Updated: Apr 25, 2022
By John N. Cole
Of all the winds that blow, I like the northwest best. It is rare as a summer wind along this upper corner of the Atlantic Coast, but in late August the first nor’westers return, bringing clarity, excitement and an energy that has been missing from the prevailing southerly breezes that so damply dominate the New England Junes and Julys.
In this part of the world, the northwest wind wings in behind the ridges of high barometric pressure that move from west to east (at about 15 miles per hour, as I recall). You can tell when it’s coming merely by listening to radio reports of weather conditions in Albany, Burlington and Buffalo. Or, more accurately, you can watch your barometer for the needle’s eager upward surge toward “fair.”
Best of all, you can stand in the meadow behind your home, as I stood in mine last week, and look to the western sky for the wind’s arrival. When the highs move in, they most often are rushing on the heels of a low that tugs at them with an atmospheric vacuum. The lows often bring dampness, rain, clouds, humidity, drizzle and depression. As these visibles disappear, the signals of the northwest wind are flown on the western horizon.
Even though there may be solid, bulbous gray clouds draping the heavens overhead, in the far west the gloomy blanket begins to rip. Its edge pulls away from the rim of the land, exposing a sliver of pale blue. Once pulled away, the cloud curtain rises more quickly, its edge becoming more clearly defined until it stretches in a great arc that runs across the sky’s zenith, leaving one half of the heavens gray, the other blue—as if the clouds were some sort of mechanical canopy that was being rolled back from the roof of a great dome that covers the world.
Generally all is still as the clouds roll back. Yet in the silence, it seems as if the sounds of rejoicing are everywhere. The sun is bright—brighter than ever because of the rain that has just washed the air and because the sun’s new brilliance contrasts so with the vanishing darkness of the cloud curtain. (I have watched the weather change at night too; and then, as the cloud screen lifts, the hard bright stars appear as if they had just been set ablaze.)
It is out of this brilliant stillness that the northwest wind is born. The leaves rustle first, the meadow grass bends, the willow boughs swing, there is a sigh from the elm, and then, announced by the first cottony puff of a fair-weather cloud in the west, like smoke from a cannon, the northwest wind arrives in a blustery rush, pushing up whitecaps on the bay, sweeping an ever increasing fleet of plump clouds through the sky, turning damp to dry, hot to cool, apathy to alacrity, depression to joy . . . making life everywhere better than it was before and reminding me every time of why it is important to know which way the wind blows.
I did not always know. As a boy in New York City I walked most often with my grandfather, and we walked together in the city in the fall and winter and spring. Our travels on foot often took us to the corner of 58th Street and Fifth Avenue, at the southeastern corner of Central Park, across from the Plaza, and bordering a large open square presided over by the gilded figure of some conquering general riding a golden horse far above the pigeons and people that swirled beneath the silent hooves. That corner at 58th and Fifth was “Windy Corner” in my grandfather’s personal guidebook, and we would make a show of bracing ourselves for the wind that often swirled there, blowing away hats and hurling bits of city grit into the eyes of the unwary. I didn’t know it then, but it was the northwest wind that made that place Windy Corner; and it was on the high days of good weather brought by the nor’westers that my grandfather would take us walking.
As the years passed and I walked alone in the city, I never walked that corner without remembering. And I seldom walked without resenting the city grit that eroded the romance of my memories. It was on that corner that my environmental education was begun, that my weather consciousness was awakened, that I began to become aware of which way the wind blew.
My education was accelerated in another classroom: the pond in front of my grandfather’s summer place, 120 miles from Windy Corner on a narrow finger of ground between the pond and the open Atlantic. On a late March Saturday I filled my day alone (my grandfather was busy at pre-season chores) with building a burlap sail for our old rowboat, rowing across the pond directly into the slapping whitecaps, raising the sail at the opposite shore and hissing home at the highest speed the ancient skiff had ever traveled. I was about 11 then, and I did that all day. It was the most exciting day of my life to that point. I did not know it then, but it had been brought to me by the northwest wind.
The chief reason for the day’s continued importance is that when that weekend was over, I thought seriously about refusing to go back to the city. It took another 20 years for me to convert the thought to action, and it began with the northwest wind.
This essay by John N. Cole first appeared in "John's Column" of the Maine Times, the influential newspaper he co-founded in 1968, and is featured in In Maine: Essays on Life's Seasons. The compilation demonstrates both Cole's signature writing style and his passion for Maine life. Cole wrote more than a dozen books after In Maine was first published in 1974.