• A Brief Eerie History of How the Wind Makes Us Crazy

    Lyall Watson on the Ill Effects of Heavy Weather

    When air is completely still and cool, we can enjoy bright starlit nights and the respite from manic combustion. But when calms are warm, or go on too long beyond the dawn, they become awkward and disturbing. They tend, we have learned, to precede the storm.

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    So wind, when it comes, is usually welcome. But not always and not for everyone.

    There is an old English proverb that says:

    When the wind is in the east,
    ’tis good for neither man nor beast.

    Voltaire, in exile in London, wrote that

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    This east wind, is responsible for numerous cases of suicide. . . .Black melancholy spreads over the whole nation. Even the animals suffer from it and have a dejected air. Men who are strong enough to preserve their health in this accursed wind at least lose their good humor. Everyone wears a grim expression and is inclined to make desperate decisions. It was literally in an east wind that Charles I was beheaded and James II deposed.

    Hippocrates was convinced that west winds were worse, and that people exposed to them became pale and sickly with digestive organs that were “frequently deranged from the phlegm that runs down into them from the head.” Theophrastus noted that it was in southerly winds that “men find themselves more weary and incapable” due to thinning of the lubricant in their joints. While the north wind was described by Spenser as “bitter, black and blustering,” by Shakespeare as “wrathful and tyrannous,” and held responsible for “gout, the falling evil, itch and the ague.”

    The direction, it seems, is unimportant. But there is general agreement amongst Byron, Columbus, Dante, Darwin, Humboldt, Luther, Michelangelo, Milton, Mozart, Napoleon, Nietzsche, Rousseau, Schiller and Wagner that wind does make a difference, turning both body and mind. Goethe thought it “a pity that just the excellent personalities suffer most.” But the winds are nothing is not democratic. Roughly 30 percent of all people everywhere are sensitive in some way to their touch.


    Ill Winds

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    There is something about wind, quite apart from its cooling influence, that directly affects our well-being.

    One study of performance in physical fitness tests at a variety of temperatures, found an efficiency peak with wind blowing at 25 kilometers per hour (force 4), with energy falling off at both lower and higher wind speeds. Observation of the behavior of children in the playground of an American school, revealed that the average number of fights per day doubled when wind speeds crossed the biological threshold above force 6.

    There is something about wind, quite apart from its cooling influence, that directly affects our well-being.

    As a species, we seem to have a high awareness and a surprisingly low tolerance of wind. There are individual differences of course, some of which are apparently sex-linked.

    Most women, very sensibly, seek shelter from the wind. But there is something about an approaching gale that makes men very restless. Almost as though the sight of swiftly-driven cloud or the sound of air rushing through the trees were stimuli that triggered some deep-seated response. A fisherman on the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia described hukovi, the shrill scream that warns of an approaching bora, as “a desperate sound that causes a man’s heart to tremble.”

    There is no doubt that days with a lot of wind were once dangerous ones, destroying shelters, dispersing warning scents, and masking the sound of an approaching predator. And it may well be that, even in our modern microclimates, men in particular are still excited and disturbed by the old signals.

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    The physiology seems to involve the classic alarm reaction of an increased production of adrenaline. Metabolism speeds up, blood vessels of the heart and muscles dilate, skin vessels contract, the pupils widen and the hairs shows a disturbing tendency to stand on end, producing prickles of apprehension. This is a fine and useful response to an emergency, a good prelude to instant action; but when it is provoked by an alarm that goes on ringing, by a wind that blows for hours or even days on end, it puts a lot of strain on the system.

    The feeling to begin with, may amount almost to euphoria. The Yale geographer Ellsworth Huntington recalled seeing a small boy, “who was usually very quiet, climb to the top of a tall tree when a violent wind came up, and swing in the branches, singing at the top of his voice.” It has been suggested that the controversial Bishop James Pike, who walked to his death in the desert near the Dead Sea in 1969, was over-reacting this way to the stimulus of a strong warm wind known locally as the sharav.

    Sailors and fishermen, people who live constantly in the wind, become habituated. Their bodies learn to deal with wind stress. But many city dwellers lose the ability to adapt and find that the wind seeks them out even in the comfort of their homes, where some of them die of myocardial infarction, extra-systolic contractions and angina pectoris.

