Air: The Restless Shaper of the World

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Overview

Air sustains the living.
Every creature breathes to live, exchanging and changing the atmosphere. Water and dust spin and rise, make clouds and fall again, fertilizing the dirt.
Twenty thousand fungal spores and half a million bacteria travel in a square foot of summer air. The chemical sense of aphids, the ultraviolet sight of swifts, a newborn’s awareness of its mother’s breast—all take place in the medium ...

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Overview

Air sustains the living.
Every creature breathes to live, exchanging and changing the atmosphere. Water and dust spin and rise, make clouds and fall again, fertilizing the dirt.
Twenty thousand fungal spores and half a million bacteria travel in a square foot of summer air. The chemical sense of aphids, the ultraviolet sight of swifts, a newborn’s awareness of its mother’s breast—all take place in the medium of air.

Ignorance of the air is costly. The artist Eva Hesse died of inhaling her fiberglass medium. Thousands were sickened after 9/11 by supposedly “safe” air. The African Sahel suffers drought in part because we fill the air with industrial dusts. With the passionate narrative style and wide-ranging erudition that have made William Bryant Logan’s work a touchstone for nature lovers and environmentalists, Air is—like the contents of a bag of seaborne dust that Darwin collected aboard the Beagle—a treasure trove of discovery.

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Editorial Reviews

Wall Street Journal
Air is... a spore-world of essays, essaylets, mini-biographies, gossip, whispers, lists, prose-poems and asides. ...Cheery, chatty and compulsively curious, Mr. Logan is able to draw the reader into pretty much any subject... In this lovely book, Mr. Logan makes the air airy again.— Robert Macfarlane
Kirkus Reviews
An examination of the all-encompassing role that the atmosphere plays in shaping our lives. Arborist Logan weaves together history, philosophy and culture in the third volume of his trilogy. As in his earlier works--Dirt (1995) and Oak (2005)--he celebrates the union of the inorganic and organic realms that nurture life: "The air cannot be owned. It cannot be controlled…It changes the fate of creatures and the destiny of peoples." The author explains that his purpose is to make us aware of how remarkable the role of the atmosphere is in the evolution of life on Earth and in every aspect of daily existence. Too often we take it for granted, he writes, except when problems arise. In our focus on air quality and global warming, we tend to forget that it is the medium in which spores, fungi, airborne bacteria and pollens circulate--along with soot and other pollutants. Logan provides a biting critique of the failure of government officials to be honest with the population of New York City about the dangerous level of pollution following 9/11, when he was able to accurately measure the air quality as he worked to save trees in the area. He explains how global patterns of air circulation are responsible for cyclones and describes the problem faced by weather forecasters because of the famous butterfly effect: how "the smallest unobserved change could make the difference between a sunny day and a massive storm." Logan celebrates the atmosphere as a medium of communication--transmitting pheromones as well as sound, bird calls, music--and notes that the breath of life separates the living from the dead. A tour-de-force journey through the natural world.
Robert Macfarlane - Wall Street Journal
““[A] delightful Wunderkammer of a book. . . . Air is... a spore-world of essays, essaylets, mini-biographies, gossip, whispers, lists, prose-poems and asides. ...Cheery, chatty and compulsively curious, Mr. Logan is able to draw the reader into pretty much any subject... In this lovely book, Mr. Logan makes the air airy again.”
Seattle Times
Logan is an enjoyable companion with which to explore his subject. He is erudite and thoughtful, with an agreeable mix of the personal and scientific— David B. Williams
Booklist
Starred review. Logan’s meticulously researched and engagingly presented treatise is a breath of, well, fresh air.— Carol Haggas
Nature
“Splendid. . . . Logan delivers vast amounts of science with brevity and elegance.”
Wall Street Journal - Robert Macfarlane
“"[A] delightful Wunderkammer of a book. . . . Air is... a spore-world of essays, essaylets, mini-biographies, gossip, whispers, lists, prose-poems and asides. ...Cheery, chatty and compulsively curious, Mr. Logan is able to draw the reader into pretty much any subject... In this lovely book, Mr. Logan makes the air airy again.”
Seattle Times - David B. Williams
“Logan is an enjoyable companion with which to explore his subject. He is erudite and thoughtful, with an agreeable mix of the personal and scientific”
Booklist - Carol Haggas
“Starred review. Logan’s meticulously researched and engagingly presented treatise is a breath of, well, fresh air.”
David B. Williams - Seattle Times
“Logan is an enjoyable companion with which to explore his subject. He is erudite and thoughtful, with an agreeable mix of the personal and scientific”
Carol Haggas - Booklist
“Starred review. Logan’s meticulously researched and engagingly presented treatise is a breath of, well, fresh air.”
Nature
“Splendid. . . . Logan delivers vast amounts of science with brevity and elegance.”
The Barnes & Noble Review

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.

Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.

Reviewer: Peter Lewis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393067989
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/20/2012
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 989,445
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

William Bryant Logan is a certified arborist and Quill & Trowel Award-winning writer. He is the author of Oak and Dirt, the latter of which was made into an award-winning documentary. He lives in New York City.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

Floating

Darwin's Dust 24

The Spore Sucker 33

Where Fungi Are 48

Splash, Fire, Blow, Fling 50

The Ergot of the Rye 59

Lifted, Lofted, and Living 63

The Pollen Rain 66

Invisible Cities 71

Is the Furniture Poison? 76

The Air after 9/11 82

Spinning

Weaving 90

Vortices 99

Ground Truth 108

El Greco's Clouds 115

The Big Mistake 122

The Forecasters 128

The Weather on D-Day 139

Forcing 146

The Winds 152

Firestorm 162

Flying

Dragged Aloft 168

Saab in Flight 171

The Common Crane 174

Stall Practice 181

The Bat, the Bee, the Bar-Headed Goose 192

The Lee Wave 201

The Wind Riders 205

What Now? 216

Telling

The Wilderness of Pheromones 226

Mother and Child Communion 233

Allure 237

The Atmosphere of the Beloved 243

Zooming In 248

Aphids in the Invisible World 255

The Bolas Spider 258

Calling

What Is Sound? 262

Parrot Duets 267

Tfce Answered Question 272

Nothing in It but What Goes through It 277

Enchanted 282

Sonata Form and Chaos 289

The Aeolian Harp 295

Breathing

The Tarpon's Breath 300

Fenchel's Dance 305

The Quantity of Breath 312

Fogging the Mirror 322

Shall These Bones Live? 328

Shining

Why the Daytime Sky Is Light 336

There Is Only One Sun 338

The Sap Rising 342

The Air Is a Slow Cold Flame 348

Notes 352

Bibliography 370

Index 385

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 9, 2014

    This is a lovely, easy, dreamy read. It's far more a meditation

    This is a lovely, easy, dreamy read. It's far more a meditation on things having to do with air than a science book. The chapters form a hodge-podge that eventually becomes a picture, but it's part memoir, part poem, and part science.

    This use of pictures is strange. There are a few pictures, but that are largely not helpful to the author to make his point. And then when he really needs a picture, there isn't one, and his language gets tangled trying to make up for it. The most obvious example is that his chapter on the perception and portrayal of the air in the history of art. He describes paintings but doesn't reprint any of them, and the chapter really withers without them. But there are multiple others points that could have used a picture if he really wanted to make his point clear.

    But in the end, being perfectly clear may not have been his goal. Just getting us to reflect on the importance and busy-ness of air, the indelible essence that surrounds us every day, is probably the aim of a book like this. And in that, it is successful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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