Updated: Apr 25
By John N. Cole
I am no longer sailing the same waters I did as a fisherman more than a decade ago, but much of the same exuberance I knew off Montauk is still part of my life. It is a welcoming of the days, an arms-wide greeting, an embrace of all the hours. And the hours that are most cherished are those that fly in on the wings of the northwest wind.
In Maine, the wind still moves as it has for eons. There are few cities to baffle it with their fingers of concrete and glass, few factories to soil it with smoke and sulphur, few engines to override it with noise or charge it with monoxide. Here I can live with the free wind as I lived with it off Montauk where all the winds clean themselves in the sea.
In Maine, I have watched the wind being born, birthing in the western sky and then feathering the bay’s silken surface with the first tentative touch of its young pinions. I have seen the nor’westers make a sea of our meadow, rolling the high grass in waves that break on the crest of our hill. And I have felt the same wind fill a sail with a hard slap that sets my boat a running.
It does the same to me. It dashes its fresh chill in my face, clears my head and sets my thoughts a running. Of the nor’west thoughts, the one that echoes loudest each September is the one about knowing . . . knowing which way the wind blows.
What has happened is that too many men decided they no longer needed to know. The decision came in a rush that had been building for tens of centuries when all men lived always with the wind. They knew the same wind that brought the fat ducks in the fall also brought its cutting edge in winter. They watched the wind dry their saved soil to dust and blow it to the sea; they witnessed the wind-made waves that sent their sailing ships ashore, crushing the souls within like so much chaff. For them the wind was more cruel than kind; certainly cruelty often came mixed with kindness.
Then, just a moment ago on the century clock, men learned how to build temples the wind could not torment, ships the wind could not sink, fields that could not be flayed. Because the wind was subjugated, it was also forgotten; or, if not forgotten, shelved, set aside, ignored to the point where most men arose in their temples and set forth on their days without knowing which way the wind blew, without caring, without looking, without seeing.
This ignorance of the wind might have been expected (after centuries of being awed by it), but it is not natural. Men cannot live without knowing . . . knowing which way the wind blows, which way the rain falls, how the sea surges, the land lives and the forests die.
Yet there are multiple millions of men who don’t know; men who live in cities in windowless walls who walk Windy Corner and notice nothing more than city grit—much more of it now than when I walked there as a child. How to tell them which which way the wind is blowing; how to get them to know the nor’west experience; how to dash its fresh chill in their face, to set them to thinking, to set their boats to running—how to do that is one of the puzzles I ponder most when the northwest wind fills my Maine days.
Part of the answer, I decide, must be here in Maine. The other afternoon I counted seven sparrow hawks flying over the field, or perched beside it. The tiny falcons had been brought here on the wings of the northwest wind. It is the parent bird of the falcons, and they fly with it for all their fall migration to the south. They will stay in the field now until the northwest wind returns; then they will leave and a new band of hawks will be blown in. Along with them will come the plover, the geese, the teal, the curlew and the coot. They, and their wind, will enrich each of my autumn days until the wind locks away the bays behind a wall of ice.
Today is an autumn day, and as I watch the falcons fly under the wings of the northwest wind, I wish the same sight could be seen by the millions who have forgotten why the wind blows, or how, or where.
After seeing Maine in September, they may forget no more.
This essay by the late John N. Cole is featured in In Maine: Essays on Life's Seasons, a collection of his essays. The compilation demonstrates both Cole's signature writing style and his passion for Maine life.