Saturday, May 28

Winds of change, culture, and custom


A WHILE BACK, after a day of torrential rain and high tide at Siar Beach, near Lundu, that very evening, on the ebb tide, the clouds cleared and the moon appeared thus affording me a chance to take a beach walk towards the mangroves. It was on this stroll that I felt a strong wind blowing down the moonlit slopes of Mount Gading.

The strength of this mountain or katabatic wind reminded me of similar night time experiences in the shadow of Mount Santubong in Damai. On both beaches where the temperature of the seawater remains higher than the land temperatures at night, a steep pressure gradient is created between the mountain tops (higher pressure) to the seaside (lower pressure). All winds blow from high to low pressure areas.

Similar winds, I have experienced on summer evenings at the seaside in Provence, Southern France. There, air flows from Les Alpilles (the small Alps) across the flat delta lands of the River Rhone towards the warmer Mediterranean Sea. Such summer winds are in no ways as devastating and dreadful as Le Mistral wind experienced in that region usually during the winter and spring months and lasting up to nine days at a time.

The Mistral

The Pont Sant-Benezet (Le Pont d’Avignon) with Mont Ventoux towering behind on
a clear Mistral day in late summer.

The word ‘mistral’ is derived from the Latin word ‘magister’ meaning master, and it is a very strong, cold north westerly or north easterly wind with speeds of between 50km to 180km per hour. The strength of this wind becomes more accentuated as it is funnelled along the Rhone Valley between the Massif Central in the west and the French Alps in the east. Usually blowing in clear, fresh, dry weather, the greatest wind speeds surprisingly are not found at the point where the Rhone Valley is at its narrowest at Valence, but much further south in the Camargue National Park of the Rhone delta where the valley widens. Again pressure differences, with colder anticyclonic air over northern Europe rushing towards the warmer cyclonic air of the Mediterranean. These cyclones are a winter feature and originate from the Atlantic Ocean to the west.

The Mistral is not totally confined to winter/spring times as sometimes there are summer outbreaks from July to early September, which are created when the land is overheated but such a wind blows for longer than a day. It is a bone dry desiccating wind, quickly drying out vegetation and is thus the precursor and fast spreader of forest fires. A few years ago, whilst visiting Nice and Menton, I saw at first hand such fires raging along a hillside with seaplanes diving along the surface of the Mediterranean Sea thereby collecting water to drop on and douse the flames.

From the historical former Papal city of Avignon, usually in summer time, you can just see through the heat haze, Mont Ventoux at its 1,912 metres elevation but if the summer Mistral is at its height the air pollution and dust is dispersed and that mountain reveals its true beauty together with the distant Alps Maritimes ranges over 100km away.

Effects upon Provencal architecture and culture

Cabines in the Camargue hugging the ground.

The Provencal landscape is characterised with ubiquitous lines of tall cypress trees which, over the centuries, local farmers have planted to mitigate the desiccating effects of these strong winds upon their crops. Many of Van Gogh’s late 19th century landscape paintings, which he produced whilst living in nearby Arles, depict these tree-lined field boundaries or windbreaks. Most of the traditional Provencal farmhouses or mas tend to be one storey, ground hugging buildings with the fronts of the buildings exhibiting most of the windows and facing south or southwest with their backs to Le Mistral.

Other forms of vernacular architecture are seen in the traditional reed-roofed cabines — one storey buildings in the Camargue region and now rented out in summer time as gites for tourists. Church architecture also exhibits man’s adaptation to this wind in their open grill-covered belfries allowing the wind to freely pass through thus offering no resistance. Local excavations by archaeologists have found that prehistoric people built low walls of local rock and beach pebbles to the northwest of their fireplaces to prevent the winds either extinguishing or enflaming their fires!

Santons — ceramic/porcelain figurines of Provencal people in local costumes or in everyday working clothes have been produced there for centuries and originated from scenes of the Nativity crib. One particular one I like is that of a local shepherd coming to worship at the manger and bringing his gift of a lamb in one arm. He is depicted holding his hat against the force of the mistral with his other arm and his billowing cape on his back. Undoubtedly, it is in the artwork of the impressionist and post-impressionist painters that the spirit of the Mistral is encapsulated and no better displayed than in Van Gogh’s famous 1888 painting, ‘A Starry Night’. The clarity and quality of the natural light, when the Mistral was blowing, saw colonies of artists springing up in Provencal towns such as Arles.

The local name for the Mistral of the marshland dwellers of the Camargue is the mange-fange or mud-eater as the dry air evaporates the water in the marshland swamps, thereby destroying mosquito breeding sites. Thus Le Mistral has become entrenched in the legends and calendars of Provencal folk.

Mountain winds in Malaysian Borneo

There are 16 mountains in East Malaysia over 1,000 metres high with Gunung Aki Nabalu (Mount Kinabalu) topping them all at 4,095.2 metres. I recently discovered that Bario in the Kelabit Highlands literally means wind, suggesting that nearby Mount Murud at 2,424 metres altitude has a part to play in this. There must be numerous settlements on the foothills of the Sabahan and Sarawakian mountain ranges, which are steeped in folklore as to how local winds have affected lives, culture and architectural styles.

Such legends may easily be dismissed as folklore and myths by some people today but I am sure they hold more than an element of truth. Mountains may well make their own climates but such landscape features have also influenced thousands of inhabitants’ lives over the centuries. In our ever-accelerating and climatically fast changing world we need to treasure the details and records of the effects of local winds upon past cultures. There must be countless examples of such in both Sarawak and Sabah if only they were documented. I, for one, would more than welcome such information.