Windswept: The Story of Wind and Weather - Marq de Villiers (2006)
Chapter 1. Wind's Mystery and Meaning
The story of Hurricane Ivan: It began, as these things so often do, long ago and far, far away. Long ago, at least, in the reckoning of weathermen, and far away at least as seen from the Caribbean and the east coast of North America, where the storm's full fury would in due time be unleashed. In the course of its tumultuous and destructive life, the cyclone they came to call Ivan would exemplify all the perilous uncertainties and complex patterns of global climatology (and exaggerate my own rather paranoid view of hard weather), but its beginning was hidden, even secretive, and could only be seen in rueful hindsight.
In the spring of 2004, it rained in Darfur, the Sudanese hellhole wracked by decades of civil war. Darfur is on the southeastern fringes of the endless emptiness of the Sahara, and its soil, beaten down from too many cattle and too many goats over too many years of drought, couldn't hold the water. It pooled and then gathered in little muddy torrents that swept away the scattered huts of the countryside. A few days before, the refugees in their grim camps had been dying of thirst—an ostrich egg of water having to do for a family for a whole day—but were now forced to scramble to keep their pathetic scraps offood and their meager possessions from washing away. They were still starving, though now sodden and burdened with cholera and dysentery in addition to their other miseries.
All along the Sahel, the southern fringes of the Sahara, the rains came. Lake Chad, which had been shrinking for decades, stopped shrinking briefly, and the remaining hippo channels winding through the papyrus and water hyacinths filled up. The dusty plains north of Kano, the Nigerian trading city, looked lush for the first time in fifteen years. Outside fabled Timbuktu the ground took on a shiny green sheen, before the goats in their insatiable hunger nibbled the new plants down to a stubble, then trampled the residue into the mud. In Niger, Mali, even in ever-arid Mauritania, the rains fell for the first time in a decade. Not enough, really, to unparch the desert, but more than usual.
No one in the Sahel knew why it was raining, or, except for a few aid agencies, cared; they were just grateful the water was there. In the outside world hardly anybody paid much attention. There were a few exceptions— the paranoid actuaries for the giant insurance company Munich Re, for example, who are paid to worry, and a few analysts in hurricane centers across the Atlantic, who were wrestling with the complex causative cycles of violent weather—but more people should have been concerned than that, for they were about to get a brutal lesson in the interconnectedness of natural systems. Who would have thought that, say, a rural tavern in Pennsylvania would be threatened by a storm-born flood that was linked in complicated ways to the ending of a drought half a world away? But the green shoots peeping through the sand in the wadis near Timbuktu meant really bad news for the oblivious citizens of Florida and Alabama and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and bad, though not quite so dire, news for the citizens of the eastern seaboard all the way up to Nova Scotia, where I live. They—we— would learn that in due time.
The search for an understanding of wind and the weather it brings has been a constant of human history, for wind is a changeling that can bring blessings but also hard times. Wind can be soft and beguiling, seductive; the caress of a gentle breeze stroking the skin is one of the great pleasures of the human adaptation to our natural world. But sometimes wind can be deadly, intensifying violently into a kind of personal malevolence. Like a short-tempered and belligerent god, the wind has a power that can appear arbitrary, excessive, overwhelming, devastating, uprooting trees, wrecking houses, sinking ships, battering people, scarring psyches.
At least, it can seem malevolent, and the malevolence can seem personal.
Out at sea at the southern tip of Africa near the Cape of Storms (which is what the Cape of Good Hope was called before the early colonizers' public relations flacks issued a "clarification"), the collision of two ocean currents sends massive pulses of disturbed air into the sky. The Benguela current, still chilled by the Antarctic frosts, and the Agulhas current, still humid with tropical warmth, intersect just southeast of Cape Town, and the storms they cause coil and twist, boiling up great black thunderheads, tearing the surface off the sea with a howling roar, and assaulting the land beyond. The gales race across the Cape Peninsula and blast out to sea again, across Table Bay to the open Atlantic beyond, where they finally lose their potency in the frigid waters off Namibia. On just such a day, on the spacious lawns of Sea Point on Table Bay, the winds seized a helpless child and knocked him down onto the grass, gratuitously, brutally, effortlessly. He struggled to his feet and yelled for help, but the gale snatched his breath away and blew it out to sea, stripping away the sound so no one could hear him, and the yell became a soundless scream. Then a gust punched him to the ground again and took hold and buffeted him toward the edge of the lawn by the shore, where a stone walkway skirted the breakwater and the rocks below, slippery with weeds and needle sharp with barnacles, pounded by breakers coming in from the sea. In the grip of the gale, the child skidded across the grass until he landed with a crack against the metal railings that were all that prevented him from being hurled into the ocean … It was there that my mother came, and fetched me away, and tried to still my terror with her beating heart.
