One of my favorite quotes comes from a personal hero, nature writer Hal Borland:
“There are no limits to either time or distance, except as Man himself may make them. I have but to touch the wind to know these things.”
The wind is, of course, a purely physical phenomenon, the movement of atmosphere from an area of high pressure to an area of low pressure. The sun’s heat drives the wind. So does heat moving in ocean currents and the Coriolis Effect. A myriad of local and global influences move the wind and shape it. In our history, we have harnessed the wind to grind grain, to pump water, to move ships, to generate electricity. Plants use it to spread pollen and seeds, birds use it to soar in the sky, mammals seek or avoid it to improve their own comfort in their environment.
That is not what Hal Borland had in mind. In fact, I think I have a good handle on what Mr. Borland meant when he encouraged us to touch the wind.
I once spent part of a morning out on the end of a long fishing pier at Ventura, California, looking over the Pacific Ocean towards Santa Cruz Island and using my big twenty-power binoculars to look for whales. I did not see any whales, although I enjoyed seeing sea ducks, grebes, and watching pelicans diving for fish. The constant that morning was the wind, blowing in from the west. It was not a harsh wind that sunny California morning, but a warm wind, just enough to ruffle hair.
Where else had that wind been? Where did it come from? From what unknown shore did that wind journey to visit me there on that California pier? What mountain valleys did it travel, what plains, what forests did it traverse to get to where I was standing? If the wind could talk, what stories would it have to tell?
I wonder these things because I have always been afflicted with wanderlust. Bright, breezy spring days in particular fill me with the urge to go walkabout. The wind suffers from no restrictions on its movement; no job, no travel expenses, no duties or obligations. It crosses mountain ranges, continents, oceans and borders as easily as it crosses the street. The wind is my constant companion when I am out of doors.
As Mr. Borland pointed out, the wind knows few limits. In the Middle East, I have experienced hot, dry winds that felt like they came from a furnace. Growing up in northeast Iowa where winters are serious business, I have felt cold, dry bitter winds that were so frigid they burned. While traveling in the American South, I have suffered through sluggish breezes so humid that you could almost hear them splash.
When I was a boy in Iowa, the wind brought winter blizzards and summer thunderstorms, the smell of corn pollen in the summer and burning leaves in autumn. In Colorado, the winds bring the small of pine and spruce in the mountains, the smell of sage on the flats, winter storms and summer rains. When I am fishing on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, a place I love without reservation, the wind blends the smell of the endless forests of spruce and fir with the smell of the sea.
The Swiss have the Foehn, the Californians the Santa Ana, the French the Mistral, the Hawaiians the Pali, Alaskans the Williwaws. In my own Colorado in the spring comes the Chinook, that warm, brisk spring wind that melts snow and dries the ground for the first spring wildflowers. The wind has as many names as it does variations.
Some warm summer afternoon, take a moment and look closely at a dandelion that has gone to seed. Dandelions are a favorite of children in summer – to pick them, and blow the silky seeds away, to watch the breeze carry them off to start another patch of dandelions on some homeowner’s manicured lawn. Dandelions depend on the wind to live, to spread. Some homeowners swear at dandelions, but I like them – they are great survivors. Counting on the wind is a good evolutionary bet.
Lately the urge to wander has been hitting me with great vigor. I want to go walkabout. I would like to find a way to ride on the wind as I would ride a river in my old canoe, to see where the wind’s river would take me. What a wonder, to be as free as the wind, to wander the hills, forests and valleys! One of my favorite spots in Colorado is in the White RiverNational Forest south of Eagle, where a Forest Service road wanders close to the south rim of McKenzie Gulch. One sunny afternoon I sat on a rock at the top of the gulch, eating a blueberry bagel and considering how long it would take me to descend into the bottom and climb the other side. As I thought about this, a Clark’s Nutcracker floating by overhead opened his wings wide and rode the south breeze across the vast gulf of air to the other side. I envied that bird; I wanted to spread wings and float on the breeze. Instead, my own evolutionary legacy forced me to walk.
Walking still suits me, though; the wind is always there with me.
Stand outside in a stiff breeze sometime. Raise your arms high and spread your fingers. Touch the wind.
For all its variations, the wind is one of the Earth’s few constants.