Nicholas Lezard’s Choice
In 1973, Lyall Watson published Supernature, which gripped the public imagination with its examination of marginal or baffling physical phenomena; it had to be reprinted ten times in as many weeks, and led, directly or indirectly, to a lot of talk about morphic resonance—where animals all seem to learn how to perform a task at the same time—and whether putting razor blades under a pyramid kept them sharp. He introduced the famous spoon-bender Uri Geller to British TV, which led many to suspect that he was credulous; but he had several scientific degrees (and at least one doctorate); he was highly learned in a wide range of disciplines, with a seemingly insatiable thirst for knowledge.
This is very evident in Heaven’s Breath. I’d forgotten, when I picked the book up, about Watson’s career, and approached it cold, as it were. I also asked myself how it could be possible to write “a natural history of the wind”. I opened the book, and started it, and could hardly put it down again.
It begins—after a brief prologue—majestically, with the birth of the universe; of the Big Bang; although “it was a strangely gentle explosion”. I will take his word for it, but it sets up the notion, still favored by many scientists, that the universe will contract, and the whole process will begin again; as if the whole cosmos were breathing. And, at the end, bringing a nice circularity to the whole, he returns to the yogic idea, which impresses him greatly, of prana, the source of all energy. “The breath of the universe is called wind.”
In between, the range of subjects he covers is dizzying. You could almost call it a whirlwind. There’s plenty of stuff on those, twisters, waterspouts and tornadoes, and their terrifying power, but sometimes mischievously attenuated, as if a giant, puckish sense of humor were at work: the train engine lifted up, turned around, and deposited on the opposite track; the undamaged candle embedded in a wall; the house lifted up so gently that the occupant didn’t know, opened his front door and fell twenty-five feet to the ground.
He talks of how winds and storms have shaped historical destiny: the Divine Wind that rescued the Japanese from the thousand-strong fleets of the Mongol emperor Khubilai (sic) Khan in Hokozaki (Hakata) Bay in both 1274 and 1281 (in memory of these, the suicide pilots of the Japanese Air Force were called kamikaze, “the spirit winds”. (Watson had a special interest in Japan, and organized Sumo wrestling competitions in the UK. He was a man of many parts.) He tells the story of the attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada: a familiar story to me, but never so concisely and thrillingly told.
And there are gentler uses of the wind: he tells us how to foretell the weather simply by looking at a weathervane (for a long time the only barometric instrument). Sometimes you don’t even need one of those. “Buys Ballot’s Law says: ‘Stand with your back to the wind and the pressure [in the Northern hemisphere] will be lower on your left hand than your right’ ... what this means ... is that it is possible for anyone standing on the ground, just by watching changes in wind direction, to locate and track any storm, front or low pressure area.” (I do not have the space to explain here.)
He talks of the swells of the ocean, and how the seafarers of the Santa Cruz islands of Melanesia can tell from them exactly where they are and what course they are taking. Some navigators lie on their backs to do this; but most stand up, with their legs lightly apart, “plumbing the swell, feeling its effect in subtle shifts from the vertical, detected largely by the pendulum swing of their own testicles.” That’s not a sentence I expected to read in a book about the wind, but then this is a book from which you learn to expect the unexpected.
He talks of the föhn, the Alpine wind that drives people crazy (in the Introduction, Nick Hunt testifies to the maddening power of the wind); and it has several relatives throughout the world. The sirocco, the chinook, the Toulousian autan. These winds do not just drive people to serious distraction. “The incidence of postoperative deaths due to both heavy bleeding and thrombosis during a föhn, has become so high that in some hospitals in Switzerland and Bavaria, major surgery is now postponed wherever possible, until the wind has passed.” Every single hardly credible fact is referenced: he cites examples from 539 sources.
It was written in 1983, so some things may well have changed. Do they still postpone surgery during a föhn? I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. It was true then. He may have got the numbers of moons orbiting the gas giants wrong, but he was right at the time, for no one knew any better. But he is following the latest science of the time. He recognizes that global warming is a problem, and that methane from farting cows is a big problem; but while he acknowledges the dangers, he is optimistic in a way unimaginable now: “This is bound to affect economic and political stability and to change our coastlines and our lives, but it could also be the making of a new world—one worth getting excited about all over again.” Tell that, I thought to myself, to the inhabitants of Bangladesh, or the Solomon Islands; but Watson isn’t to be censured for his optimism. And he sounds like he’s quite excited about the world as it is, and as it was.
Nicholas Lezard is a writer and columnist for the New Statesman in London. He was a judge for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction and his column, Nicholas Lezard's Choice, ran in the Guardian newspaper for twenty years.