CONJUNCTIONS:64, Natural Causes (Spring 2015)
We name our winds for elsewhere, and ride them like a song forward into an aromatic future. Yet the time wind inhabits is too slow and spacious for the human eye; its undulations span generations and its unrelenting nature cannot begin to comprehend our puny endurance. An immensity of alien time pulls at the lithic girl. Oceans, lands, and stars give chase. According to Isidore of Seville, “The sphere of heaven is said to run with a swiftness so great that if the stars did not run against its headlong course to delay it, it would make a ruin of the universe.”1 The winds move swiftly to give earth its nature. We are in oblivion because the universe is also a velocity system, an infinity system, a system for nonhuman time. It can’t even acknowledge us, much less process us.
We breathe a military climatology, it’s the leitmotif of terrorism. Instead of traditional body-to-body combat, we redesign, reassign, resign the air. Designing killer environments for our enemies consolidates the most salient givens of our world: terrorism, design consciousness, and environmental thinking.2 That’s the setting, but how to get the story going? What’s in the wind? Was it speaking, or chasing someone, or on a mission, or asleep? When German soldiers released chlorine gas into a north-by-northwest wind on April 22, 1915, in northern France, which way the wind was blowing meant your ass.
Eighty years later, the US Department of Defense’s essay “Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025” hypothesizes ways in which weather-modification technologies might give the United States a “weather edge” over adversaries.3 It does so through “fictionalized representations of future scenarios” involving weaponized weather. Imagine, it asks us, the US fighting a powerful drug cartel in South America by staging meteorological acts. By doing so we fictionalize journalism, we “imagine” the truth. Engineering windflow patterns—an air theater, a perfectly orchestrated wind opera—means we can engineer vulnerability. We’ll make them weep and weak. With chemical interventions that would withhold precipitation to induce drought then unleash catastrophic storms, the US military sneaks in disguised as an act of nature. This is a repeatable story. A pilot project conducted in 1966 artificially extended the monsoon season along the Ho Chi Minh trail by releasing silver iodide, a toxic pollutant that stopped people in their tracks. Flash flooding and gales wreaked havoc; the chemical agent made people fall sick.
Since 1993 in Gakona, Alaska, the research station commonly acronymized as HAARP has been practicing ionospheric control.4 In this transitional space, the no-man’s-land between the atmosphere and the magnetosphere, HAARP blasts high-powered radio waves with 180 antennas in a single beam to take down aircraft and set off weather calamities, nature made-to-order for the security domains, as canards and conspiracy talk squall on other frequencies. This world is a testing ground. This world makes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claim that Europe is stealing Iran’s rain, emptying its clouds before the clouds wind-travel to the East—reported widely in the conservative press in May 2011—seem not only feasible but probable. A gust of absolute conviction, prescient announcement, and paranoia sometimes all blow through the same moment.
At one point in Henry Darger’s Conflagration! the Vivian Girls find themselves trapped by a forest fire set by the Glandelinians: “It appeared to be a fire storm of a sixty-mile-an-hour velocity, by the way it swept the trees down in so great a number, the wind coming straight from the southwest raging with the most terrible fury.” But the wind eventually changes course and so changes the state of affairs, a fury turned back to where it began.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Aeolus, keeper of the winds, bestows Odysseus and his crew with a gift bag holding the four winds. However, while Odysseus sleeps, the sailors, looking for booty, open the bag and the resulting gale blows them off course.
In 1977, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution prohibiting the hostile use of environmental modification techniques. According to “Weather as a Force Multiplier,” though, the UN hasn’t stopped the research and technological development for weather modification in order to “enhance air superiority and provide new options for battlespace shaping.” We like theoretical wars as much as real ones. In the meantime, with DARPA’s new “One Shot,” snipers can take out an enemy at a distance of .7 miles in twenty-miles-per-hour wind. The One Shot sniper scope uses computer-run lasers to track not only distance but also the wind turbulence in the path of the bullet, and to correct for it. A wind might blow you off course, but a gun can correct for turbulence in the thoughts and feelings of others, in your life’s trajectory and in the system.
The parking lot is a habitat for unmoored shopping carts, water bottles, advertising fliers, and seagulls trolling for trash. Sleepless stones skim the open asphalt, each one its own double. A thing in wind is caffeinated, buzzing with aura. Wind rustles the tissue wrapped around each thing. Newspaper wraps around nothing. Wind animates last night’s empties. Loose plastic bags derange into amoeba puppets hopping around parked cars. Marks of visitation, marks of limbo. Have a nice day! A giddy piece of time translates you too. Whoever wants to inflate, to be carried away, to turn tail, to come skidding back, to change and exchange is susceptible to the wind: Take me with you, away from forsaken here.