It was a long time ago, but at that instant for that child and the man he became, wind indeed became personal, a thing, capricious and malevolent, to be treated with the utmost caution and constant suspicion. I learned that unless you are very careful, wind can kill. And sometimes it will kill even when you take the most meticulous care. I learned that wind is perpetual, persistent, present even in its absence, in that sense, eternal. Wind has many disguises, is capable of many definitions. And possesses many talents, some of them cruel.
Path of Hurricane Ivan in the Atlantic Basin. The thickest portions of the track are the points at which Ivan reached Category 5 status, the most powerful.
For years afterward, I was watchful, wary even of the gentlest seaside breezes. And now, perversely, I live on the Atlantic coast, in the teeth of the North Atlantic gales and in the ominous eye of the hurricane path. And of course, I'm still wary.
For some decades after my traumatic morning in Cape Town I lived mostly in cities, where I barely noticed the weather or the wind. Modern city people generally don't, I think. Weather is an occasional nuisance, but not something that affects life. Torrential rains come once or twice a year, occasional blizzards bring traffic to a crawl, gales can shake buildings and bring down trees, but really all you have to do is wait indoors for a while and it will all go away. True, heat waves and droughts are weather too, and if they persist and the water is rationed, they can seem alarming, but in the big cities of the developed world we have derived the reassuring notion that someone, from somewhere, will come along to fix it. Someone always does, if enough people grumble loudly enough. Even damage from the great northeast ice storm of 1998, which shut down power for millions of people in the dead of winter, was fixed after a while. People hunkered down and waited it out. Exceptions to this general obliviousness can be found, among them emergency workers, who must risk any weather to rescue the fools and punish the knaves who have ventured into it, and long-distance truckers, for whom weather is reduced to what bad weather perpetrates on a constantly shifting five-hundred-mile strip of asphalt, but as a generality it is true enough.
On farms, in the country, in small villages, and on the shore, the perspective is very different. People in those places have a personal, visceral connection to the weather and the wind. On my grandfather's farm on the arid plains of South Africa, to take one such place, the summer heat would boil up into the sky when the rains failed, the air would prickle and crackle and you could see the dust storms coming in from the west, a massive wall of violent color. You knew you had an hour or so to prepare, to close the windows and batten the shutters, to get the animals into the barn if possible, and then the sky would go black, shot with violet and brown, and the sand would blast the fruit from the trees and the flowers in their beds. And when it was gone, the heat lifted for a brief while and there were little drifts of sand by the doors and gates and everything was gritty to the touch, precious topsoil turned to dust and used by the weather to abrade whatever had stood in its path.
These years were the worst, the drought years. People hated the weather, then. And the wind as its personification.
On the east coast of North America the attitude is different, but the same. From our house early in the mornings I can hear, and sometimes see, the fishing boats setting out from the little harbor of West Berlin, a mile to the east. The fishermen have been up since four, and have checked the weather, but on most days the satellites and the forecasters with their sophisticated models will tell them what is already apparent. On days when the air is too clear, the black spruces across the bay too visible, branch and twig too obvious, the air calm but the sea feverish with oily swells coming in from the southwest, the fishermen know there is "weather" coming, driven by a system that started, perhaps, at Hatteras and is even at very long distances making the sea shiver. A hundred miles to the east, on the Sable Bank, the swells are mounding up four hundred miles in front of the storm, and they already pound the south beach of Sable Island, making that midsea dune quiver like a jelly with the weight of water assaulting the sand.
In these parts, the northeasters are the worst. When the satellites tell them a nor'easter is coming, the fishermen will go out in their little boats and haul their traps and gear, and then go home, drinking coffee in the kitchen until it is gone.
December 2004. Such a gale has just come, and departed.
Two days ago there was no sign of it. It was one of those wonderful days in which no real wind blows, only a gentle sea breeze. The sea in front of our house was glittering in the early-winter sunshine. The harbor seals were cruising just off the rocks, their heads silver in the brightness, and the ducks that had escaped the fall-season hunters puttered about in the ripples; I could see mergansers and eiders and mallards, and an occasional loon. We had an early-season snowstorm, but it was rapidly melting in the sun and a perverse but heady smell of spring was in the air, bruised spruce and bayberry. The breeze was benign, the sun smelled of winter's end here at the beginning of winter, the chickadees flittered about, even the porcupine that waddled across the yard didn't seem so damned obnoxious. I figured that when the wind is friendly, anything is possible, and "personal" no longer translates as "malevolent." There was no sign whatever of "weather."
