Monday, December 5, 2011

Wind! Katabatic Forces and the Old Ones

 On my walk yesterday evening, I was encountered from behind by my neighbor Bev, from the next ridge to the north, who is preparing to hike over the Andes, two weeks hence. As she moved past me at extreme hiker clip, she reported that her next-door neighbor had clocked the wind speed of our recent storm at 94 mph. This far exceeds the puny 30-40 mph winds reported in the local paper, a statistic with which we hill people mostly took exception. You have to be up here in one of these assaults to know that it’s not the same storm as the town dwellers, 12 miles away and 1500 feet below, are experiencing.

As a child I called this periodic wild wind the Witch Wind. It comes moaning and shrieking down from the Sierras with alarming force and turbulence, bending the pines 25 feet out of plumb and stripping the black oaks of their festive fall colors in an afternoon. My child’s fantasy (or was it a child’s knowing) said that this wind carried the spirits of the Old Ones, the people from before the coming of the White Man, as they descended from their high Sierra summer camps to winter in the San Joaquin Valley as fog.

This cold downslope wind is termed katabatic. A fall wind, it arises when cold, dense air is pulled downhill by gravity. We Californians refer to our great katabatic wind as the Mono Wind, because it originates from cold air over the Great Basin, particularly in Mono County, that spills out of high mountain valleys above 9,000 feet, from whence it streams down the canyons of the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. Mono winds have been clocked officially at over 100 m.p.h. in Yosemite Valley, which is visible from  my kitchen window.

In 1990, I spent several months in Aix-en-Provence, in the south of France, close to the Rhone Valley. As summer lingered toward fall, there was a sudden eruption of the Mistral, the cold katabatic intruder from the Alps, its name deriving from a word meaning master. During Mistral, orchards in the otherwise balmy Gulf of Lyon region of France must be protected from the chill as well as the wind, as the Master delivers frigid air from high Alpine regions. Suddenly I was glad I had brought my wooly Uggs and heavy sweater. I had to tie down the metal furniture on my roof garden to keep it from flying away into the wind-flattened garden of Hôtel des Thermes, the ancient Roman hot springs across the street. As it moaned and howled around my 18th-century building, I felt suddenly deeply content, as if the Old Ones of home were greeting me from thousands of miles away.

Reports from our recent bout of Mono madness continue to mount: roofs were torn off and trees entered houses and businesses. A local dentist in the town of Twain Harte had to extricate a patient from his dental chair, from beneath the boughs of a pine tree that cut his office completely in twain. Trees went down over roads and power lines, causing power outages, traffic delays and fires.

Personally, I got off fairly easily. All my flower pots were blown from the deck railing and smashed, and the poor plants, their roots clutching their remaining soil like cold-toed old women clinging to their blankets, where blown all over the yard and badly withered by both cold and dehydration. The redwood that my father planted when I was born, now over 80 feet tall, lost a huge limb which has become, in local logging parlance, a widow-maker, meaning it is hung up in the lower branches, depending dangerously over anyone who passes below, and also over my studio roof, but too high to be removed. David reports that the Plexiglas panels of my studio skylight were sucking in and out, groaning and wheezing like an accordion, during the big blow. It remains until the next rain to discover if their seal was broken or not. We feel very fortunate to have such paltry inconveniences to report.

In the end, I always return to my original assessment of the Mono winds: they are the voice of the Old Ones, expressing their outrage over their stolen lands, lamenting the loss of their culture and the decimation of their peoples. I have been in those high Sierra valleys where native people from the coast went to trade shells for obsidian with the people from the Sierra’s eastern slopes. The ground there is littered with obsidian flakes from the manufacture of projectile points and knives, and the atmosphere, unlike most  valleys in the Range of Light, is heavy with an energy that is, if not hostile, then at the very least entirely foreign to mine.

The wind, when it comes, is a chastisement. It keeps me ever mindful of the political and cultural reality that we all are trespassers here, living on land that formerly belonged to no one but was the domain of all. The wind blows freely, just as the Old Ones used to roam, and it kicks over those artificial boundaries of our fences and shrubbery not in a spirit of meanness, perhaps, so much as to remind us who really owns the land.

Mother Nature, the oldest and wisest of the Old Ones, will have her way with us and will demonstrate how pathetic are all our attempts to deny her. As I huddled by my stove, praying that the 100-foot pine just east of the house would choose to stand as a buffer rather than toppling through the house like a hot knife through butter, I honored Her in the secret recesses of my heart. Some deep part of me knows profound gladness at the exalting voice that no power of mankind can silence.

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