The wind, curling over the mesa, wound its way through the twisted limbs of the junipers along the gorge, raising thick clouds of dust and sage. Moments before I had stood on the threshold of Silke’s little school house on the mesa, my grip firm on the handle of the open door, which had instantly blown wide as the kids threw the latch. As I pulled against the wind to close the door, I felt the muscles in my hips and abdomen engage in ways usually reserved for hefting tree stumps or hay bales. Now, as I lay with the children on the third story loft of Silke’s big, soft house, listening to the story she was telling the kids, tiny sounds - plink, plink, plank - called my attention away from the warmth inside, to sand grains striking the window and the thunderous volume of pure wind.
The metal sheet of the roof, bratta-ratta-ratta-tat, rattled. I had nearly fallen asleep. Eleven of us lay in the wooden loft, directly under the triangular beams of the roof. In a landlocked state of enormous proportion, that little room, complete with a round porthole window, feels remarkably like the helm of a ship. As we listened to Silke’s story, the windstorm - for surely it was a windstorm, there was not a cloud in sight - billowed our imaginations like sails, and the entire house, moorings and all, drifted into the sea of rock and sand.
“Silke, did you paint that?” Wolfie asked, apropos of nothing. He had been slowly working his way across the room, away from his pillow, dragging his wiry little body toward the wooden banister. He was doing so incrementally, as if each movement was an adjustment, not an interruption, fully believing that the adults in the room took no notice. Worming my own way forward, still lying on my back, I endeavored to keep myself between him and Malcolm, who lay quietly to my right. I made as if the same casual adjustments were behind the movements of my own body, my feet arching in a stretch, toes planted, slowly pushing against the thick pile of the carpet while the back of my head inched across the floor. This was a subtle race. I raised my arm, as if yawning, increasing in that one movement the length of my physical barrier another foot and a half above my head.
Silke’s entire house is filled with paintings and feathers, carved stones and little woolen elves. Every corner, every painting, has secrets, and she delights in revealing them to the children in her care. But she is also an expert at the impertinences of little children, and in response to Wolfie’s question she continued her story as if no one had said a word. Witnessing our subtle race to the finish line, she indicating with raised eyes, pointed fingers, and sideways motions of her neck that Wolfie was to lay quietly.
Wolfie was not going to lay quietly. That morning, he, Malcolm and Griffin, who now lay on the other side of the room next to Silke, had thrashed about wildly. It hadn’t gotten violent or mean, but it had disrupted almost every meaningful moment, such that all of us, the children, Silke and I, had a hard time remaining focused. I was distracted, uncertain, and quickly growing irritable. In a last ditch effort, Silke invited me to take Wolfie, Malcolm and two of the girls outside to the little schoolhouse, while she kept the other children - and Griffin - to herself. To my amazement, we spent that hour in utter harmony, me casually singing while the children played an elaborate game of kittens, where Ada, the youngest in our group, made nests for each child, fed them, and instructed them when to sleep and wake up. Outside, the wind shook the frame of the little schoolhouse with regular gusts.
To no one’s surprise, when we returned for lunch the frenetic energy between Griffin and Wolfie instantly revived, and Malcolm, a bit younger, but the only other boy in our group that day, couldn’t resist joining. The competitive spirit between Wolfie and Griffin is a common part of our routine, but on that day the wind seemed to stir things up and never settle. I repeatedly held myself back from snatching up one or the other and flinging them outside.
Previous to New Mexico, I had never lived in a place where the prevailing weather is so often simply the wind. It comes with tremendous force, and particularly in the spring, when blustery conditions sometimes come without end for weeks. On the mesa, whose flat, treeless expanse offers no shelter and no interruptions in the landscape, the wind can be brutal. But the deciding factor is not so much the direct gale force of the winds, but the madness and anxiety it kicks up.
I’ve heard people describe this wind-induced mania as the result of the ionization of the air, the dust and molecules scrubbing and colliding with one another, knocking electrons off their balance, and raising an electromagnetic charge. Like clothes, snapping and popping as they come out of the dryer, it has an initial excitement - one is literally breathing a different sort of air - but the excitement quickly wears off and fills the body with an unfamiliar discomfort that is not eased by any logic of causation.
