To describe Marq de Villiers as a curious fellow would be faint praise even though he certainly is one. From the jacket notes of his latest book Windswept, the Story of Wind and Weather (Walker Publishing Co., 304 pp, $25.), we learn that he has written "several other books on exploration, history, politics and travel" and that he lives in Eagle Head, Nova Scotia. Not much to go on, but the fact that he filled a whole previous book with the eccentricities of Sable Island-an uninhabited (except by a herd of wild horses) sand dune which drifts around the North Atlantic-suggests something odd about the man's intellect. He clearly doesn't pursue the well-worn path of remunerative enquiry.
Windswept is organized into eight meaty chapters, each dealing with a different avenue of human interaction with and observation of the earth's lower atmosphere. At the beginning of each chapter a time lapse description of Hurricane Ivan from its birth over the Sahara to its demise in the North Atlantic sets the stage for the weather topic at hand.
de Villiers' investigation begins with a scene from his childhood near Cape Town, South Africa in which he, as a toddler, is picked up by the wind and blown across a lawn to the sea wall and he marvels that he lives today on an equally windy shore. The interim worldly travels of the author as an adult embellish his discourse. Through example he is able to share with the reader his global viewpoint and to bring home his fundamental message that natural systems are inextricably interconnected.
He first examines attitudes of the early primitive cultures toward wind and weather-essentially that such phenomena are unfathomable mysteries to be placated. Referring to Ivan, he says, "even now in the age of terabyte computers and chaos-driven algorhythms, explanations are still unfolding."
A chronological accounting of early Greek thinkers on the subject (Aristotle called the wind "exhalations from the earth) is followed by descriptions of scientific experiments-both quaint and amazing-from the Middle Ages forward. de Villiers deftly guides the reader through the great leaps in thought as well as detailed observation over time in diverse disciplines which have brought us to our modern understanding. The accomplishments William Dampier, Edmund Haley, Ben Franklin and Nathanial Bowditch and others lead smoothly into a discussion of the earth's atmosphere and the physical conditions which make the wind blow.
A lengthy chapter is devoted to modern weather prediction is integrated with Ivan's progress across the Atlantic. A chapter called "An Ill Wind" examines the pollutants which are carried all over the globe from all over the globe. Not only carbon dioxide from the smokestacks and tailpipes of the world are spread by the wind but "opportunistic pathogens" from Africa ride the winds and wipe out coral and sea fans in the Caribbean. In the summer of 2000, "a NASA-funded study tracked a cloud of Saharan dust to the Gulf of Mexico, where it settled, with unnerving consequences-causing a huge bloom of toxic red tide." And this is hardly the worst example of what the winds spread around the world.
Lest the book end with such a bummer message, de Villiers winds up with an amusing and lively chapter on the uses human beings have made of the wind. Flight is the obvious topic but the author also examines all kinds of vanes from rigid sails to wind farms. An epilogue brings us full circle as de Villiers describes Ivan's attack on maritime Canada (and our man on the scene) before the ravaging storm's long-awaited demise.
de Villiers is a nimble and tenacious researcher and a fluid writer, equally comfortable describing the history of sail as he is the political consequences of government mishandling of a weather crisis (a typhoon in Bangladesh that killed more than 300,000 people). His wide ranging discussion of global physical phenomena is clear and fresh and riveting. I will track down his previous titles and read them with pleasure.