Friday, July 29, 2005

The Thingness of Air

Sometimes we forget that we do not live in a vacuum, that there is something all around us that we cannot see but without which we would immediately die. It is the air. The air that we breathe even without noticing, that we take for granted.

Mainly we speak of the air only when it smells bad or when it is buffeting us around too much. Very occasionally, we will take a big lungful and say: "That's bracing!" This generally happens when the sea is not far away.

When the air fills a sail we actually see the way that air flows, pushing everything along in front of it. Nothing pushes the air. The air has a life of its own. It has a kind of animal force. It is a spirit that has been let out of a box and cannot be put back.

And when we look at the clouds, as I was yesterday, we observe from the behaviour of different kinds of cloud that the air is layered above the earth, moving very fast at altitude where the clouds are smeared out flat, moving more slowly near the ground where the clouds are fluffy and rotund.

Why don't clouds rest on the earth all the time? The idea that they ought to float is not obvious. After all, they are not filled with helium. Rather, they are loaded down with rain and hail. Is it not rather miraculous that they float?

This evening, travelling home on the train, a fellow commuter suddenly remarked: "there's a storm approaching". We stopped in a station, there was no rain, but everything had gone misty. A cloud had descended on us.

The doors of the train opened, and before any of the departing passengers had time to step under the platform awnings, the rain had fallen as a sheet and drenched them all. It was as if someone had thrown a huge bucket of water. In seconds we were being treated to hailstones a centimetre across and lightning at five second intervals. It was a real torrential storm that lasted about fifteen minutes, and at the end of which about two inches of rain had fallen.

As I stood at the gate of the railway station waiting for the raindrops to stop falling, I could hear sirens from all sides. Police, fire and ambulance were suddenly on the streets, clearing up the damage. This continued for around an hour.

Just outside the railway station, several policemen had parked their car across the road to stop traffic from passing. There was the whole upper part of a large plane tree lying across the tarmac, felled as if by an enormous karate chop. When I got home, I jumped in the car and took the children to see it. Their own grandfather, still living, was struck by lightning many years ago and I wanted them to see the force of nature that had worked on him. He was lucky to survive.

Witnessing the descent of this cloud onto the earth, its chaotic effects, made me wonder what would happen if the atmosphere changed in some way causing clouds to start doing this more often. Perhaps the population of Louisiana and Florida are also asking themselves the same question, after being hit by increasing numbers of hurricanes over the last few years.

A few years ago, I went to visit Louisiana and was taken on a boat trip to the Wax River delta which is forming very rapidly today at the end of a wide, man-made canal. Much of the Mississippi mud is now making its way to the Gulf of Mexico by this route. The guide was an expert on coastal systems and explained how the barrier islands that mark the seaward edge of drowned Mississippi delta lobes are being washed away by the hurricanes. These are some of the last defences that the city of New Orleans has from storm surges that cause the region to flood. Over half a million people live on the floodplain of the Mississippi. They are warned to keep chainsaws in the attic in order that they can cut their way out rather than being drowned in their own roofspace.

These Americans are in no doubt of the thingness of air, when the hurricane hits them at speeds of more than 100 mph, and sometimes as much as 200 mph. At this speed, it might as well be a large truck that has smashed down their houses.

We feel the thingness of air when we take off in an aeroplane and pass through the cloud layer. Sometimes the plane is knocked this way and that as if it were going to fall apart. This experience always makes me nervous. Roald Dahl, who was a fighter pilot during the war, knew about the solidity of clouds. In his children's book 'James and the Giant Peach', James ascends on his enormous peach into the clouds and finds them peopled by a shadowy population, always building and reforming the place where they live. They have a naturally beligerent temperament and when they spot James and his animal friends, they start pelting them with large hailstones.

Finally, there is a lovely poem to mention that comes from Paul Muldoon's vituoso first book, aptly named 'New Weather'. The poem is called 'Wind and Tree' and begins:

In the way that most of the wind
Happens where there are trees,

Most of the world is centred
About ourselves.

The poem uses the simile of two trees rubbing together to express a conflictual relationship between two lovers who have grown cold. What is brilliant about the poem, is that the wind is seen as a metaphor for something else that is around us all the time and which we can't see, which is to say: love, in all its changing moods. And yet the poem has other depths as well, which relate to Muldoon being an Irish writer who has grown up in a time of conflict. It seems to point to his own engagement with the conflict, rather than turning his back on it and pretending it didn't exist. The poem ends:

Often I think I should be like
The single tree, going nowhere,

Since my own arm could not and would not
Break the other. Yet by my broken bones

I tell new weather.

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