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Windswept: The Story of Wind and Weather

by Marq de Villiers

Marq de Villiers, the Nova Scotia-based winner of the 1999 Governor General’s Award for Water and co-author of 2004’s A Dune Adrift, a history of his home province’s remote Sable Island, is back with another natural history offering. This time he takes an ambitious look at wind and all its related weather phenomena.

Working from the basic premise that wind is the engine that drives life on our planet – it controls temperature and humidity, moves clouds and moisture around, and, in its most deadly manifestation, can destroy vast tracts of people and property – de Villiers moves on to a practice he’s developed into high art: exploring the relationship between nature and humankind. He looks at how technology, warfare, agriculture, and, in the case of wind-caused disasters like hurricanes and drought, entire societies have been profoundly affected by wind.

Tackling a subject as broad as wind takes some doing, but de Villiers pulls it off with a combination of personal and historical anecdotes and a writing style that is fair to call breezy. He relates a story early in the text about a scary experience he had as a young boy in South Africa that shaped his interest in – and respect for – the awesome power of the wind. Throughout the book the reader will detect this abiding passion for one of nature’s most powerful forces, whether in de Villiers’ description of the Greeks’ early attempts to assess the elemental nature of wind, the daily scientific travails of hurricane hunters, or ancient Chinese kite-flying techniques.

Windswept should appeal to lovers of non-fiction who are fond of the rapidly evolving genre that uses a single topic (salt, oysters, or rats, to name a few recent book-length treatments) as a springboard for a much wider discussion of subjects both scientific and socio-historical. In the hands of a lesser writer, this approach can seem a little forced, but for a craftsman like de Villiers, the result is a far-reaching, entertaining read.