This ubiquitous clear fluid, one sixth the viscosity of water, contains as many of life’s hidden mysteries, as well as known facts of life. I had an enlightening conversation with a developmentally disabled fellow several years ago. He reminded me that “Trees make oxygen, so we can breathe.” Though a bit awkward in his presentation, he’s right. I suppose, we can and do continue breathing in oxygen depleted air, we just don’t get what we need to sustain life from it. For all the intellectual and aesthetic reasons I wanted to plant trees, it took a “tard”, a word that he would call himself when he didn’t want to do things. to inform me of one of the most basic truths about a most common relationship that we humans have with nature.
Air, as I said is most often invisible. We get an inkling of the fact that it is a living fluid when we take time to study clouds, or find an eddy on a windy day. Most recently I saw the fluid nature of our constant friend at the shore of Lake Michigan. The air above the lake had been cooled to below fifty degrees Fahrenheit. The onshore breeze was pleasant and cool, but the earth around us had been heated to over eighty, so it looked like someone had opened a freezer door on a hot day. Fog swirled and ran across the ground for at least 100 feet, making the invisible visible. Now, mind you, this was not the air itself that we could see, but condensed water in the air. Like a marker that is added for us to be able to perceive what is always there, the minute droplets gave me a clue about our constant companion, air.
I have had a rudimentary understanding of this fluid since childhood. Watching tree branches tussled by the breezes and seeing objects lifted up by the forces of wind made it obvious to me that there was an invisible force acting on us. Later, when I began to ride bike, I was the only person that I knew who would choose to go into the wind for fun. Living as I did in Illinois, hills were not very common and the wind was the only way to test my stamina and power. When the air gets extremely whipped up, we always see newscasters willing to go out in it and show us why one should not go out. They are often seen clinging to sign posts, or telephone poles, braced against the rushing wind and too stupid to take shelter. Though it is fun to get to know the breeze, we really don’t start respecting it until there is a bit of pain that comes from our study.
Just before my teen years, I was living along a golf course. Our side yard had a steep hill, that lead down to the fairway of one of the holes. Though not part of the course, it had a western aspect and was most often caressed by constant wind. Looking to the southwest, where most of the wind came from, there was nearly a mile of unobstructed space, so the winds were stable and mostly predictable, varying mostly with the seasons. One day I found a sheet of plywood that was certainly large enough, it seemed to me, that when put in the wind, just the right way, seemed like it would be able to lift me. I thoughtfully stashed it behind our garage for a day when the wind was right. On the day that I picked to try to fly, there was a steady twenty mile per hour breeze, not with gusts, but lets call them puffs, up to twenty-five miles per hour.
The sky was full of small and skittering cumulus clouds which seemed a bit low. The clouds seemed to have dark underbellies and threatened rain, but just a passing spatter. I struggled with my plywood, making slow but steady headway across the field, to the top of the hill. I must have looked like a tiny ant, wrestling the giant leaf because when my arms were fully extended, I could just get a firm grasp on both sides of the 4 X 8 foot sheet. after initially being blown down, over and back, I learned that if I just grabbed the leading edge, the plywood would act more like a banner and not wrestle me to the ground or take me off course.
Within ten or fifteen minutes of starting my endeavor I stood at the top of the steepest part of the hill, knee deep in tall grass. The grass had matured and begun to turn brown and die back as it always did in late summer, revealing a bit more of the details of the Earth’s terrain. I stood a long while, feeling the wind, picking my “runway” to be as clear of obstructions as possible. I hoped that withing a few dozen yards I would be airborn and would not have to worry about the ground anymore.
I lifted the sheet above my head, end on into the wind. Placing my hands at the balance point I imagined that when I went airborne this would allow me to tilt the great sheet ever so slightly down or up to control my flight. I even picked a clear spot on the mowed grass below on which I thought I could land gracefully without hitting anything. Not yet aware of the process that aviators go through pre-flight, I checked my grip on each hand, making sure that it felt secure and comfortable. I checked to see that I was in just the right attitude to achieve up or down force from the “wing” with a flex of my wrists. Finally, I rechecked my route down the hill to make sure that there was nothing to hit. I then knew that the next puff that I would see, making it’s way up the hill, I would attack, trying to plan my take off to meet the extra little bit of wind-speed.
It happened, I took a few quick steps into the wind, ever so slightly turned my wrists back to catch the breeze and just as I imagined, the combined speed of the wind and my giant sail lifted me skyward, or at least I didn’t fall as fast as the earth did away from my feet. My first instinct was to look down at my feet, to make sure that I was flying, but when my head went forward I think I flexed my wrists back and the large melon of a head that was on my shoulders was forward of my center of gravity. I saw my feet rushing above the grass for an instant, but then the leading edge of the plywood fell precipitously, as did I. When the plywood hit the Earth, it felt like a wall. My head, shoulder, arms torso and legs all hit it with a dull thud. What was worse is that I felt like cookie dough being pressed into a shape. Where the ground and the plywood came together, it made an acute angle and I was crushed by momentum into that triangular form. Needless to say, I never tried that again.
