Air is everywhere — or at least everywhere in the human sense: a disquieted, uncontrollable fluid whose surface touches heaven, if heaven is found about sixty miles up in the sky. Air can be soft as a summer night or tough enough to drive a stalk of wheat through a telephone pole. It propagates sound, issues lightning, holds the oxygen we breathe, ferries migrating birds and devouring pests. It sinks great armadas, gives color to color, stirs the pot that shapes our fate.
Air is fascinating, and William Bryant Logan massages that fascination in a gratifying, edifying way, just as he did with the subjects of his books Oak and Dirt. He works the big themes (air = life) but he plays the smaller motifs with finesse: how a cloud of dust, bearing precious phosphorous from Africa, feeds the rainforests of Brazil, or gusts from the Gobi enrich Hawaiian soil. He tracks spores in the exosphere, at 253,000 feet and on a journey of 10,000 miles; a committee of smuts ravaging a grassland; rafts of bacteria and rivers of pollen, microscopically “resembling a cross between an alligator and an enema bag.”
The point is that air is not empty. It is full of world-class travelers: they take leave every time you fluff your bed, they off-gas from your furniture, they carry the smell of a flower or a forest or a fart. These are “aerosols” — greater or lesser particulates, some natural and some manufactured. And we’re making plenty more aerosols than the amount of water in the atmosphere can accommodate, saturating the air with constipated raindrops that serve as a fuel to make big heat, big storms: in one four-day period last year, 353 tornadoes were counted in the Midwest of the United States, a record and a calamity. One twister blew an entire Wrangler jean factory off the map. Dungarees fell from the sky across three counties.
Logan is in full command of this opera. There are heroines, too, of a sort. “The sky,” wrote John Constable, who painted the life and death of clouds like no other, “is the chief organ of sentiment,” from teary wisps to great bosomy pillows to pure, shattering blue and the fabled green flash. There will be lords of misrule, weather that would make El Greco proud, winds with their own names: mistral, foehn, sirocco, Chinook, Santa Ana, and the greatest haymaker of them all, the prevailing westerlies.
The book’s many small chapters are diverse — from the first weather forecasters, who were suspected of “aeromancy,” divination based on the properties of air, to the ballooning of spiders, singing monks, the antiphonal language of the yellow-naped Amazon parrot, the Bernoulli Principle and the Kutta Condition (“If you were a very careful insect, you could walk along the trailing edge [of a wing in flight] and not even feel a breeze.”) — but work like pectin to make the story gel. Fungi lead to pheromones lead to firestorms, and it is both marvelous and appalling what we are taking in with every breath. Air is far more concerned with scientific wonders than practical takeaways, but here’s one: try to breathe through your nose.