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What the Wind Can Teach Us

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What the Wind Can Teach Us

Near the beginning of the tradition that we now think of as “nature writing,” Henry David Thoreau went out to look at his soon-to-be-famous pond:

As I walk along the stony shore of the pond in my shirt-sleeves,
though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy . . . Sympathy with the
fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath; yet,
like the lake, my serenity is rippled but not ruffled. These small
waves raised by the evening wind are as remote from storm as the
smooth reflecting surface. Though it is now dark, the wind still blows
and roars in the wood, the waves still dash, and some creatures lull
the rest with their notes. The repose is never complete.

Taking this stroll, Thoreau feels a “sympathy” for the rustling leaves—something almost human seems to live in their movement. Powerful emotions are stirred, too, by the wind, which “blows and roars” to meet the mind’s signals. Although there are many Thoreaus in “Walden,” the popular image is that of a solitary man rediscovering nature by finding himself “within it.” Whenever we look at nature, it’s difficult to stop seeing ourselves. Thoreau wrote as much in his journal, remarking that “nature must be viewed humanly to be viewed at all.”

What would it mean to think of the natural world in terms outside ourselves? “Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind,” which was published, in 1985, by the scientist and author Lyall Watson, and recently reissued by New York Review Books, provides a curious model for how we might reimagine the relationship between people and nature. Watson, a biologist by training but perhaps a mystic at heart, writes that his book “began as an essay on experience of the ineffable, but grew, as wind will, to have a life of its own. . . . [Wind] is the most vital of metaphors.” From that near-human rustling comes a work that’s less a history than a litany of oddities, a network of facts spanning divergent scales of time and space.

“Heaven’s Breath” begins with the simplest of definitions—“Wind is defined as air in motion”—before spinning out into a dizzying series of explanations, factoids, mini-histories, and cosmic contemplations. Within a few pages, an explanation of wind chill segues into a description of shivering, then moves on to a citation of Darwin’s Beagle voyage, the unit of the Clo (“the degree of warmth represented by that old fashioned western suit and its underwear”), the fashions of ancient Crete, rooftop ventilation techniques in Pakistan, and the formation of heat islands in cities. There is a surprisingly useful taxonomy of clouds and a discussion of whether viruses are dropped into the earth’s atmosphere by comet dust. A “Dictionary of Wind” closes the book, listing several hundred names for specific winds, from “Aajej” all the way to “Zonda.” The result, both perplexing and delightful, is appealing precisely because of how unclassifiable it is.

Watson himself was difficult to pin down. Born in South Africa, in 1939, he earned degrees in botany, geology, and chemistry, served as the director of the Johannesburg Zoo, produced nature documentaries for the BBC, and was involved in the global anti-whaling movement. His prolific writings include books about pigs, elephants, dragons, the sense of smell, and sumo wrestling. He was also well known for his interest in the paranormal, chafing against what he believed to be unexamined scientific consensus. When he died, in 2008, an obituary supplied a memorable taste of his eccentricity: “For 12 years he lived on a converted shrimp trawler in the Amazon. Often he traveled with Fred, a tapeworm he introduced into his body in the belief that it warded off stomach ailments.”

In “Heaven’s Breath,” that eccentricity is most evident in the book’s affinity for the Gaia hypothesis, a controversial theory, introduced by the scientist James Lovelock, which claims that the earth functions as one self-regulating organism, controlling the conditions to preserve and foster life. This is the pathetic fallacy of pathetic fallacies, and its premise is being tested rigorously by ongoing mass extinctions. But insofar as it posits the connectedness of all things—a commonplace of both environmental and New Age thinking—the idea is taken more seriously by Watson than one might expect. His book’s energy comes from its breadth and movement; it roams freely, eddying around whatever strikes Watson’s interest and then moving on when the energy is spent. In this sense, the book owes less to Thoreau than to a lineage of exploratory writing about nature and its systems—Rachel Carson classics, like “The Sea Around Us,” or, more recently, Robert MacFarlane’s poetic appreciation of landscape in “Underland.” These writers are perhaps superior stylists compared to Watson, but he makes up for it with disorienting speed and an odd sense of surprise.

At times, that oddness also strains credulity. Do “ill winds” really cause poor health? Do frogs really rain down en masse because of a feedback mechanism in Gaia? Watson’s end-page citations are copious, but one should probably take his stranger findings lightly. A generous reader might say that Watson is playing devil’s advocate—testing received truths, staying alert to those that science can’t capture. Occasionally, Watson’s curiosity drove him too far: in his book “Supernature,” a best-seller, acceptance of uncertainty led him past the humorous (“There is no shortage of good evidence for poltergeist activity . . .”) and into a suspect zone of fabulation. This quality might make him seem like a wacky fringe figure—and he is, to some extent—but something valuable remains in the example of his seeking mind. Watson’s argument, implicit throughout the book, is that we should always remain open to possibilities, and that clearing space for the inconceivable is what preserves our sense of the world’s vibrancy. When that sense is diminished, Watson might say, we have ceased to become active, observant inhabitants of our surroundings.

“Heaven’s Breath” appeared in the middle of the decade during which global warming became widely known to the public, and Watson’s call for exploration is particularly interesting as a document written when it became urgent to build a consensus about an international threat. Watson is eloquent about localized forms of pollution, such as acid rain and smog, but he sees climate change as speculative: he notes that an earth hotter than it has been for over a hundred and twenty-five thousand years “is bound to affect economic and political stability and to change our coastlines and our lives, but it could also be the making of a new world—one worth getting excited about all over again.” Here, warming is framed as a science-fiction scenario, replete with possibility. And yet, at other moments, Watson is oddly prescient about the costs of climate change. His description of sailboats as one of “the only ethically satisfying machines we have ever devised” feels resonant in the wake of activist Greta Thunberg’s voyage to America, in which the harnessing of wind power helped expand our conception of what moral behavior could be.

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