But then I checked the forecast. At once, the computer screen lit up with a red flag—a wind and blizzard warning had just been issued. A low-pressure system was lying over the Carolinas and was forecast to track northeast and "intensify dramatically"—a fraught phrase from a forecaster, that—before reaching the Gulf of Maine. We would get lots of snow and gusts of wind well into the hurricane range. The usually matter-of-fact prose of the forecasters referred to "damaging winds" and "whiteout conditions." We were warned to monitor updates and to stay off the roads when the storm came.
I lifted my eyes from the screen and looked out the window. The trees were barely moving and the bland sunshine gave nothing away. One of our cats strolled uncaring down the driveway. Gulls cruised overhead. Nothing outside indicated the anxiety to come. I got up to look at the barometer. The glass was steady. No change whatever. No sign that a roiling coil of supercharged air was churning into Pennsylvania, to be bent in its northerly course and steered our way.
But by the following dawn, sure enough, the fury was upon us. At the height of the gale I watched the spruces and firs from my office window. Their tips, often laden with cones, whipped violently about, and sometimes they broke, deadfall in the yard or the road, and would have to be cut up for firewood. The seas off our rocky beach were rearing up and hurling themselves on the shore with a thunderous roar. The swells were so high that they obscured the horizon before they broke—we figured later they must have been twenty-five or thirty feet high, tons of falling water that made the bedrock quiver under the onslaught. When the gale reached Force 10 and then, briefly, n, the pitch of the wind rose from a moan to a shriek that picked at the nerves; then I shut down the computer—we would almost certainly lose power anyway, out here in the woods—and closed the shutters, and waited. My wife, who is braver, finds the wind exhilarating. I find it fearsome.
At least we knew it was coming.
Before the days of daily weather forecasting it was very different, and storms were much riskier. At sea, skippers kept a wary eye on the weather, but the storms sometimes came up with such appalling speed and ferocity that they were often taken unawares, with occasionally fatal consequences. They had to learn to trust their instincts, and to flee when they could or strike sail when it was too late. I remember a conversation with Fred Crouse, an old Lunenburg seaman who had served as Third Hand on one of the Grand Bankers as a lad, living through the twin hurricanes called The Gales of August of 1926 and 1927. He was off Sable Bank on the schooner Partana when the 1927 hurricane hit:
It was a fine afternoon, couldn't a been nicer. I was with Frank Meisner an' our bait was all [that is, finished]. So he said we'll try to git in Canso see if we kin git squid bait. There was no power then, just sails, and we hoist all the sails. Well there was just wind enough that she went along about three, four miles an hour. Before dark we was all turned in. He [the captain] come down an he said, "Fred, I never seen a sunset like this in my life. I can't believe it but we're goin' a have somethin' of this." He said, "Call the gang out an put the gear off the deck."
We all laughed at him and when we had the gear put in the hold I just said to him for a joke, I said, "What shall we do, batten the hatches?"
He said, "You better do."
"About the sails, how 'bout them?"
He said, "I t'ink you better haul down the mains'l an tie up the jib … put the storms'l on."
So we done that an' it was still fine weather. The crew all laughin' at about what in the name a the Lord he was about. Well nine o'clock that evening we wasn't sorry we done it! It come right the same as you emptied it out o' a bag. Oh, it blowed some bad.
The wind blew so hard that night that it ripped off the bait board and hurled it into the Atlantic—and this a two-inch-thick spruce plank nailed tight with sixteen five-inch spikes, torn loose by the wind. The topmasts had sheared off, the canvas was in tatters, their dories had vanished into the deeps, the helmsman was black from bruises. But the vessel survived.
It was fearsome bad when it blew, the old seaman said. If you had time, you could flee into the open ocean and ride it out with just a small kerchief of sail, and you'd likely be okay. Without warning, though, you could be caught in shoal waters, or on the windward of an island, with gear on the deck. That was trouble, big, big trouble. Many a man and many a vessel foundered and were lost.
We had warning of our storm because of those magician meteorologists in their weather bunkers, with their soothsaying devices, the Doppler radars and scatterometers and dropsondes and the rest, giving us the alerts we needed. Even so, despite the fact that we knew it was coming, and were braced for it, and understood what was causing it (warm air from the Gulf of Mexico colliding with cooler Arctic air, the whole system violently stirred and then steered by the jet stream), it was still hard not to feel somehow targeted … It really didn't seem fair. Why here? Why now? Why ws? Fred Crouse in 1927 would have had no such warnings except for the canny instincts of his skipper, who had divined a pattern from subtle signals, and how much more arbitrary the storm must have seemed to him. And yet he was sailing in what was essentially the modern age, when radio receivers were already current and the national weather services of several countries were making educated guesses about what was happening in the wider world.
