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1 October 2023

Scientists of the 17th century would recognise my ailment – air ache

When a season changes I feel something halfway between yearning for memory and a premonition of oncoming.

By Hannah Rose Woods

It’s that time of year when what I think of as my “seasonal melancholy” is particularly acute. I cannot understand why we haven’t settled on a term for it. The air ache. That emotional tug we get when we sense a change of season, a shifting of atmosphere. It does something strange to me, this air sensing – pleasure-painful, halfway between yearning for memory and a premonition of oncoming. I try to chase down something nameable like a dog lifting its nose in the wind.

The 17th century was a great age for air naming. The leading lights of the scientific revolution were intensely preoccupied with the elucidation of atmosphere. In his utopian novel New Atlantis, Francis Bacon listed among discoveries as desirable as “the prolongation of life” and “the mitigation of pain”, “impressions of the air”. Bacon had earlier written a natural history of the winds, aiming to lift them from the realms of myth and astrology, and into the realm of phenomena that might one day be mastered. But it was a “slippery subject”, he explained – winds were evasive things, stubbornly remaining “in the category of the secret, and hidden”, with the “subtill perceptions” of air rising continually out of reach before observers could find them.

For his scientific successor Robert Boyle, identifying the “hidden qualities of air” was a lifelong preoccupation. For decades Boyle compiled material for a “General History of the Air”, an undertaking so expansive that it was left unfinished at his death. The first recorded use of the word “barometer” was by Boyle. It was an astonishing invention at the time: the discovery that air could not just be weighed through its operation upon a vial of quicksilver, but that its weight was constantly fluctuating, and in ways that could forecast a change in weather.

I don’t think I was any less astonished, as a child, by the discovery of the barometer that hung in our hallway, which seemed to be an object of unimaginable antiquity. I think all children make for great 17th-century scientists – they haven’t settled yet on where the borderlines are between science and magic.

[See also: The end of summer]

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Robert Burton gets closest to the air ache, in his 1621 The Anatomy of Melancholy. Alongside medicine, magic, lovers, Aristotle and omens, Burton devoted a great deal of attention to thoughts on air. He felt himself to be particularly air-sensitive. “The air works on all men, more or less,” he wrote, “but especially on such as are melancholy.”

By the end of the 18th century any sensitive soul worth their smelling salt was acutely attuned to atmosphere. Satirists lampooned the refined sensibilities of those who set out in search of weather as sublime experience. Even before romantic poets composed odes out of air-feelings – winds could stir a “corresponding creative breeze”, Wordsworth felt – Samuel Johnson was complaining about this kind of “fanciful credulity”. If people were going to insist on perceiving themselves as subject to the ebb and flow of atmosphere, he hoped they wouldn’t write about it, and bade they “regulate their lives by the barometer with inconvenience only to themselves”.

I’m with James Boswell on this one. Cataloguing Johnson’s every word and movement, he could not help but notice that despite the declamations, “the effects of weather upon him were very visible”. He could only conclude that the “influences of the air are irresistible”.

Still, it’s a raid on inarticulacy. Is this partly why our air-sense moves us so intensely – that it operates without language? It’s the same with smell, which the poet and essayist Diane Ackerman calls “the mute sense, the one without words”. Try to describe the smell of air at night, or your lover, or an infant’s head.

For a while in my early twenties I became obsessed with the world of perfume blogs and online forums. I could not believe the encyclopaedia of possibilities it offered for describing scent. I pored over taxonomies of fragrance: the families of Chypre, Woody, Floral, Oriental; the compositional structure of top, middle, and then base notes – which are almost always animal in origin, emissaries of atavistic instinct. I had a romance with terms: petitgrain, vetiver, oakmoss, oudh.

Every few months I would order decants in tiny vials in the post, eager for the promise of evocative descriptions. When they arrived they were, for the most part, mildly disappointing. I had liked the sound of the words better.

[See also: Inside a cupboard, I found the solace of solitude]

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This article appears in the 04 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour in Power

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