Wind and Breath by D. L. Pughe

Rodolphe Bresdin – French, 1825-1885 – Trees Bending in the Wind

by D. L. Pughe

originally published in Writings on Air (MIT Press, Terra Nova Books, 2003)

A week ago Bellagio was still flush with foreign visitors wandering through the narrow, carefully swept cobbled passageways in search of scarves and ties or dangling wooden Pinocchios.  They marveled at the perfect order of the small town nestled in the crook of Lake Como’s two waving arms.  Everywhere they looked were stained ochre walls and dark orange tiled roofs, the whisked stoops of every shop and home, and animated citizens chatting in the central square.  They sat in the sun lakeside or under an awning at the Lido or the Hotel du Lac sipping cappuccino or indulging in a decorated glacé.  Now, a week later, the ‘season’ is over as they say, and a cold wintry Tivano, or Northern valley wind, has arrived.  Huge scarlet leaves from the ivy that clings to the walls of Villa Serbelloni above have tumbled down into town, mixing with smaller golden leaves from all the trees along the way.  The wind has come up and the tourists are gone, and the stores are all shuttered with piles of leaves drifting along the passageways.  Down the narrow stairs, into the square with its ancient chapel, and out across the vast pewter lake the breeze gains momentum and increases its chill.  Small whirlwinds grab up the leaves and spin them in the air like furious dervishes that tornado off, floating out over the whitecaps toward the opposite shore.

A week ago the ducks were well fed from French fries and ice cream cones dropped along the lake’s edge and were nonchalant about coming over to inspect offerings of crackers or bread.  Now they scurry across the waves crashing against the gray sea walls toward anything edible tossed to them, with an anxious glance over their shoulder at the approaching winter.  And the tall diagonal concrete stairs of the Lido’s diving platform, stairs once ascending in sunlight toward some mythic heaven, are now stark against the leaden sky as though the rest of their steps have been broken off by the wind and washed away.

When the wind arrives in Como at the South end of the lake, it is even fiercer and roars down the streets of the city forcing its citizens to huddle together in doorways.  During malevolent gusts “Il tempo brutto!”  is murmured consolingly as a greeting.  Only the most stalwart grandmothers can be seen with bundled children in the abandoned leaf-strewn playground of the central park near the wharf.  There stands the Volta Museum with its impressive 19th century dome, and yet appears torn apart by the wind.  It is only in a state of renovation but with chunks of marble and heavy equipment lying idle as though too cold to touch.  Inside, the antique mahogany and glass display cases are shoved together and only a few exhibits remain on view.  The ancient batteries and glass bulbs, the brass rods and dark wooden implements, all forged during the earliest years of electricity, lie scattered some distance from the numbers that once marked their spot in each case.  They all are covered with a fine layer of dust.  The attendants who run the museum, two elderly ladies whose days are spent playing cards with woolen sweaters tucked around them, seem surprised a visitor will still come by, much less pay to enter.  They shrug, interrupted from their game, and take the money all the same, offering a thin guide to all that one cannot see but only imagine from the rubble both inside and out.

Later, out in the streets, young high school students are attempting a political demonstration about the recent horrors of our world.  With a few home-made banners, a rag tag group mobilizes in the city square and many of the kids, their mufflers wrapped around ears and mouths, gradually defect due to the ferocious push of the wind.  The ones that stay appear to be involved in adolescent flirtations with one another, with much joking and friendly shoves.  Their earnest leader with the bullhorn has trouble getting everyone in order and the police shiver, lean against their car, amused and unhurried.  Finally the charge is called, and one protestor ignites a red emergency flare that sends out vibrant crimson sparks, the wind takes them up like the spray of a fountain.  A small puppy along for the march is alternately attracted and frightened by the light, pulling forward and back, and the group moves off with much laughing and pushing, into the enveloping charcoal dusk.


When a cold piercing wind howls into town it seems a harsh injustice, a punishment for things gone wrong.  In this autumn of 2001 the wind in Italy rings with all that has changed everywhere since a new kind of terror overtook our lives.  Winds are only part of the complex currents of air that chase around the world.  Unlike seas separated by land, the atmosphere is continuous, connected, far and near, global and local.  A network communicating vast distances, back and forth, the wind is a messenger of both good and ill.

Names given to winds are in statu nascendi, born on the tongue in the heat of the moment.  Here in Bellagio there is the Breva, a warm breeze from the South, the Vento another cold valley wind, and the Tivano, the recent fierce gale from the North.  And not far away in the Besgell Valley of Switzerland is the Brüscha, and in the pathway of the Rhine:  the robust Wisper.  Toward the west in Spain is the Criador, a traveling ‘disturbance’ that precedes rain, and the Levanter that blows in stormy gusts through the Strait of Gibraltar.

The ‘worst’ winds are notorious and are blamed for a rise in malevolence of human actions, for a malaise of the soul.  On the Mediterranean coast, for example, a shrill siren will quickly rouse sleepy sunbathers to hurriedly grab their striped beach chairs and umbrellas, their towels and books, clamoring for shelter.  Swimmers caught in the waves glance over their shoulders then rapidly stroke to shore.  Before the pulsing blare of the horn dies away, the fist of the Sirocco hits the dancing surf, and as it punches the beach, all the dust and heat it has carried from the dunes of the Sahara is unfurled.  Then it grabs up the sand underfoot and whirls it all together in tormented gusts.  Any poor soul still escaping the strand has no way to turn from the wind, it whips in all directions at once.  Braudel tells us that as it passes through Saharan villages on its way north, it tears out gardens and orchards, reducing a year’s work to a minute’s destruction.  Then, as though fortified by a hearty meal, it heads out across the vast Mediterranean full of great gulps of sand.  When it reaches the famous beaches of northern Italy and the South of France, it throws itself about with a triumphant force and has been blamed for increased murders, accidents, anger and suicide.  In earlier eras, it was once possible to offer the Sirocco as an alibi for violent crimes, the culprit in spectacular cases of sudden, unconscionable homicide.