As I walk out of a storm’s pivot, I wander into Aeria, the City of Air. The river moves. The city drifts, offers an ethereal escape, unlimited speculation and dream time. Disembodied radio voices fizz through the air like the apparition of migrating geese. The miasma of the city’s electric lights go only so far into the sky, this light fades into stars, which are like a roof shot with bullet holes or a cloud of fireflies. Aeria “gives the imagination a late place in which to muse, meditate, linger, if for no more—indeed—than a passing moment.”5 As misunderstandings hum through my mind, I catch wind of a popsicle wrapper darting all over the alley. I enter its orbit, as if watching a film made with a handheld camera, but air designs choppy rhythms faster than my eyes can follow. Slightly queasy, I keep watching from my window, now back in my parents’ apartment, remembering my dream of a skyscraper blown out to sea. Swallows then circle in the last light, in greater and greater gestures, emitting tiny cries that go straight to my gut. The birds make flight lines. They pull these lines tight. I feel in my body what my eyes cannot grasp, that those lines stretch away, accumulating speed until they move into the future. For now, they hold the world together. Until the light that touches them reaches us, they bind us to air. Here we are and here we are and here we are not. Wind lines are the hidden principle behind everything we don’t create.
At one time, only the boldest philosopher could have denied that a gust could knock up a virgin.6 Wind insemination explains “virgin births,” and their history of ending badly, at the same time it simplifies paternity. Firmly lodged in their mental map of the world as late as 1912, the Ainu in Northern Japan tell of an Island of Women in the Pacific Ocean. The women here lift their cunts to the east wind. Legs in the air or ass over a naked rock, they use air currents to fertilize themselves like flora. Wind blows off whatever the sun intensifies. The women of the Island of Women keep only their daughters, and kill their male offspring. Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, Greece, and China all have their legends of wind impregnating mammals and birds. This belief in anemophilous animals actually paves the way for the discovery of wind pollination in plants. The animal fantasy—involving mostly vultures, hens, mares, and humans—leads us directly into the vegetable fact. When Camerarius first breaks the news about pollination of flowering plants in 1694, he quotes a passage from Virgil’s Georgics detailing how west winds impregnate certain mares. He also props up his argument with Aristotle on the “wind-eggs” of birds impregnated by spring breezes. Today “wind egg” refers to a small, imperfect egg, usually lacking a yolk or a firm shell, or an empty argument. Dig into most words and you’ll turn over a metaphor, which in this case turns us back to the end, chased by its own head. Aristophanes’s play The Birds (414 BCE) choruses, “In the beginning Night laid a wind egg.” This night was full of hot air. That’s all we had in the beginning.
Open the door and start climbing. Lift yourself out of the nervous dynamics of New York City traffic. Your elevation transfigures you into a bird god looking down at your own maze. Climb ninety-one floors to find a way out. A thick, vertiginous curtain of glass shuts off the volume. You traded your hearing for a point of view. Look out the window at the visual vitality below—a technicolor, twitchy, kinetic cityscape so out of sync with its sonic deadness that it nauseates. In 1999, for his World Trade Center Recordings, Stephen Vitiello invited the eeriest waftings of sound inside. He stuck contact mics to the windows to convert one of the world’s tallest buildings into a monolithic microphone: air suddenly audible like a mystic thought thrashing around a steel brain.
I duck into a dark museum room in 2002 where one piece from this series plays. Nothing in the room but white vinyl seats, a live man gripping the wall or leaning against it, and the sound of an end-of-the-century hurricane convulsing outside a building that no longer exists. This sound is what the new century remembers of the old. What the WTC offered us was a graphic majesty, an imaginary totality, two huge speakers that strangled all sound. It offered us a moat of dead birds, which crashed into it and fell to its streets, collected daily for the uncertain purposes of science. The birds were something to see, but could not be heard as they died or later. Now basking in the shadow of recently departed visuals, what we have is only aural memory if memory can be planted. No one remembers the sounds of Hurricane Floyd from within the towers because no one heard them there. But the everyday contains strangeness that surfaces in your ears. What is left of the WTC is the sound of its interference; a creaky, tiny resistance. Hear what no human had heard before, and hear it now, searingly clear. Another queasy disparity asserts itself: the sound of “nothing.” The winds surge and drone, no stories in sight.
1. Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, S. A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, and O. Berghof, trans. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2006), 3.35.
2. This entire paragraph is indebted to Peter Sloterdijk, Terror from the Air, Amy Patton and Steve Corcoran, trans. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 9–10, 25.
3. Col. Tamzy J. House, Lt. Col. James B. Near Jr., LTC William B. Shields, Maj. Ronald J. Celentano, Maj. David M. Husband, Maj. Ann E. Mercer, Maj. James E. Pugh, presented August 1996, csat.au.af.mil/2025/volume3/vol3ch15.pdf.
4. HAARP (High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program) is jointly funded by the US Air Force, the US Navy, the University of Alaska, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
5. Gustaf Sobin, Luminous Debris: Reflecting on Vestige in Provence and Languedoc (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 173.
6. Conway Zirkle, “Animals Impregnated by the Wind,” Isis 25.1 (May 1936), 95, 110, 122–27.
Christine Hume is the author of three books, most recently Shot (Counterpath), and three chapbooks, Lullaby: Speculations on the First Active Sense (Ugly Duckling), Hum (Dikembe), and Ventifacts (Omnidawn), the last of which is an early stage of the longer project from which her work in this issue is taken. She teaches at Eastern Michigan University.