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Reclaiming the Air

Courtesy of NOAA Central LibraryOn February 4, 1884, John Ruskin delivered a lecture titled “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century.” Ruskin, who was one of those all-knowing Victorians, had noticed a distinctly new “plague-cloud,” which had never before been described. Neither modern meteorologists nor sharp-eyed poets, from Homer to Wordsworth, had mentioned the “wind of darkness” with its “malignant quality.” Ruskin reported that for 53 years he had made “constant and close observation” of the sky and that only beginning in the late 1870s had he experienced the “pitch dark, with no blackness — but deep, high, filthiness of lurid, yet not sublimely lurid, smoke-cloud [of] dense manufacturing mist” he was now seeing. The wind was “of the bitterest, nastiest, poisonous blight” dimming the sun and turning his kitchen garden into “one miserable mass of weeds gone to seed, the roses . . . putrefied into brown sponges, feeling like dead snails; and half-ripe strawberries all rotten at the stalks.” Ruskin speculated on the origin of this air, which he said was “contending with healthy weather.” “It looks partly as if it were made of poisonous smoke; very possibly, it may be; there are at least two hundred furnace chimneys in a square of two miles on every side of me.” He was quite right.What England’s and the 19th century’s greatest art critic called “Manchester’s Devil Darkness” — the coal soot pouring from the smokestacks of burgeoning industry — would not get a proper name for another 30 years. On July 27, 1905, the London Globe reported, “The other day at a meeting of the Public Health Congress Dr. Des Voeux did a public service in coining a new word for the London fog, which was referred to as ‘smog,’ a compound of ‘smoke’ and ‘fog.’” Science took roughly another 45 years to catch up and label the chemical constituents of smog. (The Caltech professor who did so — Arie Haagen-Smit — became the first chairman of the California Air Resources Board.)What alarmed Ruskin, however, was the disappearance of England’s “fine weather,” the loss of “an old-fashioned sunset — the sort of thing [J.M.W.] Turner and I used to have to look at (nobody else ever would) constantly.” A sunset seen through pure air, he noted, was “gold and vermilion. . . . The brightest pigment we have would look dim beside the truth.”To Ruskin, it was a betrayal of nature’s blessings to go about life inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide, as if these were the only attributes of air that mattered. Yet, because L.A.’s air is superlatively bad — as in, “the nation’s most polluted . . . the nation’s smoggiest . . . the nation’s dirtiest . . . air” — that’s what we do. We breathe and wheeze, and usually don’t drift into romantic visions of “pure air.”Plus, the sad truth is, L.A.’s air furnishes us with plenty of fearful realities to ponder. Nearly one in four days is too smoggy to meet the federal air quality standards — criteria set way back in 1977. The health effects of this one, all-inclusive fact are staggering. Children growing up in places like L.A., where they are constantly exposed to high levels of ozone, have reduced lung function. Smoggy days are linked to increases in asthma attacks. Kids seated aboard school buses are sucking in four times more diesel fumes — cancer-causing soot — than they would standing behind the bilging buses’s tailpipes. Worse, there is increasing evidence that when ozone and soot levels are high, older people with heart and lung disease die.Foul air is an abiding and troubling issue, and there is no way to minimize the threat to everyone’s health. Indeed, the deeper physicians and medical researchers probe the minute workings of the body, the more they realize the extent of the damage. Among the newest findings: On a typical smoggy day the ozone that is brought about by a mixture of automotive and industrial fumes baked in abundant sunlight is chemically burning the tiny airways of the lungs. This latest observation, obviously, is not good news.But by incessantly referring to air quality — as in the South Coast Air Quality Manage­ment District — we have lost sight of the qualities of air. We have relinquished the definition of this genuine elixir to the technocrats who, however sincere (they are that, and often capable and brave, too), have done what is said cannot be done: They’ve bottled air. Air, that seemingly boundless substance, has been confined to the laboratory, and the statistician’s spreadsheet. That’s a pity, especially here in Southern California, where the air was once, among other things, a magnet for immigrants. They came to places like Pasadena and Sierra Madre for the dryness of the air, thought to be a cure for lungs ravaged by tuberculosis. Practically any disorder, according to 19th-century quacks and boosters, could be overcome by a good, long stint in that dry air. Malaria (literally, air infected with a noxious substance capable of generating disease), pneumonia, cirrhosis of the liver, jaundice, constipation, even old age, would benefit by a lungful. “By 1880,” Carey McWilliams writes in Southern California Country, “the whole foothill district . . . was ‘one vast sanatarium.’