The Santa Ana Winds

The Southern California fires are all over the news. Every time I see hear the words "the Santa Ana winds" I start thinking about writer Joan Didion (who just happens to be my favorite author) and how she captured the phenonemon with such great imagery in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), her book about Haight Ashbury during the summer of 1967.

To give you a flavor, I've tracked down some of what she wrote and quote below:

From Slouching Towards Bethlehem:

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. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air. To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.

I recall being told, when I first moved to Los Angeles and was living on an isolated beach, that the Indians would throw themselves into the sea when the bad wind blew. I could see why. The Pacific turned ominously glossy during a Santa Ana period, and one woke in the night troubled not only by the peacocks screaming in the olive trees but by the eerie absence of surf. The heat was surreal. The sky had a yellow cast, the kind of light sometimes called "earthquake weather." My only neighbor would not come out of her house for days, and there were no lights at night, and her husband roamed the place with a machete. One day he would tell me that he had heard a trespasser, the next a rattlesnake.

"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." That was the kind of wind it was. I did not know then that there was any basis for the effect it had on all of us, but it turns out to be another of those cases in which science bears out folk wisdom.

The Santa Ana, which is named for one of the canyons it rushers through, is 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 know of which are the mistral of France and the Mediterranean sirocco, but a foehn wind has distinct characteristics: it occurs on the leeward slope of a mountain range and, although the air begins as a cold mass, it is warmed as it comes down the mountain and appears finally as a hot dry wind. Whenever and wherever foehn blows, doctors hear about headaches and nausea and allergies, about "nervousness," about "depression."

In Los Angeles some teachers do not attempt to conduct formal classes during a Santa Ana, because the children become unmanageable. 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. At the first prediction of a Santa Ana, the Forest Service flies men and equipment from northern California into the southern forests, and the Los Angeles Fire Department cancels its ordinary non-firefighting routines. The Santa Ana caused Malibu to burn as it did in 1956, and Bel Air in 1961, and Santa Barbara in 1964. In the winter of 1966-67 eleven men were killed fighting a Santa Ana fire that spread through the San Gabriel Mountains.

Just to watch the front-page news out of Los Angeles during a Santa Ana is to get very close to what it is about the place. The longest single Santa Ana period in recent years was in 1957, and it lasted not the usual three or four days but fourteen days, from November 21 until December 4. On the first day 25,000 acres of the San Gabriel Mountains were burning, with gusts reaching 100 miles an hour. In town, the wind reached Force 12, or hurricane force, on the Beaufort Scale; oil derricks were toppled and people ordered off the downtown streets to avoid injury from flying objects. On November 22 the fire in the San Gabriels was out of control. On November 24 six people were killed in automobile accidents, and by the end of the week the Los Angeles Times was keeping a box score of traffic deaths. On November 26 a prominent Pasadena attorney, depressed about money, shot and killed his wife, their two sons and himself. On November 27 a South Gate divorcée, twenty-two, was murdered and thrown from a moving car. On November 30 the San Gabriel fire was still out of control, and the wind in town was blowing eighty miles an hour. On the first day of December four people died violently, and on the third the wind began to break.

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.

Southern California is just one of the places that always makes me think of Joan Didion and recall her writing. Others: Las Vegas (Maria (Mar-eye-ah) in Play it As it Lays); Kuala Lumpur (Inez Victor in Democracy); Honolulu (The Royal Hawaiian Hotel in The White Album, excerpted here.) I could go on, but I'll stop here.

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    Thanks J. (5.00 / 1) (#8)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Oct 23, 2007 at 01:02:25 PM EST
    My area's been lucky and has not been in direct danger. The winds seem somewhat diminished today and the air's not quite as acrid.

    It's so dry. My skin is like sandpaper & the kids keep static-electricity "shocking" each other. The scabs on their skinned knees keep cracking.

    The trees are stripped of their leaves, and they've been blown into great pillowy green, yellow and brown dunes around the house. Lawn sprinklers spray passing pedestrians and cars instead of the grass they're responsible for.

    The sound is unending; gusts howling around the roof, leaves and branches bouncing off windows and doors, the constant clink clink clink of the clips of the shredded canvas gazebo cover on their poles. The loud unexplained bangs and clanks in the dark keep us from sleeping deeply at night.

    Leaves and pieces of dried grass form their own little cliques inside the house near the cracks under doors and around windows. There's a gritty dust on the tables, counters and floors.

    To add to that a forced evacuation, which has affected over 300,000 so far, or a demolished home, over 700 so far, or the loss of a loved one, I couldn't imagine.