How much more terrifying still would storms have seemed in the prescientific ages, then? To Columbus, the first mariner we know of to survive a Caribbean hurricane. And to his predecessors, the Basques and the Vikings, the Phoenicians and the Greeks, the Chinese and the Arabs, who all ventured into the great emptiness of the ocean knowing nothing whatever of how storms were made. How much more malevolent when you had no idea how winds were generated, or that storms traveled in more or less predictable ways, or that there were natural systems that could be understood that caused storms to rear up … If all you knew was that great storms suddenly sprang out of nowhere, how very angry the world must have seemed, and how arbitrary. It's no wonder that wind and gods were conflated, and one took on the characteristics of the other—wind gods were generally angry and arbitrary gods, for winds were ferocious and ever changeable.
At least partly because of this conflation and confusion, wind plays a role in the creation myths of almost all human cultures, and in dozens the winds also govern commerce, procreation, communication, and more. For example, in the complicated cosmology of the Dogon people of Mali, in West Africa, there were four founding couples, thereby avoiding, in their view, the Christian sin of original incest; the women's mouths opened and the winds came out, and so did breath and therefore all subsequent life. The Mi'kmaq people of the American Atlantic coast have as their hero Glooscap, who once imprisoned the eagle whose wings create all the winds, and thereby made the world uninhabitable, albeit briefly. The San of the Kalahari believe the winds carry stories—not just legends, but also whole histories up to and including the very latest news and gossip. Old Japanese legends say the winds banished the fogs that shrouded the world in the Elder Days. The Bozo people, who live on the southern fringes of the Sahara, believe Wind wrestled with Water, and Water lost, which is the origin of the Great Desert. The Niger River is all the water that is left from the dawn of time, and the Bozo people became its stewards, taking up boatbuilding as a tribal preoccupation and sacred calling. In Hindu mythology, primordial winds swept bare the earth, preparing it for life. Even a casual pass through a biblical concordance yields a dozen or more references to wind—winds bring plagues to Egypt, winds collapse Job's house and kill his sons, God keeps winds in his heavenly warehouses, and a God-sent wind parts the Red Sea and lets the Jews escape from Egypt.
In many cultures winds are male and can impregnate unwary or unruly females. In African legends the fleetest antelopes are often wind-born as well as wind-borne. Hiawatha's mother conceived from the West Wind. In aboriginal legends winds originate in volcanoes, in caves in the mountains, from vents in the sea, from the breath of gods. Odysseus carried the four winds in a leather sack on his back and tied them to his mast (and his crew loosed the wrong ones, bringing ruin to his journey and giving Homer a great narrative line). The old Chinese god of winds also carried the winds in a bag slung over his back.
Sir James George Frazer's repository of old legends, The Golden Bough, recounts dozens of rites for mitigating, or at least controlling, the unruly winds. The Payuge Indians of South America used to light brands and run at the wind to frighten it; others pushed the winds into caves and rolled stones against the openings to seal them in. Frazer reports that Finnish wizards sold knotted ropes to mariners—the first knot for a breeze, the second for a stiff wind, the third for a gale, and the fourth for … well, you generally didn't want to untie the fourth knot, unless you were in port and your enemy was still at sea.1
As late as the nineteenth century Sir Walter Scott reported meeting an old woman in the Orkneys "who subsisted by selling winds. Each captain of a merchantman, between jest and earnest, gives the old woman six pence, and she boils her kettle to procure a favorable gale."2 And stories are still extant in the memory of New Englanders, just yarns now, but colorful enough. Some were recounted by Richard M. Dorson in his collection of American tales called Buying the Wind. One told of the sea captain Paris Kaler, a notorious blasphemer. "Well, he got out one day and was becalmed, he was going to west'ard and there wasn't no wind. And he wanted some wind, so he throwed a quarter overboard. He wanted to buy a quarter's worth. So he said it commenced to blow, blowed till it blowed the sails off her, and he was three or four days off his course, he was three or four days getting back again. He said if he knew it was as cheap as that he wouldn't have bought half as much."3
In many cultures, too, gods came to represent the four cardinal directions of the wind. Most North American tribes believed the winds to be four gods. So did the Greeks, before they complicated things. Sir Edward Burnett Tylor in Primitive Culture suggested a commonplace explanation. "Man naturally divides his horizon into four quarters, before and behind, left and right, and thus comes to fancy the world a square, and to refer the winds to its four corners."4 The flat earth, in support of this view, was seldom a circle, almost always a square. It was obvious, then, why on Judgment Day, according to Revelation 7:1, four angels stand at the four corners, holding back the Four Winds "so that no wind would blow on the earth, or on the sea, or on any tree." In a nice admixture, "modern" flatearthers incorporated into their design the devices of witchcraft, so that the earth had five corners, not four, being a pentagon. These five corners were to be found at the northernmost extent of Lake Mikhail in Tunguska, Siberia; on Brimstone Head, on Fogo Island, Newfoundland; on Easter Island in the Pacific; at Hokkaido in Japan; and somewhere near the south of Tasmania.5 I've been to Fogo Island, where the local council has hospitably erected a rather vertiginous boardwalk to the top of Brimstone Head for those flat-earthists who want to see where one of the pillars is to be found.