    All of these “heart attacks” and “strokes” are the result of over-stimulation. They are far more common in men than women, and they frequently take place on windy days. In one study of general blood vessel disorders, it was found that 50 percent of all myocardial infarctions and strokes occurred when wind was blowing at force 4 or 5. Higher wind speeds, strangely, seem to put less strain on the heart. Perhaps adrenal fatigue eventually sets in, or fear cancels out excitement and leads to some sort of withdrawal.

    All winds seem to be unsettling to some degree, but a few have a positively evil reputation.

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    In the middle of the 18th century, with their first Empire at its height and the founding of the British Museum, tourists from England began to visit classic sites. One of these early travelers, in a “Series of Letters to William Beckford Esquire of Somerly in Suffolk,” sent back a wind description so vivid it is still worth quoting at length:

    The most disagreeable part of the Neapolitan climate is the sirocco or southeast wind, which is very common at this season. It has now blown for these six days without intermission; and has indeed blown away all our gaiety and spirits; and if it continues much longer, I do not know what maybe the consequence. It gives a degree of lassitude, both to the body and the mind, that renders them absolutely incapable of performing their usual functions.

    It is perhaps not surprising, that it should produce these effects on a phlegmatic English constitution; but we have just now an instance, that all the mercury of France must sink under the load of this horrid, leaden atmosphere. A smart Parisian marquis came here about ten days ago: he was so full of animal spirits that the people thought him mad. He never remained a moment in the same place; but, at their grave conversations, used to skip from room to room with such amazing elasticity, that the Italians swore he had got springs in his shoes. I met him this morning, walking with the step of a philosopher; a smelling bottle in his hands, and all his vivacity extinguished. I asked him what was the matter? Ah, mon ami,” said he, “I am near to death. I, who never knew the meaning of the word ennui. Mais cet execrable vent, if it lasts even two days more, I will hang myself.”

    The natives themselves do not suffer less than strangers; and all nature seems to languish during this abominable wind. A Neapolitan lover avoids his mistress with the utmost care in the time of the sirocc, and the indolence it inspires, is almost sufficient to extinguish every passion. All works of genius are laid aside, during its continuance; and when anything very flat or insipid is produced, the strongest phrase of disapprobation they can bestow, is that it was written in the time of the sirocc.

    I have not observed that the sirocc makes any remarkable change in the barometer, and it is certainly not the warmth of this wind, that renders it so oppressive to the spirits; it is rather the want of that genial quality, which is so enlivening. The spring and elasticity of the air seems to be lost; and that active principle which animates all nature, appears to be dead. This principle we have sometimes supposed to be nothing else than the subtle electric fluid that the air usually contains; and indeed we have found, that during this wind, it appears to be almost annihilated.

    For someone writing two years before Franklin flew his famous kite and twenty years before Priestley wrote his book on electricity, let alone someone putting pen to paper in the time of a “sirocc,” this electric insight is astounding.

    Today we know a great deal more about our physical environment, but it has only been in the last few years that we have begun to realize just how closely living things are tied to subtle variations in Earth’s electromagnetic field, many of which are directly connected to particular movements of air.

    Sirocco, in Arabic, means “easterly.” In meteorological terms it is a wind that appears most often in the spring, bringing warm air in from the Sahara and the Arabian Peninsula as a series of low-pressure systems moves eastward across the Mediterranean. It has many local names—levante in Spain, leveche in Morocco, chergui in Algeria, chili in Tunisia, ghibli in Libya, khamsin in Egypt, sharav in Israel, sharkiye in Jordan, and shamal in Iraq. In every guise it is warm, with a temperature more than 10° Centigrade higher than the seasonal average; and dry, with a relative humidity that is always less than 30 percent, falling sometimes to zero. And the combination of these two characteristics seems to do something fundamental to the wind’s electrical properties, and in turn to us.

