A fresh breeze sighs loudly through the tops of the pine trees and gently stirs the air on the forest floor…A warm breath of spring, tiptoeing in from the south, brings the scent of warm soil and wet leaves…A gale from the north swoops over my shoulder and sends ripples racing across the sparkling surface of Lake Superior.
The month of March is known for being windy, and in this year of the slow spring, April is continuing to be just as blustery. Sometimes it wears on me – the constant battle, the whipping hair, and the unceasing noise – but some days it is invigorating and refreshing. What do you love or hate about the wind?
In some Native American and other cultures, wind is a symbol of unity, freedom, eternity and balance. It is as true ecologically as it is metaphorically.
The first time I encountered wind as a symbol of unity, I was on the south shore of Lake Superior, at a wedding on a piney point. A stiff breeze whipped through the trees and blew out the unity candle. With great aplomb, the minister launched into a beautiful and extemporaneous sermon on the wind as a symbol of unity. As the air swirled around all the guests and the happy couple, we imagined how all of our breaths came from and returned to the one body of air that surrounds us and the entire globe.
In some cultures, wind seems to be personified a divine messenger who is able to manipulate unseen energy. Indeed, wind is the main way that our Earth attempts to equal out differences in temperature. Energy from the Sun warms the Earth and the air above it, but it does not heat everything evenly. Some objects heat up more easily than others, and some areas of the Earth receive more energy from the Sun. As warm air rises, cool air flows in to replace it.
The stronger the difference in temperature, the stronger the winds. Think of it this way: in the summer time, the temperature difference between northern Wisconsin and southern Florida is not that big. In the winter, however, that temperature difference can get quite large. In order for our atmosphere to remain in equilibrium, the winds must speed up. Wind is the Earth’s attempt to find a temperature balance.
Wind disperses more than just heat. When strong winds carry away soil, microbes in the soil can act like hitchhikers and go along for the ride. Nutrients and organisms lost from one region may be deposited across the globe. The organisms may colonize otherwise inaccessible regions. The nutrients being blown around the globe may help forested areas obtain trace amounts of minerals. Some organisms in particular get a significant amount of nutrients from dust on the wind. Lichens and epiphytes (“air plants”) are two examples.
Insects also use the wind for long-distance travel. Just how high can they fly? Researchers calculated that “on any given day, the air column rising 50-15,000 feet above one square mile of Louisiana countryside contained an average of 25 million insects.” (From my current bedside book, Insectopedia by Hugh Raffles) At the upper limit, 15,000 feet, there was a ballooning spider who used his silk as a kite. Butterflies, dragonflies, gnats, water striders, leaf bugs, booklice, and katydids have been sighted hundreds of miles out on the open ocean, and aphids have been found on ice floes. Some wingless insects (and plankton!) are plucked from their earthly tethers by a sharp gust of wind, but very few are completely passive travelers.
Wind also helps lakes balance their nutrients and chemicals throughout various layers during fall and spring turnover. In the fall, when the surface water cools to about the same temperature as the lower water, the wind can turbulently mix the water masses together (fall turnover) and even out the temperature and oxygen levels. A similar process occurs during spring after ice-out, as colder surface waters warm to the temperature of bottom waters and the lake mixes (spring turnover). Water from the lake bottom brings nutrients up with it.
I contemplated all those things and more while hiking under the sighing pines. Have you also enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere in a pine grove? We participate in an ancient tradition. Liu Chi (1311-1375), an important scholar under the Yuan and the Ming Dynasties, wrote “…nothing is better suited to wind than the pine...when wind passes through it, it is neither obstructed nor agitated. Wind flows through smoothly with a natural sound. Listening to it can relieve anxiety and humiliation, wash away confusion and impurity, expand the spirit and lighten the heart, make one feel peaceful and contemplative, cause one to wander free and easy through the skies and travel along with the force of Creation.”
With every breath, we invite the universe in. As the spring winds swirl around you, take a peaceful and contemplative moment to appreciate the wind’s role in encouraging balance and unity in our sometimes stormy world.