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The wind is physically powerful, yet – as a quick glance through both ancient and modern literature ...
2020-01-04 09:00:00

It Blows
The Lyrical Power of the Wind

Illustration by Karyna Piwowarska
It Blows
It Blows

It breaks mighty trees and gently sways the reeds. Renata Lis looks at the relationships that lyrical heroes, mythical characters, and she herself have had with the wind.

Read in 7 minutes

It seems these could be the last few years that we’ll be able to feel the sensations of the climate of our childhood. The climate we were taught about in geography lessons: transitional between oceanic and continental, and above all, moderate. It’s a ‘neither fish nor fowl’ type of climate (thus far, neither species have fallen prey to the Anthropocene, so the expression still holds), with little in the way of excess. Because although the Polish weather comes in various patterns, its amplitude is within reason: after the rain there may be a flood, but not one of biblical proportions; the wind may break the henhouse roof, but it won’t blow away the cross from Giewont [a site of religious pilgrimage in the Tatra Mountains – trans. note]. The rumble of impending disasters is starting to break through this idyll of relative stability – sandstorms and tornadoes are happening more frequently – but for now we perceive it as an anomaly; our norm is a constantly semi-conscious state of temporariness. This includes the rain and wind that bring not destruction, but specific states of the soul: bitter-sweet moods in shades of grey. Polish Shades of Grey.

Wind-anxiety

The rain is easier emotionally, and its grey is light. When the sky darkens and it starts to rain, connoisseurs of murmuring water retreat inside and listen to the falling droplets. Despite the fact that the rain falls at different tempos, the associated sadness is consistent and unthreatened by turbulence: the sweetness of rainy melancholy flows just like condensed milk squeezed from a tube during the Polish People’s Republic. When it’s raining, you can remember old loves and travels, read novels or meditate, and the worst that can happen is that the sun returns too soon. That is, as long as there’s no wind. Because wind is entirely different. I’m thinking of a wind that is strong, but not too strong. Quite another matter is the föhn wind, which once caught me on my way up Kopa Kondracka and forced me to crawl up the hill, and then to descend on my bottom, because going vertically you risked being blown off the trail. That kind of wind leaves you fighting for your life, with no time to be aware of how you feel. I’m thinking of a slightly weaker wind – the kind that doesn’t threaten life, just causes anxiety. This kind of wind-anxiety is dark grey and prowls the soul like demons in a cold furnace. How does that happen?

The big draught

The air that tightly fills the ‘empty’ space around us, which we normally don’t notice, suddenly begins to move. A big draught arises, which takes something old and brings something new (as yet unknown). Wind is a metaphor for change, or scientifically, the movement of air masses. It forms over an area with different pressures and, striving to even them out, it moves horizontally from the high-pressure zone towards the low. Gusts of wind, always lifting something up and therefore visible, are an illustration of invisible air – this can be seen especially in autumn, when they not only raise the urban dust and the dirt from country roads, but also carry along the dead leaves. The dances of the particles of existence carried by the wind, and the accompanying sounds (with a particular emphasis on howling and wailing, though the whistles and swishes are not to be disregarded), act on a man in the same way his own house would if it suddenly started whirling in a drunken foxtrot. Something like the foretaste of an earthquake with a magnitude above six on the Richter scale (medium and large shocks, significant damage). The wind blows away the fragile sense of security associated with domestication. The land immediately ceases to be a garden and becomes – as during the war – a stage for the unleashed elements. We feel that we have suddenly awoken from a deep sleep. “When I awoke like this,” says the narrator in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, “and my mind struggled in an unsuccessful attempt to discover where I was, everything revolved around me through the darkness – things, places, years” (trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin). During a gale, we can hear the anxious questions that Paul Gauguin included in the title of his painting: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? The wind makes philosophers out of us (well, almost). It takes away the certainty of existence. “The wind comes and blows me away” sang Lech Janerka, accompanying himself on the bass and heading straight towards a black hole.

