A Sense for Reading the Atmosphere

Shin'ichi Takemura
Anthropologist and Producer of sensorium

Maybe One Can See the Wind

Usually, we think of air as being invisible. And even if we can feel the wind on our skin, we are not conscious of air pressure or changes in the atmosphere. However, some people -- in particular yachters, glider pilots, surfers, all those who are active at the interface of air and water -- have the ability to more concretely sense invisible winds, air currents, and low pressure troughs as a tangible reality.
As my friend Nakamura, an architect and yachtsman, says, air is a concrete force, something you can "see." Like water, air flows, rises and falls: its density, weight and velocity are constantly changing, resulting in thermal whirlpools and turbulence.

There is a "heavy wind" and a "light wind," the latter dispersing into rising air. A small change in atmospheric pressure not only affects the air but also causes the those on a boat etc., to feel as if the water itself has become heavier or lighter.

Also, there are certain people who can physically sense when a high or low pressure front is passing. Just as there is high and low ground in landscapes, there are highs and lows in the atmosphere, which these people can experience as an actual sense and not just abstractly in the form of a barometric chart.

The Cultural Value of Sensory Resources to Perceive the Form of the Air

Environmentally interactive work-ware such as surfboards, yachts and gliders are not merely sports equipment, they are also expert media for developing highly sensitive and holonic sensors of the macroscopic and invisible realm of the weather and the atmosphere.

And as the experiences of these gifted people increases and becomes more mainstream, the "weather sense" of us ordinary people will most probably gradually change.

Since antiquity, wind has been called by a variety of names. In Japan, in particular, there are traditionally more than two thousand words, including regional and seasonal variations and derivatives, for different kind of winds. The proliferation of names indicates a sensitivity to wind -- proof of a highly developed sensibility toward that invisible, intangible object, and an inclination to perceive it as something real and substantial.

In literature, too, there are key seasonal words such as "kochi" (east wind), or "kogarashi"(a biting winter wind). This symbolises the environmental and atmospheric awareness and a deeper awareness of life itself of the Japanese people.

The large number of phrases in Japanese that deal with the rain such as "shigure" (autumn shower) or "harusame" (spring shower) -- just like the Inuit who have a large vocabulary to distinguish and describe snow -- indicates a cultural sensitivity to nonconcrete aspects that surprises me.

The Rediscovery of Our Weather Sense

It might seem difficult to revitalize such a sensibility within the context of our contemporary urban lives. But in reality, each one of us possesses wind-detecting sensors. You may not be a glider pilot or a yachtsman, and you may not have more than one or two words for the wind, but you are unconsciously affected by the "mood" of the air, and you certainly feel the subtle, seasonal changes of weather you are exposed to.

In fact, our physical condition changes dramatically according to changes in air pressure. When, for example, a weather front passes through a given region, many people suffer headaches and even strokes.

Traditional medicine in China, India and Greece paid great attention to the relationship between human physiology and such environmental factors as seasonal changes and the weather, developing a rich base of knowledge for considering the body. Also in the modern era, physiometerological sciences have been established that study the physical effect of atmosphere and weather on the human body.

In every region and culture of the globe there are certain patterns of thought concerning weather and health. People around the world have detailed mental maps of the relationship between our physical constitutions, illness, and the regional climate.

People might say that in a certain season if a wind blows from a certain direction then such-and-such an epidemic will come; or if such-and-such a person has a particular constitution, he or she had better be careful during a given time of year. They are a kind of physiometerological chart.

In Europe and other countries, warning were once issued about the probability of catching certain illnesses during specific seasons and weather conditions. These might be called "Body-Weather Forecasts."

To view the sky and to understand the wind is profoundly and intimately related to knowing oneself. In this sense, the ancient art of environmental detection and forecasting by observing the sky and the air was a truly pragmatic approach to health.

Winds give rise to visible and tangible phenomena and movements, and through them, we become aware of other levels, invisible and intangible, of the Earth's life and of our own lives.
This is why, since ancient times, the wind has been perceived as a premonitory sign telling us of the advent of deities and spirits. As an invisible energy, the wind awakens our extra sensorial perceptions.

Wind is more than a physical phenomenon. More than anything else, it is a messenger carrying information. That is why people once considered it essential to listen to its subtle, near-inaudible voice.

Can we redesign our sensory devices so as to develop the appropriate sensibilities for perceiving the air and wind? It is by no means an abstract or esoteric practice: every human being is capable of it.

Theme pavilion "sensorium" (sensorium home page)
INTERNET 1996 WORLD EXPOSITION (World Public Park) / JAPAN (Japan EXPO home page)