I live in southern California. Most of the time, the weather is great. There’s one thing about southern California weather that no one tells you before you live here though. No one mentions the Santa Ana winds. They are hot, dry, violent winds that blow in from the desert.
If you’re reading this and thinking, wind, big deal, you have never experienced them. The Santa Ana winds are not like any other winds on earth. They are more violent, more destructive and last longer than any other winds in North America. They easily topple trees, knock down power lines and spark brush fires. They spread some of the largest and most destructive wildfires on earth, burning millions of acres of brush, trees and homes. They cause millions of dollars of property damage. They put millions of people on edge. They are so vast and destructive that you can see them from space:
Raymond Chandler talked about them in his short story Red Wind:
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that 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. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”
Joan Didion talked about them in 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.
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.
Angelinos don’t discuss Santa Ana winds as if invoking their name will bring down their wrath. Once they are here, that’s all we talk about. We walk outside and instinctively look up at the swaying trees and obvious movement of telephone poles. We think a little invocation hoping that the suddenly spindly looking little sticks will stay up there where they belong. We remove tree branches from cars and streets every day. Everything creaks and moans. Windows incessantly howl as the wind searches for even the smallest crack to invade. Fences fall clattering to the ground, protecting nothing. Trash, leaves, entire tree branches, everything that isn’t nailed down and sometimes things that are, blow around the city. Debris is everywhere. Nothing stays in place. You walk out the door to a face full of dirt, not dust, but dirt. It collects in the corners of your eyes and your nasal passages, making it difficult to breathe. Everyone squints. Even the most sturdy buildings seem insubstantial. The Santa Anas will huff and puff and blow your house down.
I once thought that the Santa Anas made me apprehensive because I am from back east where high winds are the harbinger of more serious meteorological events. Wind in the east sometimes portends hurricanes, tornadoes and blizzards. I thought maybe, subconsciously, once the winds came, I was just waiting for the tornado, but that’s not it. I know people who have lived in Los Angeles their entire lives, who have never experienced a tornado, who are just as uneasy about the winds as me. It’s not what the winds might bring with them; it’s the wind itself. The wind here is the natural disaster. It’s not as quick to come and go as a hurricane or a tornado. It sticks around for a while sewing carnage and uneasiness. We know what the winds can do:
We’re going on day three of the Santa Anas this time around. They can and have lasted for weeks. We never know how long they will be here. We all wait for the winds to end. We wait for the destruction of our city to be over so we can clean up the mess and pretend it never happened, but we all know they will be back. Perhaps the reason why the wind makes us so tense is that we know they’ll come again. They never disappear; they just retreat. They will always come back and we will always be at their mercy.