In early Greek mythology the empire of the winds was shared between the four sons of Eos, the goddess of dawn, and Astraeus, the god of starry sky. They were called Boreas, the north wind; Zephyrus, the west wind; Eurus, the east wind; and Notus, the south wind.
Boreas, who dwelled in the mountains of Thrace, assumed the form of a stallion to mate with the mares of Erichthonius, and from this union were born twelve young mares so light of step that they ran across fields of standing corn without bruising an ear of grain and over the crests of the sea without wetting their feet. The Greeks liked Boreas because he had dispersed the fleet of the invader, Xerxes. Zephyrus in later years became a soft and beneficial wind at whose breath the spring flowers opened, but in the early myths he was savage and baleful and took pleasure in brewing storms and tossing the waves of the sea. From his tumultuous mating with the Harpy Podarge were born the two horses Xanthus and Balius, who drew the chariot of Achilles. When he calmed down in old age, he was given the gracious Chloris for a wife, by whom he had a son, Carpus, meaning fruit.
Eurus and Notus had little personality of their own, a reflection of the place of those winds in the Aegean.
According to Homer, the winds all lived in the Aeolian Islands, where they were kept under guard by Aeolus himself. The son of Poseidon, Aeolus was said to have invented the sailing ship, and Zeus appointed him guardian of the winds. It was Aeolus who gave Odysseus the wineskin containing the contrary winds that would hinder his voyage. Of course, Odysseus's greedy crewmen untied the bag to see what it contained, and let the deadly winds out.
Aeolus later became the Roman god of wind. 6
It's a name that has persisted. Aeolian sound is the sound wind makes. We live all our lives in the Aeolian zone.
Virtually every part of the world has named winds—regular winds that the locals have personified over the centuries. Although no one knew where they came from or what caused them, winds were given names because, invisible and mysterious though they were, they were as real a presence as any mountain, river, or sea;7 they were either benign—good for the crops, good for sailors—or, more likely, malevolent, the action of some malicious deity, sent to try the wretched people affected. Englishman Mike Ryding has tracked hundreds of them on his engaging Web site Whirling Winds of the World or, of course, WWW.8
Sometimes, indeed, these winds were kindly, life-sustaining, forgiving. One of the oldest extant references to wind in human literature is in the ancient Sanskrit poem Rigveda:
May the wind blow healing hither
Kind, refreshing to us in the heart,
May it extend our lives
Wind, you are to us a father
And a brother and our friend
So equip us for life
And if Wind, there in your house
A store of immortality is laid,
Give some to us, that we may live9
And sometimes winds were like moody friends, occasionally rude but often charming. Sailors are unusually forgiving about their friends the winds, because at sea there "are no permanently ill winds. They are made for travel: one to take you away and, because no wind stays the same, another eventually to bring you back." Guy de Maupassant put a sailor's view very well in his essay Sur I'eau in 1888: "What a character the wind is … An all powerful ruler, sometimes terrible, sometime charitable … We know him better than our fathers and our mothers, this terrible, invisible, changeable, cunning, treacherous, ferocious person. We love him and we fear him, we know his tricks and his rages … He is the master of the sea, he who can be used, avoided or fled from, but who can never be tamed."10
If the winds were violent, they must be the work of some capricious god, quick to anger, a god who takes transgressions personally. As Joseph Conrad put it in Typhoon, violent winds can be like "the sudden smashing of a vial of wrath. It seems to explode all around the ship with an overpowering concussion and a rush of great waters, as if an immense dam had been blown up to windward. In an instant the men lost touch of each other. This is the disintegrating power of a great wind: it isolates one from one's kind. A furious gale attacks him like a personal enemy, tries to grasp his limbs, fastens upon his mind, seeks to rout his very spirit out of him." And again: "The gale's howls and shrieks seemed to take on … something of the human character, or human rage and pain."11 "I was dreadfully frighted!" said Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Homer has Odysseus reacting to Zeus's wrath: "The whole ship reeled from the blow of his bolt and was filled with the smell of sulfur. My men were flung overboard and round the black hull they floated like seagulls on the waves. There was no homecoming for them, the god saw to that."12
Shakespeare, as usual, has a trenchant word or two on the subject, and not just in The Tempest. Violent storms form the backdrop to three of his greatest tragedies: Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and King Lear. "Thunder disrupts the skies; shrieks of owls, laments and prophecies pierce the night air. The raging wind threatens to destroy the rooftops and, 'Some say, the earth, Was fevrous and did shake,' as Macbeth descends, dagger in hand, upon the sleeping Duncan."13