    However, soon, maybe even next week, the winds will shift 180 degrees and arrive from the south, off the ocean, and the rains will come again.

    The air will be scrubbed clean, the hills will turn green, the trees will sprout new leaves and we'll look forward with the same anticipation and optimism that others feel in colder geographies on that first warm day after the long, cold, winter.

    Go Sox.

    Update, the winds have shifted. (none / 0) (#9)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Oct 23, 2007 at 02:33:28 PM EST
    The smoke is strong and seeps into my building and office despite the closed doors. After three days of this smell 24/7, it clogs my sinuses and makes me feel nauseous. I'm weary of it.

    Chandler, Didion, and Morrison (none / 0) (#1)
    by jerry on Mon Oct 22, 2007 at 09:56:25 PM EST
    Well, I just got into town about an hour ago
    Took a look around, see which way the wind blow
    Where the little girls in their Hollywood bungalows

    Are you a lucky little lady in the City of Light
    Or just another lost angel...City of Night
    City of Night, City of Night, City of Night, woo, c'mon

    L.A. Woman, L.A. Woman
    L.A. Woman Sunday afternoon
    L.A. Woman Sunday afternoon
    L.A. Woman Sunday afternoon
    Drive thru your suburbs
    Into your blues, into your blues, yeah
    Into your blue-blue Blues
    Into your blues, ohh, yeah

    I see your hair is burnin'
    Hills are filled with fire
    If they say I never loved you
    You know they are a liar
    Drivin' down your freeways
    Midnite alleys roam
    Cops in cars, the topless bars
    Never saw a woman...
    So alone, so alone
    So alone, so alone

    Motel Money Murder Madness
    Let's change the mood from glad to sadness

    I share your love of Didion's prose (none / 0) (#2)
    by Kevin Hayden on Mon Oct 22, 2007 at 11:37:45 PM EST
    And I share the silent despising of the annual natural catastrophes people in some locations must endure like a fifth season spawned from hell.

    Nice (none / 0) (#3)
    by Linkmeister on Tue Oct 23, 2007 at 12:58:44 AM EST
    I haven't read that in years, but I've not forgotten it, either.

    I lived in Westwood in 1961 and watched that Bel-Air fire, scared to death.

    Santa Ana and Hamsin (none / 0) (#4)
    by koshembos on Tue Oct 23, 2007 at 01:08:22 AM EST
    Reading Didion's perfect prose raises the spirit. (Yes, this country has its giants; yes, we will recover from the Iraqi Santa Ana.) No more MSM belabored prose describing nothing with pomp and importance. Chandler's short statement is yet another great piece of writing coming from the same Santa Ana dried placed called City of Angeles.

    Having lived through a multitude of Santa Anas and a multitude of Hamsin (means 50 in Arabic and relate to the 50 days of this Shara desert originated wind), my memory is of the depressions. The hopelessness of try to escape it in vain. It being inside you and outside you.

    In the brick and concrete Middle East it causes little physical damage but in the wooden, try walled reality of the US, the Eastern part of San Diego is now in danger of burning. Life and emotional treasures may disappear right in front of all. Depressing.

    Putting aside... (none / 0) (#5)
    by kdog on Tue Oct 23, 2007 at 08:43:54 AM EST
    the human suffering for a moment, the power of mother nature is awe-inspiring.  

    We live because of her and in spite of her.  

    Santa Ana winds (none / 0) (#6)
    by lonestar on Tue Oct 23, 2007 at 08:46:36 AM EST
    Thanks for that, Jeralyn. I've lived in the Mojave Desert where the east wind whips up the sand and wicks the heat from the desert before crashing down the canyons into the basin called Los Angeles. I've lived at the feet of the San Gabriel mountains where that dreaded wind draws neighbors together to talk of fire, both in prevention and containment.

    Thankfully, I no longer live there. My heart goes out to those that do.

    My favorite (none / 0) (#7)
    by Pancho on Tue Oct 23, 2007 at 09:16:57 AM EST
    Steely Dan
    Gaucho (1980)
    Babylon Sisters

    Drive west on Sunset
    To the sea
    Turn that jungle music down
    Just until we're out of town
    This is no one night stand
    It's a real occasion
    Close your eyes and you'll be there
    It's everything they say
    The end of a perfect day
    Distant lights from across the bay
    Babylon sisters shake it
    Babylon sisters shake it
    So fine so young
    Tell me I'm the only one

    Here come those Santa Ana winds again