WindsweptWindswept: The Story of Wind and Weather
by Marq de Villiers

Wind is always fascinating. It seems like a living creature, speaking loudly or softly, travelling fiercely or gently, briskly forceful or meandering in charming whimsicality. We can’t see it, but we are always aware of its presence. No wonder poets and philosophers have been inspired to see in the wind a revelation of something greater; the Holy Spirit, the breath of the Creator, life and death, love and fear. The fascinating science of the wind, however practical and mathematical we make it, is never quite removed from the mystery behind it.

This is a book about the science of wind — and also its folklore and its human history. Our fascination with the flight of birds, our sailors’ rhymes for predicting the weather, our systems for classifying wind speeds and cloud types, the moments when the direction of a wind changed the course of our history, all are explored in these pages.

The book is written for the non-scientist, making even the scientific bits understandable. I was never very good at understanding science in my high school days. The one time when I was surprised to find myself actually enjoying a science class, and even understanding most of it, was the year I took Earth Science. Weather, water, rocks, erosion, rain, — and wind! All these decades later, most of my high school information has sifted through the holes in my memory and washed away, but reading this book reminded me of the fascination and wonder the subject always held for me.

Too many interesting snippets to write about them all today; — just a random scattering of things that seem to stay in my mind right now:

The appalling Wreckhouse winds of Newfoundland, which could lift railroad cars off the tracks, and the story of Lauchie McDougall the human wind gauge, who had an uncanny knack for predicting them.

Desert sandstorms that can sandblast telegraph and telephone poles to half their diameter until they are in danger of collapse, or can scour an abandoned glass bottle until it remembers that it is sand and must to sand return, becoming glass grains in the wind.

A description of a flight through a hurricane in the 1950’s by pilot Max Kozak, from the heart-stopping turbulence of the storm wall to the celestial peace of the storm’s eye.

A spider that can fly through the air on updrafts, floating on silken cords like a parachute.

The first parachute drop from a balloon, in the 1700’s, was not by a human but by a dog dropped overboard by the pilot. The dog landed safely, but was so spooked by the experience that it promptly ran away.

The vast taxonomy of designs for sailing ships, as human designers kept chasing a better faster wind power, until the ultimate in sailing technology, the clipper ship, ended the age of sailing vessels with wonderful panache.

An intriguingly clever method of using the wind for a sort of air-conditioning, invented by nomads in the Sahara desert, which used horizontal layers of fabric suspended between poles to channel the wind into a brisk refreshing breeze in the vicinity of their tents.

The captivating account of windmills, from ancient China to medieval Holland to the plains of Kansas, and this bit of an idea to chew on — A wind turbine is the opposite of a fan. Instead of using electricity to make wind, they use wind to make electricity.

And throughout the whole book as a recurring motif, an assortment of reflections on a great Atlantic hurricane named Ivan.

In the end, I think this one paragraph is what I’ll carry away and remember the longest from this book:

A picture came into my mind of the world as a big room, drafty, with maybe a window open (the poles) blowing cold air into the center, setting off corner-to-corner eddies and dips and whirls and swirls, with vortexes in the corners and in places where the cold and warm collided. Were the air a thinly colored mist, you’d be able to see how it was moving about the whole room, and you’d be able to picture how completely the patterns would change if the window were closed and a door opened, say, or a fire was lit in the fireplace.  But in the end the very homeliness of the metaphor didn’t really work for me, because this was such a very big room with very big drafts, and the equalizing dance of the winds was so intricate, that it demanded a grander metaphor, a “Dance of the Seven Thousand Veils” if you will, the complex pavane of the global balancing system, and at that moment I felt that my small breeze, the one that was ruffling the feathers of the mergansers and eiders, was connected to the planetary whole in a way I hadn’t really felt before.