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Into the Dragon's Mouth
It begins with a subtle stirring caused by sunlight falling on the vapors that swaddle the earth. It is fueled by extremes—the stifling warmth of the tropics, the bitter chill of the poles. Temperature changes set the system in motion: hot air drifts upward and, as it cools, slowly descends. Knots of high and low pressure gather strength or diminish, forming invisible peaks and valleys in the gaseous soup.
Gradually the vapors begin to swirl as if trapped in a simmering cauldron. Air molecules are caught by suction and sent flying. They slide across mountain ridges and begin the steep downward descent toward the barometric lows. As the world spins, it brushes them to one side but does not slow them.
Tumbling together, the particles of air become a huge, unstoppable current. Some of them rake the earth, tousling grasses and trees, slamming into mountains, pounding anything that stands in their way. They are a force unto themselves, a force that shapes the terrestrial and aquatic world. They bring us breath and hardship. They have become the wind.
I stand on a beach near sunset, squinting into the dragon's mouth of a gale. The wind pushes tears from the corners of my eyes across my temples. Ocean waves crest and break quickly, rolling onto the beach like tanks, churned to an ugly, frothy blue-brown. The storm is a typical northeaster, most common in spring but also likely to occur in January or June.
Where I live, on North Carolina's Outer Banks, the days are defined by wind. Without it the roar of the surf would fall silent; the ocean would become as languid as a lake. Trees would sprout wherever their seeds happened to fall, cresting the frontal dune, pushing a hundred feet up with spreading crowns. We would go about our lives in a vacuum. That is how it feels in the few moments when the wind dies: ominous, apocalyptic. As if the world has stopped turning.
I lounge on the beach with friends, enjoying a mild afternoon. A light west breeze lulls and then freshens from the east. Its salty tongue is cooling and delightful at first, but as the gusts build to fifteen miles an hour we begin to think of seeking cover. We linger awhile—how long can we hold out, really?—until grains of sand sting our cheeks and fly into our mouths. As we climb the dune that separates us from the parking lot, I am struck anew by the squatness of the landscape. Nothing within a half-mile of the ocean grows much higher than the dune line. Nothing can withstand the constant burning inflicted by maritime wind.
On this thread of soil that arches twenty miles east of the mainland, every tree and shrub must be adapted to living in wind laden with salt and ferociously strong. Gusts of fifty miles an hour or more will shatter any limbs that are less pliant than rubber. We have no protection from raw weather here; we are too far out to sea. There is nothing between the coast and the Appalachian Mountains, hundreds of miles inland, to brake the speed of building westerly breezes. There is nothing between the Outer Banks and Africa to dampen the force of easterly blows.
Any book on weather will tell you that winds are caused by the uneven heating of the earth. Pockets of warm and cold air jostle each other, create an airflow, and voilà! the wind begins to blow. Air moves from high pressure to low pressure, deflected to the right or the left by the rotation of the earth. It is a simple matter of physics. I try to keep that fact in mind as I stand on the beach, bent beneath the sheer force of air being thrown at me, my hair beating against my eyes. Somehow, out in the elements, the wisdom of science falls a bit short. It is easier to believe that wind is the roaring breath of a serpent who lives just over the horizon.
The wind, the wind. It has nearly as many names as moods: there are siroccos, Santa Anas, foehns, brickfielders, boras, williwaws, chinooks, monsoons. It has, as well, unrivaled power to evoke comfort or suffering, bliss or despair, to bless with fortune, to tear apart empires, to alter lives. Few other forces have so universally shaped the diverse terrains and waters of the earth or the plants and animals scattered through them. Few other phenomena have exerted such profound influence on the history and psyche of humankind.
From the soft stirrings that rustle leaves and grasses on summer afternoons to the biting storms that threaten life and limb, wind touches us all every day of our lives. We pay homage to its presence or absence each time we dress to go outside. We worship it with sighs, curses, and tears. "She's blowin', she is," the captain of a commercial fishing boat told me one stormy day shortly after I moved to the Outer Banks. As I struggled to keep my footing on a salt-slicked dock, I had to agree. Thereafter I made the expression part of our household vernacular. "She's blowin', she is," my husband and I joked those first winters, as Arctic-born breezes set our teeth on edge. She is, she is. But what in God's name is she?
In strict scientific terms wind is scarcely more than a clockwork made up of gaseous components. The heat of the sun and the rotation of the earth set the system ticking and keep it wound. The gears are simply air's inherent tendency to rise when heated and fall when cooled.
