Ill wind in Los Angeles

With New Orleans waiting in trepadation for Hurricane Isaac, in Los Angeles residents are preparing for the advent of the Santa Ana winds that blow throughout autumn and winter: they occur on the leeward slope of a mountain range and, although the air begins as a cold mass, the wind is warmed as it comes down the mountain and appears finally as a hot dry wind.

This type of wind occurs throughout the world with some evocative names such as the Chinook in the eastern Rockies, the Halny in the Carparthian mountains in central Europe, the Bergwind in South Africa, the Zonda in Argentina and more besides.

The effect of these winds on humans can be disturbing and dangerous,with famed LA thriller writer, Raymond Chandler, suggesting that the winds were the cause of many a fight.

Another famous LA writer, Joan Didion, described the feeling of foreboding in an essay ‘The Santa Ana’: ‘There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio Passes, blowing up sand storms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to flash point.

For a few days now we will see smoke back in the canyons, and hear sirens in the night. I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too. “On nights like that,” Raymond Chandler once wrote about the Santa Ana, “every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”

The Santa Ana, which is named for one of the canyons it rushers through, is a foehn wind, like the Foehn of Austria and Switzerland and the Hamsin of Israel. There are a number of persistent malevolent winds, perhaps the best known of which are the Mistral of France and the Mediterranean Sirocco, but a foehn wind has distinct characteristics . . . . . . . whenever and wherever a foehn blows, doctors hear about headaches and nausea and allergies, about “nervousness,” about “depression.”

In Switzerland the suicide-rate goes up during the Foehn, and in the courts of some Swiss cantons the wind is considered a mitigating circumstance for crime. Surgeons are said to watch the wind, because blood does not clot normally during a Foehn. A few years ago an Israeli physicist discovered that not only during such winds, but for the ten or twelve hours which precede them, the air carries an unusually high ratio of positive to negative ions. No one seems to know exactly why that should be; some talk about friction and others suggest solar disturbances. In any case the positive ions are there, and what an excess of positive ions does, in the simplest terms, is make people unhappy. One cannot get much more mechanistic than that.

Easterners commonly complain that there is no “weather” at all in southern California, that the days and the seasons slip by relentlessly, numbingly bland. That is quite misleading. In fact the climate is characterized by infrequent but violent extremes: two periods of torrential subtropical rains which continue for weeks and wash out the hills and send subdivisions sliding toward the sea; about twenty scattered days a year of the Santa Ana, which, with its incendiary dryness, invariably means fire.

It is hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination. The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself. Nathaniel West perceived that, in The Day of the Locust, and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end.

Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The winds shows us how close to the edge we are.’ (From the essay, ‘The Santa Ana’, contained in a collection titled Slouching Towards Bethlehem, first published in 1968).

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