It is an embarrassing truism to point out how important knowledge of the weather and especially wind must have been to the making of the modern world. It is embarrassing because it should be so obvious and yet at the same time is so strange, further testimony to the way history has numbed us, such that if nature returns, it does so as uncanny. If you look at the maps of the world drawn toward the end of the 1600s by the British pirate William Dampier, who cruised the waters between the island of Gorgona and the Río Timbiquí, you see the vast oceans with tiny black arrows coursing across them like so many swallows darting in parallel lines.
These arrows show the “general and coasting trade winds” of the world without knowledge of which there could not have been, it seems safe to say, a modern world, and certainly not a colonial world drawing Africa, Asia, and theAmericas into the one orbit with Europe. In the last decades of the seventeenthcentury, the best maritime atlases contained no sailing directions for ports outside of Europe or instructions for making ocean passages, and “this,” writes a British naval commander in 1931, “was the gap which Dampier determined to fill.” Amazingly, “most of the information he obtained at first hand was so accurate and comprehensive that it has been handed on from generation to generation with little alteration.” Dampier’s “directions for using the Atlantic trade winds,” he continues, “are still the best that can be given, and will be found with little alteration, in the Admiralty handbook upon ocean passages.” You feel Dampier would have had useful advice on global warming and El Niño. Today’s manuals have titles like:
Admiralty Sailing Directions
while Dampier’s book, abbreviated to The Discourse of Winds, is more properly:
What a difference between these two titles! I look at Dampier’s—at its length, its varied typography, its self-reference, its poetry and wide screen—and am reminded of Paul Valéry saying that once men imitated the patient process of nature, but now modern man no longer works at what cannot be abbreviated. The Admiralty Sailing Directions confidently manifests the modern state’s assumed dominance of nature as in the use of StarWars, smart bombs, and nuclear power–driven vessels in place of sail. But what such dominance grew out of was something else, a writing that in The Discourse of Winds speaks patiently, even lovingly, to the wind, and hence learns its languages—all the better to use it against itself, just as missionaries learn the natives’ language so as to convert them, the same way we have all been taught to use our prehistoric instinctual selves to get a grip on our prehistoric instinctual selves. But then there’s the stuff that curls over the edges to come back and haunt us, these tides and currents of the Torrid Zone. Which is why we love pirates, like Dampier, whose shifting shape we may still discern like wind in our ever-more impoverished weather talk.