These patterned movements of air fasten into place the bands of wind and calm that girdle our small globe. A belt of constant low pressure rings the earth's middle, a weather equator that creates a strip of general breezelessness popularly known as the doldrums. To the north and the south the moist breath of the trade winds stirs the atmospheric stew. The pleasant trade regions are bounded in the northern and southern hemispheres by the comparatively stagnant zones known as the horse latitudes—so named, legend holds, because calm air within them slowed the sailing ships of early explorers and forced crew members to conserve water by throwing horses overboard. A significant portion of the world's deserts lie within the horse latitudes. Above and below 35 degrees, in the two breezy zones that encompass most of North America, Europe, China, Argentina, Chile, and New Zealand, prevailing westerlies revive the flow. These give way to bands of light easterlies that encircle the farthest, coldest reaches of the earth.
The atmosphere's alternating punches are felt most solidly in the southern hemisphere, where large expanses of open ocean enable winds to gather serious power. In the northern hemisphere the major continents harbor standing cells of high pressure; the wind must weave its way between pressure cores and over land features—mountains, valleys, cities—that muddy its flow and retard its passage. But in the north, wind unleashes catastrophic strength in the form of tornadoes that shred entire towns and northeasters that set seas chopping at shorelines like ravenous beasts.
The two contrasting faces of wind—its predictability and its moodiness—imbue it with the qualities of an animate being. Like the human body, wind is much more than the simple sum of its parts. Cool, gentle breezes seem peculiarly designed to nurture and heal, while storms strike us as personifications of the wrath of God. "This is the disintegrating power of a great wind: it isolates one from one's kind," Joseph Conrad wrote in Typhoon. "An earthquake, a landslip, an avalanche, overtake a man incidentally, as it were—without passion. A furious gale attacks him like a personal enemy, tries to grasp his limbs, fastens upon his mind, seeks to rout his very spirit out of him."
Out in a tempest on a boat being tossed by angry seas, it is difficult to think of the wind as a passive player in deciding one's fate. Wind has served as the pivotal factor in many lives, and in the histories of many peoples. Early explorers, from the Polynesians to the Vikings to the Spaniards, were led by favorable breezes to follow certain routes. As a result, Brazil was settled by Europeans more than a century before the west coast of Africa was, and Cortés ravaged the Aztecs and dismantled their empire a hundred years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Key battles have been won and entire armies vanquished because of fortuitous turns of wind.
I like to speculate about how the world might be different if wind had arranged itself in other patterns, defying physics. Which would be the richer nations and which the poorer? Where might the rain forests lie and the great deserts? What of the history of this country? In 1777 George Washington defeated Charles Cornwallis in a crucial battle that turned when a north wind froze muddy roads along the Delaware River and enabled the new Americans to quickly reposition their artillery. If not for that wind, might we still be subjects of a distant queen or king?
Between 35 and 36 degrees north latitude, the thin islands known as the Outer Banks lie in a band of spirited west wind that accelerates as it moves over the Piedmont region and toward the Atlantic Ocean. The weather of this coast is shaped by the westerlies that scream across the continent in winter, pushing calmer, milder air far south.
Offshore the wide, warm Gulf Stream ropes its way north past Cape Hatteras and turns back out to sea after a close swipe at land. It mingles briefly with the cold, dying tongues of the southbound Labrador Current. In terms of weather, the junction of these two flows is enough to stop the show. In winter, when a dome of high pressure from the Arctic drifts southeast, it may come to the edge of the Gulf Stream and stall.
Will it linger or be pushed over the Gulf Stream and out to sea? Suppose there is a core of warm air off the coast, just east of the Stream. At the same time, suppose the jet stream has grown unusually strong and is flowing toward the northeast. The two air masses bump against each other like huge bubbles, the cold air fighting to move east, the warm air prodded north by the jet stream. A pocket of turbulence develops in the crook between them. Wind flows east, then is bent quickly to the north. Unable to resist the centrifugal force, it begins to move full circle, creating a system of low pressure that deepens violently.
The barometer plummets; rain descends in torrents. Up north, snow falls thick and fast. The western edge of the Gulf Stream is where great winter storms are made. They drift north, bequeathing rain to the Outer Banks usually, but sometimes snow. And wind.
In the spring of 1962 an explosive low-pressure system developed unexpectedly over the Outer Banks. In the wake of fierce northeast winds the ocean pounded the shore for three days, spilling over the dunes and through the little towns tucked behind them. During that particular meteorological episode, known as the Ash Wednesday Storm, people woke to find the ocean sloshing into their beds. This cycle of weather has been repeated many times since, though never with a force equal to that of the first.
