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30 september 2023

"The wind bloweth where it listeth," says Jesus in the Gospel of John. "Thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth." In her exploration of this invisible ubiquitous force, for Reaktion Books, Louise Pryke dwells on the paradoxes of the wind, invisible and irresistible.

Wind is as vital to the Earth's ecosphere as water, solar energy, or the various cycles of the chemical elements. We can't see it the way we can light or water, so wind remains mysterious and somewhat underrated. But the wind carries enormous amounts of water, soil, and organic material; it carves landscapes; it is at the heart of the basic energy flow of our planet (and of the cosmos, in the form of "winds" made up of other substances than air). Wind has impacted human activities and technologies: sailing, warfare, and the energy industry.

Pryke looks at a great deal of literature and mythology that involve wind, from the book of Job to the Odyssey, Percy Shelley, Raymond Chandler, and P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins. She looks at representations of wind in art, where Katsushika Hokusai found inventive ways of freezing the action of wind among leaves and flowers, and Vincent Van Gogh summoned the power of wind to set whole grainfields in motion. In music, "wind" is something of a metaphor, instruments being powered not by wind but by breath. But the Aeolian harp, as metaphor and as the real thing, is a true wind instrument, as are chimes and bells of various kinds, all of which Pryke addresses.

Intangible though the wind may be, there are far too many invocations of literature in fiction, poetry and song for Pryke to get to them all, and I am hardly making much of a dent in what remains in thinking about a few salient examples to add. My partner thought of Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Windhover," the falcon heading "off forth on swing, / As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend." I thought of a novel my partner urged me to read, Dorothy Scarborough's The Wind, where the title phrase is a major character in a Texas Gothic story.

Pryke mentions several evocations of wind in program music like Vivaldi's "Summer," Mendelssohn's Hebrides, Debussy's "West Wind." Wind courses through all the musical settings of Dante's Paolo and Francesca; Pryke mentions Liszt, but one could add Tchaikovsky, Zandonai, Rachmaninoff and many others.

Zandonai and Rachmaninoff wrote Dantescan operas based on Francesca's windy circle of hell. More mundane but no less haunting winds appear in Wagner's Flying Dutchman and Meyerbeer's L'Africaine. Though I guess those too are purposeful, almost personified winds, involved with curses and destinies. Like the sea or like rivers, is hard not to think of the wind as a person.

Popular song features lots of windy moments. "Tripping down the streets of the city," in Ruthann Friedman's song, "Windy has wings to fly / Above the clouds." Again, it's hard to tell whether Windy is a person or the wind itself. "Der Sommerwind" first appeared in German, music by Heinz Meier and lyrics by Hans Bradtke. This is one of those rare texts that is perhaps not better in the original German. Johnny Mercer complicated the lyrics and made them more poignant as "Summer Wind," covered by legions of English-language singers.

"Summer breeze makes me feel fine / Blowin' through the jasmine in my mind" is a memorable chorus, though I don't think that Seals and Crofts knew where they were going in the lifeless verses, full of "curtains hangin' in the window" and "paper layin' on the sidewalk." Some breeze that must be.

My favorite pop windsong is John Ims' "West Texas Wind," a hit in the cover by The Dixie Chicks. Ims' lyrics are sharply in tension with themselves. The speaker, ungendered (both men and women have recorded the song) is on their way to Denver to visit a lover: "To say I miss you is putting it lightly, can't you see … Early in the morning, honey you're the first thing on my mind." But "Colorado is more than eight hundred miles away," and the whole way, the singer keeps asking "West Texas Wind, tell me why you try to hold me back / Tuggin' at my heart and pullin' on my sleeve." The wind bloweth where it listeth, and it's not in the direction the singer keeps assuring us is the one they want to travel.

Pryke, Louise M. Wind. London: Reaktion, 2023.