    At the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, pharmacologist Felix Sulman has been studying physiological responses to Israel’s version of the sirocco. He finds that almost one third of the population experience some kind of adverse reaction to the sharav. And of these, 43 percent show an unusually high concentration of serotonin in their urine. This is a powerful and versatile hormone which causes the constriction of peripheral blood vessels, including those in the brain, controls sleep, and is responsible for the development of mood. It is a natural tranquilizer, but too much of it produces clinical symptoms which include migraines, allergic reactions, flushes, palpitation, irritability, sleeplessness and nausea.

    At the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, pharmacologist Felix Sulman has been studying physiological responses to Israel’s version of the sirocco, the sharav wind. He finds that almost one third of the population experience some kind of adverse reaction to the sharav.

    Another 44 percent of the wind casualties, most of them women, have little or no adrenaline in their urine, and complain of fatigue, apathy and depression. Together, these two groups amount to a quarter of the total population, which is a considerable number of people to be feeling out-of-sorts all at the same time.

    Sulman concludes that wind sensitivity is due to “a neurohormonal reaction based on the regulatory functions of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, the thyroid and the adrenal gland,” and that women, who tend anyway to produce less adrenaline, are particularly susceptible.

    Maidens will waver,
    Falter and quaver,
    With wind in mind.

    A Victorian lady on a visit to Algiers in 1868 decided that “This awful wind is a moral as well as a physical poison.” But her evident distress did nothing to curb her formidable powers of description:

    The leaves of trees fold before the eye. After minutes of a heavy and suffocating calm, succeeded squalls of stinging wind. The clouds of flying sand soon eclipsed the obscured disc of the sun; and the different shades of yellow, orange, saffron and lemon melted into a mass of copperish color impossible to describe. The covers of my books were shriveled as if they have been lying a whole day before a fire. When in company with some officers, I happened to touch the sword of one of them, my hand was seared as if by a hot iron.

    Part, at least, of the ill effects of various sirocco wings, must be due to the dust they carry. An army officer exposed to the ghibli in Libya complained that, “the eyes become red, swelled and inflamed, the lips parched and chapped; while severe pain in the chest is generally felt, in consequence of the qualities of sand unavoidably inhaled. Nothing, indeed, is able to resist the unwholesome effects of this wind.” His symptoms have now become recognized as those of a seasonal disorder known as “ghiblitis.”

    There is little respite from such pain even when the winds move out to sea. Philippe Cousteau, while working in the Red Sea, produced a gritty description of his experiences with the haboob that hurls sand out of the Egyptian desert:

    At about two o’clock every afternoon, the sky above the western horizon would turn a reddish-gold and the sea would cease to live, the surface becoming absolutely motionless, seeming almost solid. The already stifling temperature became intolerable; our bodies ran with sweat and every movement was torture, aggravated by the rash of prickly heat with which we were all afflicted. Then the storm was on us and the howling wind raised little sprouts of water that mingled with the sand and covered everything with a coating of yellowish, destructive mud . . . Our eyes red and swollen, we moved about like automatons in a sandy, unbearable universe.

    When the sirocco moves north from Africa and crosses the Mediterranean, its character changes a little. It sops up moisture over the ocean and reaches southern Italy and Sicily not only hot, but now also insufferably humid. Which apparently does nothing at all to mellow its inimical nature. Neapolitan crime rates soar above their already impressive levels and even missionaries are moved. Ellsworth Huntington remembered one, “a man of unusual strength of character, who during a particularly oppressive sirocco locked himself up in his study for fear that he might say something disagreeable to his colleagues.”

    The naturalist Norman Douglas in his novel South Wind, used the sirocco as a dramatic force, like Nemesis in a Greek tragedy, manipulating his cast of decaying English exotics on Capri:

    “This south wind! This African pest! Is there no other wind hereabouts? Does the sirocco always blow?”

    “So far as I have observed it blows constantly during the spring and summer. Hardly less constantly in autumn. And in winter often for weeks on end.”

    “Sounds promising. And it has no influence on the character?”

    “The native is accustomed, or resigned. Foreigners, sometimes are tempted to strange actions under its influence.”