Certain local winds, like the meltemi that rules the Greek summers, are based on larger patterns. The meltemi is dependent on the monsoons that center on Pakistan in conjunction with the steady high pressure ridge over the Balkans. Winds like this are predictable in their patterns. "Aristotle, for example, said it arrived after the summer solstice on June 21. Once the meltemi blows a watch may be set by its rhythms. Stirring at ten in the morning, blowing hard around two, dying at six and calm by eight."14
Sirocco is the general name in the Mediterranean for the desert winds that blow from all across north Africa: "the leveche of southern Spain, the chili in Algeria, and the ghibli of Tunisia and Libya. In Egypt and the Levant the local name is khamsin, meaning 50 in Arabic, for the 50-day period the wind tends to blow. In Andalusia the south wind will parch a wheat field before it ripens, making the grain fall to the ground during harvest … but it is further north, after the sirocco has picked up Mediterranean sea moisture, that it becomes most noxious. The air takes on what Thomas Mann described in Death in Venice as a repulsive condition—an unbearably clammy, maddening state that saps energy and ruins the nerves."15
The Tuareg nomads of the Deep Desert call the sirocco the harmattan, the "hot breath of the desert." Sometimes the Tuareg and Tubu clans of the Ahaggar and Tibesti call the harmattan the shahali or shaihalad, the mother of storms, a phrase later picked up, to much ridicule, by Saddam Hussein. The wind's name is supposed to be derived from the Arabic word for evil thing; if it is, most people in the desert would agree it is well named. "When the wind blows the desert trembles," the Tuareg say, the dunes literally shiver and shift and horizons disappear. According to a chronicler in France's Foreign Legion in Beau Geste: "And across all the harmattan was blowing hard, that terrible wind that carries the Saharan dust a hundred miles to sea, not so much as a sand storm, but as a mist or fog of dust as fine as flour, filling the eyes, the lungs, the pores of the skin, the nose and throat, getting into the locks of rifles, the works of watches and cameras, defiling water, food and everything else, rendering life a burden and a curse." He didn't know the half of it: The harmattan brings out Raoul, the Drummer of Death, and his reach is greater by far than that of the Great Nothingness of the Sahara. Three hundred, four hundred, five hundred miles to the north, the hot breath of the desert commonly layers fine dust on Marseilles, on St. Tropez and Nice, and the swimming pools of the rich in the hills above the Cote d'Azur become filled with gritty milk. Dust from north Africa is also commonly found in northern Germany and England.
I've felt the effects of the harmattan myself. I once crossed over the border from the arid north of Cameroon to the arid south of Chad and its capital, N'Djamena, in such a blow. Before I even reached the city, half the Sahara seemed to be passing overhead, visibility was down to less than one hundred yards, and the air was thick with grit. The air had been stripped of what little moisture it contained; when the harmattan comes, humidity has been tracked to fall from 80 percent to 10 percent within hours. When the gale is in full cry, visibility is reduced to a few yards. Sand penetrates everything. Grit gets into the food, the water, on the sheets in the hotels. If you close the windows against the sand, as you must, the temperature can climb steadily, and reach 120 degrees, 125, and the air sears the lungs.
Many other winds in the desert have names: The dry northeast wind is called the alizes, and blows hot toward the equator. The dry, desiccating south winds that carry the glowering towers of dust are known variously as the ghibli, chili, samunjefhya, and irifi. The ghibli is bad, and can seem never-ending. In the Fezzan of southwestern Libya, the camel masters say that if the ghibli blows forty days, God preserve us from the evil! The camel becomes pregnant without the intervention of the male. "Nothing can be more overpowering than the south wind, Elghibli, or the east wind, Elshirghi, each of which is equally to be dreaded," British explorer George Lyon wrote in his journals in 1818. "In addition to the excessive heat and dryness, they are so impregnated with sand that the air is darkened by it, the sky appears of a dusky yellow and the sun is barely perceptible. The eyes become red, swelled and inflamed, the lips and skin parched and chapped, while severe pain in the chest is invariably felt in consequence of the quantities of sand unavoidably inhaled." 16 In the North African Campaign of World War II, several major battles were interrupted by the khamsin. Gales of 90 miles an hour and electrical disturbances so profound that compasses became useless forced the troops of both sides to hunker down, waiting for a lull.