?” Although Noah Webster and the ancient Greeks supposed air to be moist, in the shadow of the Transverse Range and the Peninsular Range, which almost kiss at Beaumont between Mount San Gorgonio and Mount San Jacinto, it is dry. So dry, in fact, that there are Santa Anas that contain almost no water vapor. Relative humidity drops to near zero. Conventional instruments cannot say how dry the air is. Added to this fact is an anomaly that typifies Southern California: Usually cold air is the driest. Here, it’s the hot air, which was another reason to go west. They came, and stayed, because the air was perfumed — and still is. The dynamics of climate, governed by the proximity of the deserts to the sea, with interceding, dramatically tall mountain ranges, pushes hot and cool air back and forth, like a giant oscillating fan. Back in the 1930s, on a hot day when the great masses of air hovering above the deserts began to drift downward, back toward the Pacific shore, it carried the scent of thousands of acres of orange and lemon groves from the Inland Empire and deposited the aroma at Union Station. The groves are now gone, but the air currents remain, and when they move in the opposite direction, in what meteorologists call an onshore flow, night-blooming jasmine pours its sweet scent onto the eddies and swirls in the temperate evening air. At times like that, when the dew is just touching the ground, L.A. can be a Dilaudin dream. Then there are those arid days when the lemon eucalyptuses emit a whiff of acid, a hint of zest. And, maybe it’s just an illusion, but there are times when it seems you’re breathing salt air downtown.Southland air has also conditioned the light. Rays of sunshine are not all created equal. During an inversion layer, on a not-especially inspired winter day, we’ve all seen the mahogany ring around the basin. But we’ve seen the horizon scrubbed clean, after a January deluge; not a speck of dust lingers in the air. The air becomes pellucid. The landscape dilates, colors sparkle. On days like that, it’s easier to breathe.Such winter days are one extreme. On summer days, even those that begin with a shawl of mist — a.k.a. June gloom — the air becomes a thermal cushion, inviting languorous, slow movements, like the rocking wings of a circling red-tailed hawk. Such days inspired Rudolph Schindler to build his breathtaking house on Kings Road, where every room is an extension of the outdoors, and an attempt to make the ephemeral visceral. Likewise, the plein air artists of the '20s. And, more self-consciously two generations later, “painters” like Robert Irwin and James Turrell attempted to project the Southland atmosphere, first through objects, then through a kind of canvasless dematerialization.Although Turrell has moved away from L.A., his work continues to follow another salient property of the local air: It is ideal for astronomy. In 1904, George Ellery Hale, with money from the Carnegie fortune, built Mount Wilson Observatory, 5,715 feet above sea level in the San Gabriel mountains near Pasadena. The spot has the most naturally steady air in North America. The minimal levels of turbulence make stars appear steady, allowing high magnification by the large telescopes. It was on the 100-inch Hooker telescope on Mount Wilson that Edwin Hubble made the discovery that the universe is expanding, paving the way for the big bang theory.Countless other interpretations of the unique qualities of L.A. air could be offered. The point is, the air that surrounds and nourishes us ought to be more than a source of our diminution. Air ought to be an inspiration, as surely must be the case in some hidden atelier or attic somewhere around town.“Blanched sun — blighted grass — blinded man,” were Ruskin’s keening words near the end of his lecture. He was then four days short of his 65th birthday, and he had witnessed the great transformation of rural England into an industrial powerhouse. He knew the costs. “The air for human breath . . . the clouds for human sight and nourishment,” was his call to arms. It should be ours.


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