A man I admire once told me a legend. An unorthodox academic and an accomplished sleight of hand magician, has done extensive fieldwork with the indigenous peoples of South Asia and North America, held distinguished positions at several universities, and authored two celebrated books, revolutionizing the study of ethnography and ecology. A consummate storyteller, he weaves together a devout study of the senses with his background in anthropology and phenomenology, a branch of philosophy that deals with the direct phenomena of experience, that is, in contrast to ontology, the objective study of being. One can read a tome on phenomenology and never comprehend it (I know), but one can grasp a basic kernel of its import by acknowledging that even the hardest sciences require us to look into a microscope, to measure distance and time, and to see what I mean.
Air, this man told me one Friday evening while observing the ritual of Shabbat (for he is also a Jew), is believed by many indigenous cultures to be the habitation of the mind. It is where thoughts live, from which they come, and to which they return. Ruach, the Jewish word for spirit, is the same root as that for air. Just saying it, and here he drew in a sharp, auditory breath before speaking the word with a breathy fragrance on each syllable, reveals the sensuous expressiveness of the term. Ruach. The whole word, he said, is formed within the wind tunnel of the throat. No lips or teeth. Ruach, air, the atmosphere of the planet, that which we breathe. Our lungs, absorbing and filtering that mind stuff, fill our bodies with oxygen and vitality, and - again, exhaling loudly - returns it to the swirling currents. Ruach. Air. The moving of the mind.
Drawing upon his work as a magician and mythologist, he spoke as if with his whole body, taking deliberate breaths so that the reciprocity of the air could be seen and even heard coursing in and out of him. I was transfixed. Was he distracting me from his ultimate purpose? His entire body became the shape and movement of his voice. Air. “This thick, viscous envelope of fluid air,” he said, moving his body as if under water in order to accentuate his point, “is the medium in which we live. In it, we are buoyant,” and here he arched his muscles as if rising from the ground. “It caresses our skin,” and he gently grazed his arm with his hand, “carries odors to our nose,” and again he sniffed wildly, “blowing our minds.” He turned to stare directly into my eyes. Performing each movement with the utmost intentionality, as if in a dance, he translated the ether around him into the density of human form, sucking it in and viscerally shaping it into the sound of his words and the shape of his body. Air.
I have spent many days, even weeks, in never-ending torrents of wind, and there is an uncanny lunacy that arises in people. Most disconcertingly, I feel it in myself. I cannot rest. I become jumpy and irritable. It becomes difficult to focus. I have on more than one occasion stood full against the wind and shouted, my lips curling into a sort of growl. I have also walked into caverns where a stillness clung to the air and my consciousness was as if transformed into the mirror surface of a still pond. Walking in the woods, I have repeatedly been struck by a mild breeze, as if someone were tapping me on the shoulder, recalling a memory that seemed to have floated to my mind as if from nowhere. Air.
So now, journey back with me to Silke’s little wooden loft, redolent with the scent of pine boards, the masts of our bodies tenuously at grip with the billowing sails of our imaginations. The wind raged outside, kicking up dust and sage, and the soft clink of sand grains played against the window. Everywhere, all over, the tumbling ferocious sound of air blasted at our ears, poured through the cracks in the walls, filling our mouths, gushing around our earthship, traveling the course of Silke’s thrumming voice, pulling us, coaxing us…where?
Wolfie was sitting up. He had reached the banister and was dangling the scarf Silke had given him for a blanket over the edge of the railing. “I’m fishing,” he said, quite pleased with himself. Malcolm, who had stirred moments ago, was now peering over my shoulder at Wolfie, smiling gleefully. Griffin, who had been doing his own dance with Silke on the far side of the loft, picked up his head to take a look. The other children lay quietly.
The day before, the winds had becalmed, and Silke, the children and I had raced down the road, dragging a kite, swirling its red, gold and green wings into the blue sky. “Look Joe,” Wolfie had said, racing along to keep up with me, “I’m flying!”