In the Gobi Desert, the whistling winds were said to have been named for the sirens of the open sands, whose passion was to lure men to their deaths, but, of course, in reality it was the other way around: The sirens were invented to explain the winds.
On the northern side of the Mediterranean, especially around Greece, an even worse wind is the gregale, which blows from the northeast. "It was a gregale that drove Saint Paul from Crete to Malta in the Acts, and another that so undiplomatically interrupted a summit between Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush."17
I haven't yet named the winds that swirl around our house, though they have personality enough. Perhaps I have yet to understand them properly. Perhaps they are not steady enough. Or rather, they are steady but too variable to take real shape. We had a local blacksmith make up a weathervane for us in the shape of a codfish, which we call Wanda, and yesterday Wanda started the morning in the southeast, swung to southwest by noon, and by midafternoon was pointing northwest. All in all, a fairly typical day—ocean breezes, land breezes, fronts drifting in from the west, disturbances coming up from what are still called "the Boston states" around here.
When the winds are southwest, they blow straight across the bay, heaping the water up in front of them. That's when the massive waves crash on the rocks with a sense-obliterating roar.
You can find this exhilarating, or you can find it intimidating. It depends partly on mood, but also partly on physiology, for winds can radically alter the body's heat-exchange devices, increase evaporation, and affect surface circulation of the blood; when they reach above about 12 miles an hour, almost everyone finds some discomfort. A number of scientific studies have suggested that human bodies are hardwired to the weather and that we are sensitive to shifts in temperature, humidity, cloud cover, wind speed, and barometric pressure.
No doubt it is possible to overcome this weather sensitivity and become inured to wind. If you're a sailor or a wind farmer—or a child with a kite—then doubtless psychology will trump physiology and you will find positives where others find only irritation.
This notion that winds affect health is hardly new. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, wrote a treatise he called Airs, Waters and Places, in which he observed that "whoever wishes to pursue properly the science of medicine must first investigate the seasons of the year and what occurs in them"—as quoted in Smith's Southern Wind. He urged his fellows to notice that warm southerly winds gave people "a humid and piteous constitution, and their bellies [are] subject to frequent disorders, owing to the phlegm running down from the head; the forms of the body for the most part are rather flabby Women in such areas are prone to excessive menstruation, infants to convulsions, men to attacks of dysentery, diarrhea, and chronic fevers." For the unfortunates living in cities where west winds were common, the news was worse. People there were pale and enfeebled and subject to all the aforesaid diseases. North winds, for their part, induce "dullness of hearing, [and] if the wind prevails, coughs and infections … occur." Only about cities facing east could he be wholly positive.18 In a Discover magazine article, Stephen Rosen's Weatheringis quoted, listing a number of other eminent persons who believed that weather, and especially wind, was related to the body and controlled its humors—men of the world like Columbus, Charles Darwin, Ben Franklin, Johannes Kepler, Blaise Pascal, and Leonardo da Vinci.19
In more modern days, some scientists agree, sort of. Clinical psychologist John Westerfield has written that he'd seen a number of psychoses related to storm phobias. For a decade the German weather service has issued biometeorological bulletins like "cloudy with a chance of migraines and damp with a chance of insomnia." Michael Persinger at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, has conducted numerous biometric studies related to weather. The elderly, particularly, frequently cannot bring themselves to go outdoors because the wind makes them anxious.
The anxiety is worse when the winds are not just violent, but relentless too. In the dust bowl of the Dirty Thirties, a farmer's wife, Edna Jacques, penned a lament:
The crop has failed again, the wind and sun
Dried out the stubble first, then one by one
The strips of summer fallow, seared with heat,
Crunched, like old fallen leaves, our lovely wheat,
The garden is a dreary blighted waste,
The very air is gritty to my taste …
In that terrible decade, the rains had failed. Or, rather, the rains became normal, for over the centuries they had often failed and the landscape had adapted. But the farmers could not adapt. When prices collapsed and the drought persisted, the unanchored topsoil began to move. Blowing topsoil drifted across roads and railroad tracks, keeping the towns and cities bathed in dust and grit inside and out, causing yellow twilights at midday. The roads were impassable, with deep drifts of sand that built up until they covered the fences, choked out the few remaining shelterbelts and gardens, and reached the roofs of chicken houses. On May 12, 1934, the Associated Press reported huge clouds from the Great Plains dust bowl at ten thousand feet over the Atlantic, and amateur statisticians began calculating the amount of arable soil that had been removed in this storm alone, reaching more than three hundred million tons before the exercise became pointless. It was called the black blizzard, the name ironically foreshadowing the laments of Uzbek peasants a decade or two later, when their own landscape was blown away after the Aral Sea began to shrink, a disaster caused by overuse and careless engineering. The American black blizzard swept from the Rocky Mountain states to Washington and New York, and deep into the thoughts of Congress.
