From Flying Spiders to Global Warming, a Hymn for a Windswept Planet
How easy it is to imagine weather as a force wholly imposed upon us. We shake our fists at rain on the day of an outing, at snow entombing our cars. The causes of that rain or snow are complex, involving the angles of solar rays and the long odysseys of clouds: forces so far beyond our control that it seems we can barely explain, let alone alter, them.
But the relationship between humanity and weather is mutually influential, and has been for centuries. In the third millennium B.C., humans moving into temperate wooded areas cleared the land to plant crops; this removal of timber increased wind speed, altering the local climate. We have not stopped amending the earth since: Writing during the time of Augustus, Horace described the now-barren coast of North Africa as densely forested; when Petronius detailed the winds of the Italian coast in the following century, the infamous sirocco was not yet among them. France’s brutal, blustering mistral was described, as early as 1864, as “the child of man, the result of his devastations.”
These observations come from Lyall Watson’s “Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind,’’ originally published in 1984 and reissued this month by New York Review Books. Watson, who died in 2008, was a South African explorer and author who wrote on a wide range of topics, from the supernatural to sumo wrestling, but much of his work falls under the umbrella of natural history. Swirling with fact, folklore, quotation, and anecdote, “Heaven’s Breath” blends scientific studies and anthropological curiosity with a voracious authorial voice, aspiring to the long polymath tradition of Sir Thomas Browne, Leonardo da Vinci, and Pliny the Elder. “This is the kingdom of the winds,” Pliny wrote, in the first century, of our planet’s lower atmosphere. “Here their nature is all-important and embraces almost all the phenomena attributable to the air.”
I imagine Watson would agree. In his view, wind can be credited for everything from civilization and globalization to evolution and life itself. Wind is “a potent force in favor of genetic novelty,” he writes; he calls the invention of sailing “a vital advance in an organism’s response to wind.”
Wind itself, Watson explains, is caused by the sun’s unequal beating upon the Earth. The hot, dense air at the equator, seeking an area of lower pressure, rises and moves continuously toward the poles. This airflow is complicated by various terrains: scattered by coastlines, buttressed by mountains.
But the greatest shaper of winds is the Earth’s rotation. Caught up in the planet’s spin, air moving toward the North or South pole is deflected, Watson writes, “until by the time it reaches a latitude of about 30 degrees and cools and descends, it is blowing at right angles to its original direction.” Hence the “westerlies” that dominate these central latitudes, the easterly trade winds that rush in to fill the gap, and the fearful doldrums — also called the “equator of the winds” — that shift with the seasons.
In addition to these solar influences and global patterns, readers of “Heaven’s Breath” will learn about the seed dispersal of plants and the acrobatics of spiders that ride the wind like extreme athletes — “arachnauts,” Watson terms them. He relishes the intimate relationship people have with their local winds, plucking particular air streams from the undifferentiated mass of atmosphere and naming them like pets: Italy has its tramontana, Argentina its Zonda, California its malevolent Santa Ana. “When winds had a visible purpose and moved ships and mills or winnowed the grain, they were held in great esteem,” Watson writes. “People prayed or whistled for them or even, if it seemed expedient, bought one from an aged crone who sold the best ones cheap.”
It’s difficult to imagine a topic Watson couldn’t connect to his central subject: he considers wind as a planetary phenomenon (“There are worlds without wind”) and a geographical feature, as a source of mechanical energy and of literary inspiration. Wind is “unconstrained by borders,” Nick Hunt writes in his introduction to the reissue, and Watson’s work is similarly unafflicted: His book’s bibliography runs to 539 items, from an article by A.J. Abdullah on “Some aspects of the dynamics of tornadoes” to E.C. Zimmerman’s “Insects of Hawaii.”
Watson is a lively writer, his sentences as insatiable as his interests. “The thin cool crusts [of the inner planets] have ruptured and split to allow the planets to breathe and to wrap themselves securely in their own airy cocoons,” he writes; he admires “the outlaw qualities of regularity and organization” that allow life in our solar system. His awe at the unlikeliness of our existence is palpable and infectious: “[W]ithout this flimsy parasol,” Watson writes, of the ozone layer, “life on Earth would probably never have evolved, at least in its present form.”
This flimsy parasol, indeed. For the story of the wind is not all parasailing spiders and airy cocoons: Watson also details the dominance of smog over industrial areas, the creep of toxic metals into forests, and the raised and rising temperatures of major cities and the globe at large. Deep into the book, two words appear emphasized by italics: greenhouse effect. “And the reason there is concern about it,” Watson explains, to readers of the early 1980s, “is that some scientists believe it could make the world warm enough in our lifetimes to produce dramatic changes” and “might even melt part of the polar ice caps, flooding places like Florida, Holland, and Singapore.”
“Such concerns may be exaggerated, but the 10 percent rise in carbon dioxide during the last quarter century is real enough,” Watson writes. “There is every reason to believe that this warming influence will continue.” Such concerns, we know now, were not exaggerated. While I was reading “Heaven’s Breath,” Greenland’s ice sheet endured historic loss, and Europe suffered record-breaking temperatures.
Of course, there are more recent books about the climate crisis, more rigorous studies, and more data-driven warnings. Rigorous is not what Watson was after, and “Heaven’s Breath” engages as much with myth as it does with data. (Watson is prone to invoking wind’s “experience of the spiritual” and to calling the earth “Gaia.”) But his encyclopedic wonder at our planet’s precarious systems, at its interconnected nature — “Nothing happens in isolation in our atmosphere,” he observes — makes “Heaven’s Breath” feel as vital as ever. Every tangent, every flight of fancy, every insect and ancient legend mentioned, is one more part of this spinning world that must be salvaged, or will be lost.
Mairead Small Staid is a critic and essayist living in Minnesota. Her work has appeared in The Believer, the Kenyon Review, and The Paris Review Daily, among other publications.
Thank you for discussing the work of this neglected thinker and biologist, and I am delighted that “Heaven’s Breath” is being re-published. I especially love Watson’s catalogue of all the different names of wind, from the Sudanese Haboob – now adopted to name the dust storms over Phoenix – to the Willy-Willy and beyond. I am certain that Watson would be appalled to learn his own predictions have come true, especially in his native Capetown, which nearly ran out of water in January.
Though “Heaven’s Breath” is a valuable resource, I think there are other books by Watson which are better-written and even more challenging to our views of Nature. My all time favorite is “Gifts of Unknown Things.” It’s packed with curious information but it also tells a story that is, simply, profound. Other favorites are “Jacobson’s Organ” and “Elephantoms.”