Like its subject, Lyall Watson’s Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind, is fugitive, all-encompassing, and impossible to track outside of its effects. It blows a lot of bits and pieces about. It is beautiful and strange.
I have no doubt some of the science is outdated now; the book was originally published in 1984. But what Watson flags for us—climate change is the looming example—has been borne out, and at a rate faster than he anticipated.
There seems nothing Watson is unwilling to discuss. He observes that myths related to the winds have remarkably consistent patterns across cultures; he explores the role of ions and sferics in wind’s impact on the human organism; he comments on the vast quantity of spiders at all times traveling by air. (“Consciousness of the continuous rain of insects on all parts of the earth all the time,” he remarks drily, “has been very slow to grow”). Not surprisingly, he spends a few pages on the glorious atmospherics in Constable and Turner but more disarming was his report on the scholarship calculating the percentage of cloudy skies in Ruisdael and Hobbema.
The book comes with a glossary of the names of winds from across the globe, and it’s obvious that Watson delights in the nomenclature: we hear about the mistral and the Föhn; the sirocco, the sharav, and the sz; the harmattan and the haboob; the papagayos and the pei fung, the chinook and the brickfielder. He scans the world of slang to remind us of tiresome windbags and those merely shooting the breeze, of how futility—“talking into the wind”—sounds in Italian (predicare al vento) and in German (in den Wind reden.)
For all this variety, “wind” is one of those words with remarkable tenacity: “The word wind in English…is unchanged in Old English, Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Dutch and German; and alters by only one letter to wint in Medieval Dutch, Middle and Old High German; and to vind in Danish and Norwegian. In Icelandic it is windr, and in Old Norse vindr,….gwynt in Welsh and gwins in Cornish” (253).
Watson, born Malcolm Lyall-Watson, comes by his encyclopedism honestly. South African by birth, Watson enrolled at the University of Witswatersrand at age 15. Further educational adventures took him to the Netherlands and Germany and thence to the University of London, where he studied with Desmond Morris. He earned higher degrees in zoology, botany, paleontology, geology, chemistry, marine biology, ecology, anthropology, and ethology. Wikipedia—which constantly renews my faith in humankind—tells us that in the 1980’s and 1990’s Watson presented Channel 4’s coverage of sumo tournaments. Wikipedia lists twenty-six published books, including his bestseller Supernature: A Natural History of the Supernatural (1973), a guide to sumo wrestling, essays about South Africa that were, oddly enough, published only in Japanese, and his last, The Whole Hog: Exploring the Extraordinary Potential of Pigs (2004).
Watson’s style is difficult to describe. His materials are so vast and varied that you’d think he has to move with expedition. Perhaps for this reason, he favors single-sentence paragraphs as introductions to his more elaborate excursions: “There are worlds without wind” (13); “We are air conditioned” (205); “There are no photographs of the wind” (254). But this tendency toward the aphoristic does not agitate Watson; there’s no uptick in tempo. He is imperturbable as he navigates his vessel through the typhoons and waterspouts. The tone is gentle: observations that might come across as admonitory from other writers (“We have trouble with space”; “Silence makes us uneasy”—both one-sentence paragraphs ) seem to emerge from a calm and deeply reflective place.
Watson takes his time, in other words, and so therefore must the reader. It took me a few months to get through this book. Still, Watson is perfectly capable to producing a quiet drama in his prose:
Holding course by recognition of such swells seems to be a matter more of feel than sight. Young trainees are taken out to sea and told to lie in water in their backs, relaxed and floating so they get to know the ‘feel’ of the waves. Some navigators still prefer to lie down inside the canoe’s cabin and call their directions out to the helmsman, but most of them by day or night, choose to stand, carefully balanced with legs slightly apart, waiting until the pattern they want becomes prominent. It seemed to Lewis that they were plumbing the swell, feeling its effect in subtle shifts from the vertical, detected largely by the pendulum swing of their own testicles.
Watson is also not afraid to make pronouncements: “The moderate sized, four-masted, fore-and-aft schooner—brought up to date perhaps with the use of modern materials and equipped with an auxiliary engine—probably represents the cleanest, most efficient move of goods that has ever been devised.” At other times, he adopts a reporter’s deadpan: he tells us of Reinhold Reiter, the “director of a bioclimatic laboratory at Farchant in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps” who, “in addition to the usual meteorological instruments in his laboratory…employs a highly sensitive network of human amputees who feel a variety of aches and pains in their stumps prior to a change of weather.” Watson assures us that “the correlation between amputation pain and atmospheric electrics is so high, that there is not more than one chance in 1000 of the connection between the two being purely coincidental.”
And at yet other times Watson adopts a tone that combines speculative daring and with a mild let’s-wait-and-see attitude. He is, for example, “serious about Gaia, about the possibility of Earth being a giant organism.” “Such a creature,” Watson surmises, “would have to control homeostatic mechanisms which automatically maintain equilibrium, in the same way that our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems balance each other out. It seems that the atmosphere is a system of this kind and is maintained by life for its own ends.”
This last observation arises in the context of a patient discussion of the phenomena of things falling out of the sky: frogs and fish, “gelatinous’ bog butter’” (this in Ireland), “tinsel, bricks, nails, coins, banknotes, amulets, and rosaries.” Inexplicable falling objects was, as Watson freely admits, the special province of an American eccentric named Charles Fort, who published four books between 1919 and 1932 on events—like fish falling from the sky—that science disdains to explain. Wikipedia labels Fort an “Anomalistics Researcher.” Fort only shows up in the final pages of Watson’s book, but seems to be a kindred spirit. When I’m done with Watson’s book on pigs, I’ll look into Fort’s The Book of the Damned. It’s important to track the “Anomalistics Researchers” when we come across them.