Many bitter tales from the Great Depression are obsessed with the winds that never ceased, banging the doors and shutters, rattling rickety barns, filling every crevice with drifting sand, a constant howling that picked at the nerves and seemed to cause violence in otherwise peaceable people. "My husband stood it for two months," a memoir by a Saskatchewan farm wife lamented, "watching our farm blow away in the winds, listening to that awful whistling, and then one day he hauled open the door and fought his way out onto the porch, yelling and screaming so hard it broke my heart." Her husband strode off into the gale and was not seen again; he disappeared into the wind and the wind-driven sand until he could walk no more, and then—or so it is assumed—the wind did him one final service, and covered over his body with the drifting soil of his own farm. He was neither the first, nor the last.
Jan DeBlieu's Wind mentions the classic West Texas melodrama The Wind, published anonymously by Dorothy Scarborough in 1925. Its dreamy eighteen-year-old heroine from Virginia wrestles unsuccessfully with the deprivations of mind, spirit, and body of life in endless drought and bitter poverty. It was the demon wind that was her undoing. Under its maddening influence her fragile spirit crashed. "With a laugh that strangled on a scream [she] sped to the door, flung it open and rushed out. She fled across the prairies like a leaf blowing in a gale, borne along by the force of the wind that was at last to have its way with her."20
Russian peasant leader Stenka Razin, about whom many legends swirl, claimed the maddening wind as his ally in his battles against the hated boyars, driving more than one enemy brigade to binges of suicides and mass self-mutilations.
During a sirocco in the Mediterranean, the oppressive heat is enough to drive up crime rates in Naples and Palermo. In Sicily, a sirocco that lasts more than three days is an excuse for a crime of passion. In America, in the eastern foothills of the Rockies, the incidence of rape is said to go up in a Chinook. It is said—though I haven't been able to prove it—that in Wyoming a law dating from the mid-nineteenth century allowed that wind-induced insanity was a sufficient defense against a murder charge.21 One of Raymond Chandler's best-known Philip Marlowe passages in "Red Wind" deals with the Santa Ana winds that blow down the Cajon and San Gorgonia passes: "There was a hot desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husband's neck. Anything can happen."22 Novelist Brian Moore, who lived in Malibu, used to describe the Santa Ana as stealing down over the hills, a brazen thief in the night. Gabriel Garcia Marquez has written of wind seeming a personal affront "aimed at us and us alone."23
Late in the summer of 2004 I talked to a couple of tornado chasers, who spent a good part of the supercell season in Kansas, hoping against hope to watch a tornado touch down close enough to feel. I was convinced that this was part of the same suicidal pathology that drove men and women to murder in the devil gales of the High Plains, but they would have none of it. It was just an adrenalin rush, they said, a high that comes from staring down one of nature's most awesome and destructive forces. They were impatient with what they saw as my senseless probing for deeper motive. For my part, I wasn't convinced by their bravado. I had just finished a novel by Paul Quarrington called Galveston, (Storm Chasers in the United States), which was about a collection of misfits whose greatest desire was to place themselves in the path of a Caribbean hurricane, and I thought I understood them better than they did themselves. Modern folk are supposed to be beyond this. In the old days, yes, weather was a grim and capricious dictator, as the BBC's Felicity James pointed out, quoting Penelope Lively's 1996 novel, Heat Wave. "But for the technologically literate, 20th century spectator, the weather is [supposed to be] an aesthetic diversion."24 I knew this was not so. My own obsession with watching the oversize blunderings of Atlantic hurricanes stemmed from the same source as the tornado chasers'. For those of us who were no longer religious, it was awe. And not a little fear.
The mystery of wind's all-powerful presence, then, is deep-seated in the human psyche. It is one of the oldest mysteries of all, almost as old in our reckoning as the miracle of the quickening of life and the awesome presence of the sun and the moon. Humans in all cultures have been wrestling with winds and their meaning from the beginning. Meteorology and astronomy are the oldest of sciences, and in some ways the history of science is the continuing struggle to understand weather and its carriers, the winds. As the story of Hurricane Ivan shows, even now in the age of terabyte computers and chaos-driven algorhythms, explanations are still unfolding.