    The aging writer in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice found that

    An offensive sultriness lay over the streets. The air was so heavy that the smells pouring out of homes, stores, and eating houses became mixed with oil, vapors, clouds of perfumes, and still other odors—and these would not blow away, but hung in layers. Cigarette smoke remained suspended, disappearing very slowly. The crush of people along the narrow streets irritated rather than entertained the walker. The farther he went, the more was depressed by the repulsive condition resulting from the combination of sea air and sirocco, which was at the same time both stimulating and enervating. He broke into an uncomfortable sweat. His eyes failed him, his chest became tight, he had a fever, the blood was pounding in his head. He fled from the crowded business streets across a bridge into the walks of the poor. On a quiet square, one of those forgotten and enchanted places which lie in the interior of Venice, he rested at the brink of a well, dried his forehead, and realized that he would have to leave here.

    The sirocco continues, despite changes in humidity and temperature as it travels, to be an ill wind, without ‘spring or elasticity’. Something fundamental, some quality that may well be connected with its “subtle electric fluid,” prevails, tainting the air it carries, turning it into simoon—one of the “poison winds.”

    There are others, amongst which the most infamous perhaps is the föhn.

    When a low pressure frontal system approaches the Alps from the west across France, it sucks in air from the Mediterranean, pulling it up the southern slopes, cooling it and condensing its moisture into a bank of stratocumulus cloud that settles on the peaks. This is the föhn wall, which drops dehydrated air down the northern slopes where it is warmed by compression, gaining heat at 1° Centigrade for every 100 meters it falls, pouring through traditional föhn windows into the valleys of Switzerland, Bavaria and the Austrian Tyrol as a hot and very dry wind.

    A winter föhn feeds on snow, clearing drifts in minutes, but it is otherwise an exceeding ill wind that blows nobody much good.

    When it blows strongly, it can cause terrible damage, and, as soon as they feel its approach, the mountain dwellers hasten to gather in their flocks and herds. They extinguish all the fires and the Alpine village closes in on itself as long as the storm lasts. Crossing the tops of the mountain, this down-driving wind beats into the valleys on the northern flank of the Alps and then sweeps over the whole of the Swiss plateau, tearing the roofs off chalets, flattening crops, uprooting trees and devastating the forests . . . Brunnen, on the Lake of Lucerne, has a special port for use on days when it is blowing. Sometimes it is so strong that even steamers have to stop to take shelter there.

    It was once thought that the föhn was “a fiery child of the Sahara,” come to free the Alps of their snow, but it in fact generates its own heat and has no connection at all with the sirocco. It has however come, perhaps by a similar mechanism, to share the same properties and produce similar unpleasant effects. And these are certainly not due to dust or pollution. On föhn days, visibility is uncommonly good, the air is clear, and the Alps seem crisp and close, with hard steel-blue lines. But plants wilt, cattle go off their feed and people become disgruntled and surly.

    Along with a rise in temperature of more than 10° Centigrade, and a fall in relative humidity to less than 20 per cent, there are abrupt pressure and electrical changes. These seem, once again in approximately one in every three or four people, to produce abnormally high concentrations of serotonin in blood and urine, or to lead to stress and in the end, adrenal exhaustion. The symptoms include anxiety, insomnia, irritability, tension, migraine, colic and apoplexy. And the results, even amongst the stoic Swiss, can be devastating.

    In 1976, the medical department of the West German Weather Station in Freiburg published the results of a four-year study proving that industrial accidents during a föhn required surgery 16 percent more often, and other medical treatment 20 percent more frequently, than at any other time.

    Human reaction time is affected so that, according to the Touring Club Suisse, traffic accidents in Geneva in 1972 rose by over 50 percent when föhn conditions prevailed. In 1976, the medical department of the West German Weather Station in Freiburg published the results of a four-year study proving that industrial accidents during a föhn required surgery 16 percent more often, and other medical treatment 20 percent more frequently, than at any other time. At Bad Tölz in Bavaria, internists report increases in hypotension, coronary crises, migraine and psychic disturbances both during and on the day preceding a föhn. The incidence of postoperative deaths due to both heavy bleeding and thrombosis during a föhn, has become so high that in some hospitals in Switzerland and Bavaria, major surgery is postponed whenever possible, until the wind has passed. But suicides and suicide attempts still soar to epidemic proportions all through Switzerland and into Austria, wherever the “witch’s wind” touches ground.

