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Power of Wind Can Build and Destroy


This is the time of year when many of us get in touch with nature, at the beach, in the mountains or in a city park. Our commentator, Ruth Levy Guyer, communes with nature in her breezy back yard, which has her contemplating the wind.

RUTH LEVY GUYER reporting:

The stately willow oak in my backyard, planted by Abraham Lincoln, or one of his friends, or perhaps John Wilkes Booth, is now the tallest tree in my neighborhood. Actually, it was probably the wind that plucked the acorn from the mother tree and dropped it there. When I sit in my backyard, puff out my cheeks and blow towards the tree, the leaves sway back in unison. But when even the slightest breeze blows by, those same leaves bob and dip and bend like a company of dancers, and the tiniest branches thrum like a percussionist's fingers on a drum skin.

I don't really understand how the wind choreographs such a complex willowy show, but I confess, the wind's artistry blows me away. The wind is wondrous, luscious on a hot afternoon, terrifying in a storm. Wind is central to the survival of species. Male plants launch their pollens on the breezes. Male animals send forth their pheromones, and winds have long accommodated migrating birds, letting them hitch rides in their slipstreams.

Sailing ships and planes now do that too. We humans name the winds the long distance trades and jet streams, the local dust devils, hamsin(ph) willy-willy, mistral, maestro, Santa Anna, sky sweeper, Diablo, chocolata. The winds remind us that earth is small. Cattle in Tennessee were aglow with radioactivity just days after the Bravo bomb was detonated at the Bikini Atoll in 1954. And opportunistic pathogens rode the winds more recently from Maui to the Virgin Islands, where they killed off coral reefs, sea fans and urchins.

Winds can make us crazy sick. Even Hippocrates knew this. Aggression, depression, phobias, criminal and suicidal behaviors all can be induced by ill winds. And so can butterflies in the stomach and the wind-like rumbling in the gut onomatopoetically called borborigmous.

The Chinese consider the wind the preeminent pathogen. Vietnamese in America sometimes experience distinctive panic attacks known by the name hit by the wind. When the hot polenta wind sweeps into Barcelona, anxiety attacks raise threefold. And farther down the coast of Spain, at the southernmost tip of Europe, the polenta clashes relentlessly with the Levanter(ph). There the walled medieval town of Tarifa was once called the suicide capital of Europe.

But then someone got the idea to celebrate instead of hate the howling winds. Kite surfers, hang gliders, windsurfers all blew into town. Tarifa morphed into the proud wind capital of Europe. In the '70s a meteorologist asked, Does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? He was trying to explain why long range forecasting is impossible.

The tiniest perturbations to the air can trigger the most profound effects on wind, changing it in space and time. If the wind so sensitively reverberates to the quiver of a butterfly, what then of its response to the hang glider, the distance bomb, the drum roll, the report of the assassins gun, the backyard experiment with the willow oak? The answer, my friends, is blowing - you know where.

ELLIOTT: Ruth Levy Guyer teaches bio-ethics at Haverford College. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Levy Guyer