Elemental Ethos: Air

Elemental Ethos: Air February 3, 2015

Snow absorbing sound in the Maine woods. January 2015.
Snow absorbing sound in the Maine woods. January 2015.

It’s snowing again today. The forecast calls for an additional 8-12″ blanket to top off the 30″ already on the ground. It had been a light winter until this week; certainly 3+ feet of snow on the ground changes one’s experience in the landscape substantially.

For me, the most striking thing about the snow is the blanket of quietness it creates. Because I am so attuned to sound as an audiogeek, it’s one of the things I notice early on. I live on a road in Maine that provides irregular roars as logging trucks rumble along at 60 miles per hour, less than 75 feet from my house. Between trucks, the turnpike traffic a mile away slowly breathes its backdrop drone.

With almost no traffic, there is an unfamiliar quiet when it snows. This kind of fluffy snow absorbs sound, so noises don’t travel as far — I’m convinced that the acoustic effects of snow play a big part in the differentiation of the myriad words for snow the indigenous Northerners use. The sonic immediacy of this snowstorm is reminiscent of my work in room acoustics. The first time one hears familiar music in a well-treated acoustic environment can be startling. Being out in the stillness of a gentle snowstorm is similar, making the world somehow both smaller and much larger.


Sound, as we experience it, is a phenomenon of Air, in the sense that what we are hearing is the vibration of air molecules around us, at sufficient power and frequency to excite our eardrums and hearing mechanisms in our head. Sound is one mode of perception in terms of our sense organs. But there is also music, which is a type of sound. All music is sound, but not all sound is music. The boundaries here are of course subjective, fluid, and in motion…. not unlike music itself.


Language is also a phenomenon of Air, particularly in the sense that the earliest languages were verbal — they were sounds in a place — and not written. Text on a page is one abstraction layer away from sound in a space, though both involve the construction and articulation of ideas and stories.

A striking example of language as sound was the “mic check” technique used at Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street in 2011, in which a person would speak a sentence or a phrase, and the crowd around would loudly repeat the phrase in unison, so others could hear more easily. I remember thinking as I witnessed it, that these were the Bardic Arts in action. I’m sure this technique, with all these consciousnesses focused on repeating the messages, was one reason why the political energy in that place was more than I have experienced anywhere else, ever.


Breath is perhaps the most obvious manifestation of Air in our lives. It is no accident that nearly every metaphysical or theological tradition emphasizes breath in some way — from Buddhist meditative breath, to the primacy of The Word and notions of Word-Made-Flesh in the Gospel of John, to yogic breathing at the foundation of 20th century western magical traditions. Air, and the oxygen it contains is the most immediate need for us to live. We can go 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water, 3 hours without shelter (in adverse conditions), but only about 3 minutes without air.

A still from an animated map of wind currents over Maine. Taken 30 January 2015.
A still from an animated map of wind currents over Maine. Taken 30 January 2015.

It is also important to point out that Air is a COMMONS. The Commons is an important concept, creating a third modality of social relationship, “besides and equal to the State and the Market,” as the (mostly-unquestioned) organizing principles driving our culture’s activities. The fact that Air is a Commons is not because the commons movement have done a great job articulating and expressing the commons as a real idea to take hold in people’s lives —  there remains much work to be done here — but rather it just happens to be a resource that is mostly impossible to privatize on the surface of this planet. It is easy to visualize the Air Commons using modern tools that show the movement of air across the planet. For humans, air is ubiquitous. Therefore, it usually resides beyond our thought, except when it is most seriously polluted or degraded in some way. Also, note that the more polluted Air becomes, the more easily clean Air can be commodified for those able to pay for it, which gives a capital incentive to keep polluting Air.

But even if you are in the most polluted area available — the worst industrial neighborhoods of the worst cities — the indoor air is still at least 5 times, and perhaps as much as 100 times, more polluted than the outside air. This gives us more incentive to be outside as much as possible, breathing the cleanest Air we have access to. For me, this means ocean Air, forest Air, or mountain Air whenever possible. Even better is when I exercise in these environments, which forces me to breathe deeper and circulate more quality air through my body.

Air Hallow: The Blade

It took me a long time to understand that the traditional symbols for the elements weren’t just arbitrary associations. In the case of Air, the Blade is not an abstract representation. A Blade is probably the most essential tool a human can have with them in the wild. It is a meta-tool, a tool that allows one to make additional tools, with practice and mastery of specific cutting techniques. In addition, making a blade itself requires a mastery of skill, adequate intellect, and practice at the technique, whether knapping flint or forging steel. Is it any wonder that the esoteric associations of Air reside in the realm of imagination, intellect, and ideas?

Ideas for Air Devotional Practices

  • Get outside and breathe deeply, preferably while exercising so you take in more oxygen, as often as you can.
  • Fill a room — or a forest, or a desert — with sound that you love.
  • Get a good knife, and learn to use and maintain it. Keeping a sharp yet stout edge on a blade is a very useful skill, and can be an apt metaphor for many life experiences. It requires forethought, subtlety, precision, and practice.

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