    The whole northern network of valleys that drain the Swiss plateau are scoured by föhn, but föhn effects are not confined to the Alps.

    Where air from the Mediterranean is drawn through the gap in the Corbières Mountains at Carcassonne, it drops on to the plain of Toulouse as the dry autan. The 17th-century author of a book on sexual disorders, blamed most of his patients’ problems on the wind, explaining that “This hot, burdensome and oppressive gale benumbs and prostrates both men and animals. It renders the brain torpid, robs a person of his appetite and seems to bloat up the body.” Numbness, prostration, torpor and bloat are enough to turn anyone off.

    In New Zealand, the Southern Alps have a föhn of their own, breeding a northwester that devours winter snow on the Canterbury Plains. In Australia, the brickfielder brings the hot breath of the interior to New South Wales on the skirts of a trough of low pressure. Trade winds falling over the Javanese highlands give rise to the warm kubang and gending. In Sumatra, they call their föhn bohorok. Falling winds off the Great Karroo and the Drakensberg produce the enervating berg winds of South Africa. And the Andes generate the zonda that periodically stifles southern Chile and Argentina.

    In North America, the Rocky Mountains deliver the snow-guzzling chinook, while the Sierra Nevada in California have an even more notorious product in their lusty Santa Ana, named according to your preference, after the mountains through which it passes; after General Santa Ana, whose Mexican cavalry stirred up similar clouds of dust; or from santanta, an American Indian name which means “devil wind.”

    Between five and ten times every year, when pressures are high over Utah and Nevada, air spills off the Mojave desert, rushes down the valleys, through the narrow mountain passes of Santa Ana, and out on to the coast around Los Angeles. Within minutes, the sea off Long Beach is whipped into white-caps and gales of up to 100 kilometers an hour buffet the coast between Santa Monica and Oxnard. In a single swat, one such blast flattened 252 oil derricks, while another rained 15 million tons of dust on downtown Burbank. Sailboats are capsized, sailplanes sent soaring up to 14,000 meters, and helicopters slammed into the ground. Devastating fires sweep through the hills and homes. Moods change. Skin turns taut. Aches come back to old scars in the night. And, in the words of Raymond Chandler, “On nights like that, every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husband’s necks. Anything can happen.”

    Murder often does. In 1968, Willis Miller of California Western University, collected statistics for homicides in Los Angeles county and compared them with weather records. There were 53 days during 1964 and 1965 when the Santa Ana blew and humidity, which is normally around 43 percent, fell below 15 percent. On 34 of those 53 windy days, there were more deaths than normal. And during the longest sustained Santa Ana, which blew from October 20th to 26th in 1965, the total was 47 percent higher than in any other windless week.

    The FBI recognizes a “long, hot summer” phenomenon, expecting more murder, aggravated assault and rape between June and September than at any other time. But the Santa Ana seems to supersede this annual cycle, producing short-term local effects whenever it blows, winter or summer, turning any time at all into a season of discontent. In California’s early, and to this extent more enlightened days, defendants in crimes of passion were able to plead for leniency, citing the wind as an extenuating circumstance.

    The Santa Ana, like other ill winds, is perfectly capable of violence without human help. When it blows, there is the usual increase in ulcer perforation, embolism, thrombosis, hemorrhage, myocardial infarction and migraine—not to mention theatrical failures, lower industrial production and loss of milk in cows. All these disorders are the result of tension, the product of an atmosphere heavy with menace and imminent catastrophe. Of dry air so filled with static electricity that even a handshake becomes shocking.

    It is in such air that unnatural charges accumulate—and it seems to be these that have the most negative effect.


    Heaven's Breath by Lyall Watson

    Lyall Watson’s Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind is out now from NYRB.

    Lyall Watson
    Lyall Watson
    Lyall Watson (1939–2008) was the author of Supernature, The Romeo Error, Gifts of Unknown Things, Lifetide, Lightning Bird, and Whales of the World. He was also a producer for BBC television, a zoo director, an expedition leader, and the Seychelles Commissioner on the International Whaling Commission.

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