Harpies of the storm

Humanity has always associated control of the elements with power, which is why the wind had its own god in the natural religions. For the ancient Slavs, the superhuman minister of the wind was Strzybóg, aided by his offspring and helpers. The Slavs, whom were accompanied everywhere by their dead, would not have been who they were had they not detected messages from the underworld even in the howling wind – they believed that the most terrifying storms were the result of the overhead battles of the souls of those who had drowned or been hanged and could not find peace after death. The ancient Greeks assigned a separate anthropomorphic personification with the rank of a god to each wind blowing from the four main and four intermediate directions, such as Zephyr (west wind) and Boreas (north wind). All these personifications were masculine, and the feminine element only broke through when fury was involved – demonic goddesses, called ‘harpies’ in Greek mythology, ruled the domain of the particularly violent winds. Harpies were depicted as winged women or birds with a woman’s head. For some reason, the latter were considered ugly, though I find these bird-like creatures delightful. The harpy still doesn’t get good press to this day – according to the dictionary, this noun denotes a cruel and calculating woman.

Dying down at dusk

Greece is essentially a maritime nation, because although the islands and islets scattered across the Ionian and Aegean seas make up only a fifth of its surface, if you include the water that fills the space between the islands, it turns out that this terrestrial-aqueous principality covers about two thirds of the country’s territory (one need only glance at a map). In this context, navigation and wind are of paramount importance, and have been since the time of Homer. The Odyssey describes a typical adventure: Odysseus escapes the captivity of the Cyclops Polyphemus, falling into disfavour with his father Poseidon, and makes his way to the ruler of the winds Aeolus. Upon parting, the kindly Aeolus gives Odysseus a sack made of bull skin in which he has enclosed all the winds that pose a danger to the sailor. In this way, he shares his power over the element, saving Odysseus from Poseidon’s revenge. The journey continues smoothly, until Odysseus’s companions see the outline of the banks of Ithaca, untie the sack and release the winds, which rage with doubled force and drive the ship back to the Aeolian Islands. Similar stories are also encountered by travellers today – not only those at sea, but also those in the air. I remember a plane I was on once, which, despite several attempts, failed to land on the island of Chios because of the excessively strong wind. It wasn’t only the ancients who liked to humanize the wind – searching online for information about the Turkish meltem wind that periodically strikes the Aegean Sea and its islands and tries to uproot the palm tree near our housekeeper’s home in Lesbos, I came across a whole host of anthropomorphizing expressions, including “waking in the afternoon” and “dying down at dusk”.

The Grim Reaper’s hand

There’s something to this association between wind and dusk – not by chance do the words ‘wind’ (wietier) and ‘evening’ (wieczier) in Russian differ by only one sound. This proximity has been seized upon by poets. In the young Czesław Miłosz’s poem “Evening wind” (Wieczorem wiatr), the two words side by side evoke images of steely clouds rushing across the sky and a world shattered by the presentiment of the coming war. They are the essence of the catastrophe, which seeps into the lines of the poem like tea in hot water, leaving no illusions that soon “all will be covered”. There are many of these powerful Polish poems where the wind takes the lead role – in Tadeusz Różewicz’s poetic dream “The gale hammered on the windows” (Wicher dobijał się do okien), a mutant of a hyena and a fox with a belly full of stones is running under a copper sky to the cemetery, to the grave, until it turns out to be… Różewicz himself. Here the gale knocks at the windows with the Grim Reaper’s hand to whisk us from life to death.

The lamb closes its eyes

Because ultimately there is no return. The existential effects of the wind are irreversible, just like the existential effects of wandering the world. When Odysseus returns to Ithaca, nothing is as it was, especially he himself. Regained peace is always a kind of illusion, which doesn’t change the fact that few things feel as good as the silence after a storm. In order to believe in it – to feel settled again – you need to become a child to some extent. To appeal to something that is bigger than us and that precedes us. To something or someone. Rajzel Żychliński, a Polish-Jewish poet writing in Yiddish who died at the turn of the millennium, left behind an image of a mother who can soothe even a wailing wind: “Take it, mother, into your apron / and rock it to sleep. / The wind will believe you, / and like a lamb / will close its eyes” (trans. Barnett Zumoff, Aaron Kramer, Marek Kanter, et al.). How wonderful that the wind has stopped blowing. Until the next storm.

 

Translated by Kate Webster

Published:

Renata Lis

is a writer and translator, whose works include “Lesbos” (a book about love and exile), and completely unique biographies of Flaubert and Bunin, for which she was nominated for awards (one of which she won). She can’t decide whether she’s a pine dreaming of being a palm, or the other way around, so she alternates her travels between Greece and Russia; she’s been as far as Kamchatka.