By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   May 16, 2019

From those marooned by Shakespeare’s Tempest to Coleridge’s becalmed “Ancient Mariner” (“as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean”) to the imperiled baby rocking in the tree-top, to the tornado which blew Dorothy from Kansas to Oz – the wind, or lack of it, has wound its way through our culture in any number of ways. Capturing the power of moving air was of course the chief means of navigation for millennia, and led to great refinements in the rigging and setting of masts, spars, ropes, and sails. But even on the fastest sailing ships (before the Panama Canal) it took over 100 days to get from New York to San Francisco.

But travel was, of course, not the only way of utilizing the power of wind. I myself have seen, in modern Tibet, the ancient practice, still employed, of “winnowing” grain, i.e. separating the seed from the inedible husk or “chaff,” by throwing it into the air and letting the wind blow away the chaff, which is lighter than the seed.

Gilbert and Sullivan made metaphorical reference to this technique in their Yeomen of the Guard, when the Jester sings:

Oh, winnow all my folly, folly, folly, and you’ll find
A grain or two of truth among the chaff.

But the seed, in that form, was still too hard to chew. It had to be “milled,” or crushed to a powder, in some way, usually between heavy stones. But the stones had to be turned by some means – and here again the use of wind was one of the options (besides human or animal power, or the power of flowing water) – hence the picturesque “wind-mills,” whose scattered vestiges are still to be found here and there, though of course now superseded by modern high-tech devices, turning wind-power directly into electricity.

But wind could also determine the course of battles, e.g. by deflecting the path of arrows, or, more recently, the drift of poison gas. And even today, with all our equipment and knowledge, there is no way of preventing wind-storms from toppling trees, downing power-lines, and sometimes causing a general disruption of normal human activity, for weeks, or even months.

And these are all only manifestations and movements of that invisible mixture of gases called “air” – the prediction of whose behavior over the past century, while with much improved observations and apparatus, is still (as we’ve all learned through sometimes bitter experience) far from an exact science. And it is, of course, the wind which brings us numerous varieties of water, in such forms as rain and snow, to say nothing of clouds, fog, and sheer humidity.

Yet, as far as I know, although mariners, and many others, might pray for a favorable wind, and although “meteorology” may almost rhyme with “theology,” there is no religion actually based on a worship of the wind. Nevertheless, this familiar, but still very strange, phenomenon, has been a crucial element in countless creations and events. I need only mention the Wright Brothers, who chose the windiest place they could find – the sea-coast of North Carolina at Kitty Hawk – to try out their flying machine, which indeed, at that early stage, depended on the onrush of air to give it the “lift” it needed to get off the ground.

But wind is also a notorious thief, of personal items like hats and scarves – even of possibly important papers, sometimes never found again – at least, not by the original owners. This has led poets to see it metaphorically as an obliterator of the past.

It was in fact this single line from an otherwise undistinguished 1891 work by the English poet, Ernest Dowson, which many years later, gave an American writer the title for her hugely successful novel, published in 1936:

I have forgot much, Cynara! Gone with the wind. . . 

Margaret Mitchell had originally intended to call her epic “Another Day,” but the Dowson expression seemed to capture the poignancy she had tried to depict, of an entire civilization destroyed and lost forever by the ravages of Civil War.

The dazzling success of Gone with the Wind so monopolized her life that she never wrote another book. She died in her hometown, Atlanta, in 1949, at the age of 48, after being struck by a car on Peachtree Street. There’s no telling what further contributions she might have made to the literature of our age. Those possibilities, sadly, are now, too, gone with the wind.


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