After making sure that I was not hurt, badly, I dejectedly walked home, leaving the plywood right where I had crawled out from under it, feeling really good about the fact that I had flown, if just for a second or two. Th air made this possible, as it makes flight possible for many of the creatures that we share the planet with. This substance that we cannot see, the fluid that makes metabolism work, the sea of air around us that contains our planet in a protective sheath, had raised me high but it had also brought me crashing down.
The child most often learns the hard way. As long as it survives we look back and laugh. What confuses me is why adults seem to be bent on continuing this process even when the stakes get raised exponentially. The sea of air that surrounds us has been used as a dumping ground, degraded, energized and perturbed in ways we cannot fathom. The power that exists in this rushing fluid is virtually incomprehensible to our human brains, yet we toy with it, play in it, launch our pollutants skyward into it, and let fly ash from hundreds of coal-fired electric generating stations waft into our air. Rock dust was the first recognized carcinogen, yet we continue to crush the mineral coal into powder and feed it to the furnaces that electrify our nation. The resulting fly ash as you may know is carcinogenic. Nationwide, over 100,000 children live withing a mile of a fly ash pile. EPA estimates that this carries the same cancer risk of having those same 100,000 children take up a two pack a day smoking habit. with the billions spent on the war against big tobacco, wouldn’t it be nice to do something about the local hazards of fossil fuel use?
Clean, fresh and unspoiled air is getting more and more precious. The irony is that as we travel further and further to try to find it, we are driving more and more miles, polluting more and more air in a vicious cycle. That is why I have always advocated riding bikes to the woods. It is not nearly as hard as one might imagine. I also advocate planting trees because of their unique ability to both fix carbon, taking it out of the atmosphere, and to purify the air that we humans depend on for our survival.
The air has been a force for change since the dawn of time. It is high time to begin holding it sacred again. Phrases like, it is “in the wind”, or something is “in the air”. have been with us through the ages. What is often overlooked are the myriad of other references to our constant companion and fuel for life. The social butterfly flits from flower to flower, wafting itself on the power of the wind, making the necessary contacts for reproduction and enrichment to occur, spreading the pollen of new ways of thinking and being in the world. The eagle eye, all seeing and lofted to immense heights can see in ways that mere humans are not accustomed to, but that we can all benefit from. The air head and windbag are both examples of the negative effects of this vital fluid. Too much air in your head and cells begin to rupture. Oxygen in low doses is good, but in excess it burns the lungs, wreaking havoc in the respiratory system. We use the term air head to describe those who seem to not be able to think concretely. Their world remains invisible to us, but it surely is very real to them. The windbag is also seen as negative, as is being full of hot air. both of these metaphors are designed around the fact that wind, free flowing, is better than when it is cooped up inside. Like a person’s understanding, all of life is enriched by change. Being open to the winds of change keeps one from becoming stale, burning out or closing themselves off from the world.
I often wonder, if we had a deeper respect for this fluid that surrounds us, would we have a more sacred relationship with it? If we treated it better, would it enrich us? On both counts I have to come down on the side of a resounding, “Yes!” The same honor that we give our ancestors should be reflected in the way we treat and relate to the gift of air. It fuels both the fires of our own metabolism and the fires that warm us and transport us around the face of the globe. In the overall scheme of things it is truly one of the gifts that keeps on giving. Our ability to cross the vast oceans, or to settle the high plains and the West on our continent was contingent on learning to harvest the incredible forces of the wind.
Even now, as we face the trials and tribulations that will inevitably come from passing the point of peak oil, Mother Earth has graced us with winds of change. Breezes and gusts that can power our culture throughout time. I laugh at those who close themselves off from life (and reality) with their claims that things “will never work”. Those so suspicious that they cannot see the good that will come from reducing our carbon footprint. It seems that those crying wolf most desperately are the ones who stand to gain the most from change. Is it any wonder that so little gets done, our entire culture seems dominated by the childlike tantrums exemplified as holding our collective breath. Anyone who has been a parent knows that giving in to any tantrum only assures another in the future. Luckily, the worst thing that can happen when naysayers hold their breath is that they pass out. Perhaps when they regain consciousness, those of us who continued to breathe will have solved the problems that led to their crises in the first place.
In newborns, perhaps in all humans, the urge to breathe comes from a build up of poisonous CO2 in our blood. Perhaps one day we will all hit that wall together and take a collective breath. My hope is that when that day comes, there is enough fresh air left to enrich our lives, heal the wounds that we have let fester, inspire positive growth and change rather than further degrade the planet and soothe our collective souls. The sacred air has the power to heal. Is it any wonder that the more debased and contaminated we make it, the higher the rates of cancer, desolation and depression become? Please, take time to respect this element and honor it’s sanctity.