Recommended Read: Heaven's Breath
Each month, Muskeg Press will review one of our favourite books that we have on our bookshelf.
We hope these reviews reinforce a love of literature for our readers, or perhaps give you some ideas for the next book on your list to read.
Heaven's Breath: A Natural History of the Wind
by Lyall Watson
New York Review Books, 2019: 384 pages
First published in 1984
All sorts of invisible things influence our lives. Take the novel coronavirus (please): we can’t see it, unless we have a high-powered microscope, but we know it’s there, especially if we get sick with it. Electricity is the same way: we can’t actually see the currents of power thrumming through power lines, we only see the results: a glowing computer screen, an illuminated light bulb.
Another invisible thing has far more influence on our lives than electricity, pandemics, or anything else you can imagine. It affects our humanity, our geography & geology, our far-flung cultures, our microbiology, anthropology, our very psyche and our philosophy, and much else besides. Yet we rarely think about it. What is this invisible and omnipresent force?
Yes, wind. All of its impacts, and anything else you might think possible, are described, elucidated and extrapolated in Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind by Lyall Watson.
First published in 1984, Heaven’s Breath was given new life by a publisher in New York, which re-issued it last August. Watson’s mind was not unlike his windy subject: it was everywhere, restlessly blowing into numerous intellectual corners and crannies. He had degrees in botany, chemistry, and zoology, and also studied paleontology and anthropology for good measure. At various times, he was the Director of the Johannesburg Zoo, served as the Seychelles commissioner for the International Whaling Commission, and also announced sumo wrestling tournaments for the BBC.
Wait – sumo wrestling?! A guy with a degree in zoology makes sense to be in a zoo or taking care of whales. Where the hell did sumo wrestling come from?
But haven’t you ever had a nice, calm predictable day suddenly interrupted by a violent gust of wind that comes from nowhere? Indeed, Watson’s book sends the reader in many directions in the span of a page or two: at one point you’re reading about a ship that was near destroyed by a waterspout in the mid-Atlantic in 1923, and a few pages later, you’re learning about how wind shapes sand dunes in the Sahara.
It’s not all chaos. The book is divided into five main categories: Earth, time, life, body, mind, and the chapters unwind into how wind affects topics as diverse as time, sociology, philosophy, and biology. Currents of thought haphazardly whip through each chapter, but there’s also a prevailing stream of thought through the book, whose topic is explored from the general to the specific. We start in space, finding ourselves on the windless landscapes of the moon as well as the eternally stormy atmosphere of Jupiter; by the end, we’re inside the human mind, particularly as it tried so comprehend the well-documented phenomena of fish and frogs falling from the sky.
Hang on – fishes falling from the sky?! What does that have to do with the human mind? And hang on, let’s back up again – FISH FALLING FROM THE SKY??
I don’t want to spoil how Watson make the connection between philosophy’s deep truths and a day in 1839 in Wales that saw so much fish fall that “buckets full of them were swept up from the grass.” I’ll just say he manages to pull it off, somehow.
If you read about Watson’s life, you might think him a bit of a kook. He’s best known for publishing a book called Super-Natural, which applied scientific theories to explain supernatural phenomena. But the guy is also a trained scientist, in many disciplines, and he breaks down in charming and direct language the importance of his subject. Wind, he explains, “provides the circulatory and nervous systems of the planet” and, without it, most of the planet would be uninhabitable. He’s as good about explaining barometric pressure as he is about setting up a comparative analysis of how wind was used in the myths of cultures around the world. He details the research done into all the invisible particles – like viruses, bacteria, and spores – that are in any given cubic centimetre of air at any point in time. He provides historical surveys of the most destructive tornadoes and hurricanes in history. Then, he’ll sweep you from Kansas to the Mediterranean, where the sirocco, a hot wind from the North Africa, which causes lousy moods from everyone it touches, and then he flows north to Switzerland, where a falling hot wind called the föhn causes headaches and general distemper. His theory, backed up by research and extensive footnotes, is that winds like the sirocco and the föhn have these detrimental effects on humans because of a surplus of positively-charged ions in the air.
Later, he takes you on a grand tour of all the animals that use wind to their advantage in their migrations around the planet. Yes, there’s a meditation on birds, but he spends more pages talking about spiders, who catch the wind with their webbing, and have been known to drift thousands of kilometres through the air, riding streams and thermals. Watson charmingly calls them “arachnauts.”
The reader goes everywhere with this book. Watson acknowledges as much in his introduction:
“It began as an essay on the experience of the ineffable, but grew, as wind will, to have a life of its own. As it gathered strength, drawing on surprising resources, it became apparent that wind is far from hollow. It is the most vital of metaphors.”
Vital indeed. A common theme in the book, which Watson returns to again and again, is how the words for “wind” and “spirit” or “life” are closely related in languages around the world. “Ruh” in Arabic means both “breath” and “spirit”; the Greek wind gods were called the Anemoi, which derives from “anima,” meaning soul, and which is also the root word for “animal.”
Speaking of words, at the end of the book, Watson catalogues all the names for different winds around the world, which is both wonderful and educational. There’s the feh, a breeze in China. The aajej, a whirlwind in southern Morocco, which locals once attacked with knives to try and stop it. The barat, a strong blustery northwesterly in Indonesia. The kohala and kohilo, a gale and a breeze in Hawaii. And, my favourite, the bad-i-sad-o-bist-roz: the “wind of one hundred and twenty days” in Afghanistan.
Although first published almost 40 years ago, Heaven’s Breath still manages to surprise. In the “biology” chapter, Watson explains how the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 might have been, to some degree, caused by the wind. He draws similar comparisons to the flu outbreaks of 1732, 1781, 1968, and 1976, among others. We don’t know the exact cause of the current COVID-19 pandemic, but maybe if we assume its “origins are at least atmospheric,” then we can begin to make sense of it?
No. That can’t be right. Viruses don’t just blow in with the wind. Maybe Watson is a kook after all.
But then again….Watson describes the research done by a number of scientists over the past 100 years to determine where viruses come from. The conclusion seems to be, based on their research, that there might be colonies of them floating around in the upper atmosphere. “Somewhere up there,” writes Watson, “there is a breeding ground.”
Sure, sure. Still, curious, I did a bit of online research, and found a scientific paper published in the International Society of Microbial Ecology Journal in 2018, which showed some interesting results. Scientists placed measurement devices on mountain peaks three kilometres above sea level, and found billions of viruses per square metre. Their conclusion: viruses hitch rides on particles of dust that are swept up into the upper atmosphere, landing on mountains three thousand metres up.
So Watson’s theory seems to be borne out, in part. Could it be? Our current pandemic caused by the wind? And perhaps, like other pandemics, this one will be stopped by the wind – maybe a storm blows all those mutated viruses back up into the stratosphere?
Ah, but the wind won’t tell us his secrets. Invisible, inscrutable, he just wissshes and wooshes, blows and breezes up and down and side to side, and just when we think we’ve got it, he’s gone.