From the northern polar regions comes the Mistral, the ‘masterful’ wind which plunges South through the Rhone valley of France in violent cold and dry gusts.  Damaging crops, threatening the railways and challenging sanity along the way, it arrives in Marseilles where it stays sometimes for a hundred days.  It can hurl children into canals and pull off chimneys in ways natives call ‘malevolent’ and ‘impetuous.’

And tearing down from the Alps, the warm dry Föhn is a menacing and notorious wind.  In Southern Germany, Munich in particular, it is surprising at first, a warm gust during the thick chill of winter.  But as it violently sprints down the mountainsides, melting everything in its path, torrents overflow the rivers, buds and blossoms mistake it for spring, only to freeze again and perish.  It shakes the branches of trees like truant Katzenjammer kids caught by the schoolmaster, and it shrieks around the windowpanes, pounding on the glass.  The ‘Föhn syndrome’ includes anguishing bodily pains as well as headaches, dizziness, nausea and fatigue.  And it is blamed for every unbalanced psychological state:  hostility, irritation, anxiety, depression, inability to concentrate, and occasionally elation and suspiciously excessive niceness.

The Föhn, too, has been used to defend the worst of human actions:  “It was the wind that picked up the knife, stuck it in again and again.”  From afar, from places without wicked winds, it is always confounding when someone invokes the weather to explain away his or her guilt.  But when you are caught in a wind, when you are pinned flat against a building by its fierce intensity, hounded down the street, pummeled as you attempt a hill; after you have listened to it squeal around you day and night, night and day for weeks on end.  When it has kicked sand in your face and whirled back to do it again, it could help possibly change your mind or even possibly help you lose it.

In Afghanistan and Iran there is a wind of 120 days called the Bad-I-Sad-O-Bistroz.  Careening violently downslope from the Northwest, from the direction of Europe, it usually arrives between May to September.  It blows continuously, and in the dry, furrowed dusty terrain of Afghanistan it increases the hostility of an environment already unwelcoming to humankind.  The world is now alert to complex drought-afflicted landscape of Afghanistan, and, with overdue humanity, is worrying over the plight of the people there.  There are rumors the network of terror is housed in the caves sunk in the rugged Hindu Kush mountains.  Aeolus, the ‘ruler of winds’ was himself a cave dweller, keeping his potent breezes tied up in a sack.  It was curiosity rather than revenge, however, that led his powers to be loosed on the world.

We are just beginning to understand the way that the generous citizens of Afghanistan refrain from judgment as they welcome and care for guests.  Journalists, health workers, and mujahadeen all recount how Afghanis with little or nothing themselves and who may not like what you stand for, will take you in, give you their last drop of tea and their only bowl of rice.  It is not the wind there that one can blame for all that has changed with the world.


To be in Italy in the fall of 2001 is to be strangely apart from our American plight and the Afghani perils, and yet it is possible to feel caught and pulled between the poles of Afghanistan and Manhattan.  We feel the fierce winds of change and yet the last image of New York, passing through on October 1 on the way to Italy, was windless, as though the breath were knocked out of it.

From friends who were in the city in the sizzling days of early September, we heard about an eerie calm, absent even a Cat’s Paw, the most gentle of American winds.  Perhaps it was most like what Leopardi experienced, where:  not a breath of wind stirs a single leaf/Or a single blade of grass, and you can’t/See or hear, near or far, a ripple of water/Nor a cricket chirping, nor a wingbeat/Flittering in leaves, nor an insect buzzing,/Nor any sound or any movement at all./A profound hush settles.  Perhaps it was like the last innocence before the storm.

A few days later, on a morning of absolutely beautiful hot clear skies and an absence of wind, a horror beyond imagination changed all our lives.  We watched one tower blazing with flames and hopeless souls escaping the smoke, abandoning themselves to the air, falling countless stories in final agonizing moments of consciousness.  Then another tower was pierced by another plane, the scene replayed itself until both towers fell and a deathly stillness settled in the smoke and debris across a center of the world.  The horror was indescribable, and when we arrived en route to Italy we were drawn to the gaping wound of the city, covering our faces to blunt the mingled scents of disaster that hung over lower Manhattan.  We felt the absence, the towers that were never architecturally loved (though the people were) but how, as the highest beacon, they supplied Manhattan with a compass for figuring out where you were.  As we gazed at the ruins, the fugitive limb of their presence and the agony of the families left behind ached at the back of our hearts.

The city was groping for air and at the same time letting go of any former feeling of safety and comfort.  We recalled every haunting image, particularly a young man in a light jacket, his arms calmly at his sides in a headfirst fall.  We realized the abject hopelessness that led him to cast himself into the windless air.


A ‘Wind Rose’ is a diagram where the length of lines drawn to the center of a compass show the frequency and speed of the wind.  Where there is no wind, it appears to be crushed on one side.  In the stillness of New York it seems to embody a sense of direction gone awry, where part of the world has fallen away and a new angle has taken hold.  It looks illogical from all that we know, neither reasonable nor understandable; horror arrived and had left us all gasping in its wake.  It was only later, in the relative safety of Italian shores, that I found consolation again in words, the first clues for how to weather the future.  Centuries earlier, Petrarch had begun to fathom grief, to reassure us how, at such moments

Love, wisdom, valor, pity, pain,

Made better harmony with weeping

Than any other likely to be heard in the world.

And the air and the wind were so filled with this deep music

No single leaf moved on its still branch.

Sigvart Verner – Fortunen Morgen





About D. L. Pughe

Freelance writer and artist.
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