Such sudden, lashing northeasters have always intrigued coastal forecasters, who as recently as the early 1980s were at a loss to explain them. Now, with the help of Doppler radar, satellite photographs, and computer models of the atmosphere, meteorologists can often tell when a winter low-pressure system threatens to form over the coast. They can warn island residents, with some confidence, to buckle down for a storm.
More typically the wind blows fickle, and its swings of mood are devilishly tricky to foretell. At the center of a pressure core the wind speed slows, but at the edges it quickens. A strong knot of high pressure, sliding over the coast, may bring light wind that lasts for days. The system may stall long enough to dissolve, or it may venture out to sea, stirring up gales as it passes.
How much wind tomorrow? Technicians at the weather station make their educated guesses, knowing all along that the wind may fool them. Knowing that whatever else it does, the wind will call the day's tune.
Before the Advent of worldwide forecasting systems, islanders watched for subtle changes to predict the behavior of weather and wind. They studied the sky and the animals the way a mother might look for the telltale signs that her young child is growing tired and cross. If, in a light, variable wind the gulls stand facing north, watch for steady north wind by nightfall. If clouds form a halo around the moon, count the stars within the halo. If there are three, expect bad weather for the next three days.
A mackerel sky—one with clouds that look like fish scales—means rain is on the way. A sundog at sunset foretells a bad storm. A mild spell in December or January is a "weather breeder"; it brings penetrating cold before winter's end. "A warm Christmas," an elderly island man once told me, "makes a fat cemetery."
The intensity of the weather here always depends on the wind, and the traditional sayings impart more folk wisdom about gales and breezes than about any other facet of life. A heavy dew in the morning means heavy wind by afternoon. If a swarm of biting flies shows up on a fishing boat far offshore, a land breeze is bound to shift to an ocean breeze. When the wind swings hard to the northeast, it will most likely blow itself out in a day:
A Saturday shift, come late or soon, It seldom stands till Sunday noon.
Once or twice a winter, however, a northeaster lasts for most of a week. No matter how it begins or ends, local lore holds that the blow will always diminish on the third, or fifth, or seventh day, never on the second, fourth, or sixth day.
Only fools lived at the edge of the ocean back before hurricanes could be spotted on radar. The houses of Outer Banks natives nestled together in wooded sections just off Albemarle and Pamlico sounds. The sound side was considered the front of the islands, and the ocean beach, where the fury of storms hit hardest, was thought of as the back. It was the jumping-off point, the place where daring souls—swimmers, sailors, fishermen—could venture from the encircling arms of a continent into an ocean of uncertainty and terror. Islanders spoke of their homeland as if they were intent on keeping their backs to the wind.
The cattle that ranged freely across the Outer Banks in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century seemed to know when a weather shift was imminent, and they anticipated changes in the wind to escape biting flies. If they moved to the "back of the beach," east wind was on the way. If they migrated to the marshes, the easterly breeze would swing west. Most of the time the range stock stayed in the open grasslands and dunes. When they wandered into the villages, residents began boarding up windows for a hurricane.
Normally the wind migrates slowly from northeast to east to southeast to southwest, moving clockwise in the anticyclonic pattern typical of high-pressure systems in the northern hemisphere. There are exceptions, of course, when the wind direction shifts backward—counterclockwise. For generations native islanders have known such a pattern to be a harbinger of the most violent storms. The weather change might come as a localized thunderstorm or a devastating hurricane, but a backing wind is always to be feared. As an old saying has it, "I'd rather look at Grandma's drawers than see a backing wind."
Wind is culture and heritage on the Outer Banks; wind shapes earth, plant, animal, human. Wind toughens us, moves mountains of sand as we watch, makes it difficult to sleepwalk through life.
The spring I moved to the islands I lived in a house beset by wind. Air seeped easily through the decayed siding and whistled through the roof. The constant clatter made me lonely and chafed my nerves, but I gladly sought the shelter of those rooms rather than stand exposed to the chilling breeze. I developed a ritual for going out: before opening the door I pulled on my coat and gloves, yanked down my hat, and braced myself for an onslaught.
I conditioned myself slowly, taking walks in steady wind for twenty minutes at first, with the hope of working up to forty-five. An appreciation for wind was not in my nature; I had to learn to like the feel of air pummeling my chest and roaring across my skin. "Light" wind, I learned, blew less than fifteen miles an hour.* Anything less than ten miles an hour was not worthy of mention.
Excerpted from Wind by Jan DeBlieu. Copyright © 1998 Jan DeBlieu. Excerpted by permission of Open Road Distribution.
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