is less concerned with the power to predict the winds than he is with human beings who believe they can alter the wind, have a say in its path. Drawing from Franz Boas’ 1888 book The Central Eskimo, he recounts one of the famed anthropologist’s fieldwork stories from the Canadian Arctic where “the wind blew for weeks on end and the Inuit began to despair of ever going out hunting again” and so “they made a long whip out of seaweed and struck out in the direction of the gale, crying “taba! It is enough.” Likewise, he finds delight in how Elizabeth I for a time became a “weather goddess” when a storm across the Atlantic steered the Spanish Armada off course. It became known as a “Protestant Wind,” proof by air that god was not a Catholic. Then there were the Japanese who called the winds that defeated the Mongol’s naval forces “divine winds” or kamikaze. The gratitude, humility, and awe engendered by gales, monsoons, the Santa Ana winds, and the mistral, fascinate Watson far more than any scientific explanation for how these winds get their strength.

Though in fairness to science, even its methods of categorizing and measuring the wind have more than a touch of poetry to them. The Beaufort scale, named after the British navy officer Sir Francis Beaufort who initially devised it, ranks winds on a scale of intensity from 0 to 9. The scale, which is based on sheer observation, is as whimsical as the many non-scientific anecdotes that live in Heaven’s Breath. For instance, a wind measuring a 4 is a “(moderate breeze): 13–18 mph” that “raises dust and loose paper.” A 6 is a “(strong breeze): 25–31 mph” and can be observed through “large branches in motion; whistling heard in telegraph wires; umbrellas used with difficulty.” Scott Huler, who wrote Defining Wind, a book on the Beaufort scale, was amazed to discover some of its wind descriptions are written in iambic and trochaic pentameter: “I hadn’t been kidding myself when I considered the scale poetic — it was actually poetry.” The scale has also inspired literature, such as “Beaufort Poem Scale” by Alice Oswald: “But I keep feeling (force 3) a scintillation/As if a southerly light breeze/Was blowing the tips of my thoughts/(force 4) and making my tongue taste strongly of italics.”

Heaven’s Breath was published in 1984. In the 35 years that have elapsed since then and its reissuing by The New York Review of Books this week, a lot of wind-related events have happened. There was Beyoncé, in the middle of her legendary 2018 Coachella performance, fixing her own wind machine mid-song. There was Princess Diana explaining the difficulty of dressing for royal walkabouts in English weather: “The wind is my enemy,” she told British journalist Alastair Burnett in a 1985 sit-down interview. There was Puff Daddy and Mase dancing in a wind tunnel in the 1997 music video for “Mo Money Mo Problems.” There was David Lynch on the set of one of their many iconic collaborations giving Kyle MacLachlan the direction, “A wind, think of a wind.” There was Katy Perry asking us in her 2010 song “Firework”: “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag? Drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?” And then there was of course the film Twister (1996) starring Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt which made an art form of ominous weathervane spinning. But the most affecting wind development in the intervening years has to be Japan’s wind phone.

When an earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in 2011, entire towns were demolished by the huge wave swells. One of those towns was Otsuchi, which lost 10 percent of its population in just 30 minutes. A year prior, Otsuchi resident Itaru Sasaki built a glass-panel phone booth in his garden and placed a rotary phone inside. He would pick it up and talk to his cousin whose death Sasaki had been struggling to accept. After the earthquake, people in Otsuchi and other affected parts of Japan began traveling to his garden to use the wind phone, to call the loved ones they’d lost, to tell them in death what they hadn’t or couldn’t in life. Talking to the Japanese TV channel NHK Sendai, Sasaki explained, “Because my thoughts couldn’t be relayed over a regular phone line. I wanted them to be carried on the wind.”

A recent study has shown that because of global warming, the wind may grow weaker in many parts of the world — not only generating less energy to power our lifestyles, but less able to move these mourners’ thoughts and feelings across space. It’s worth considering that alongside more concrete ramifications of the climate crisis, this “most vital of metaphors” could be in danger of disappearing as well. To contemplate such a loss is staggering. We can all remember a time when the wind touched us when we needed touching, pushed us along when we were unsure. Or sometimes the wind just knocks you down to remind you who it is, forcing you to just stay, anchored to the ground as it flows freely past you to wherever it wants to go to next.

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Jennifer Wilson is a writer and critic. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. 

Editor: Dana Snitzky