One silver lining of Spring allergies: they can draw our attention to the beautiful, underappreciated fullness of the air all around us! But what even is air, this life-giving atmosphere and breath? Let's show our air some love and curiosity!
More so than most other aspects of our Natural world, we take the life-giving nourishment of air for granted. We might even presume we’re surrounded on all sides by a kind of emptiness – after all, the air does seem invisible and weightless most of the time.
But if, like me, you have seasonal allergies, Spring can be a reminder that in fact, the air is full, in all kinds of amazing ways (and, thankfully, with more than just allergens)! Let’s explore the fullness of our underappreciated air!
First off, what exactly is air? There seem to be at least three different ways we usually define it: as one of the four classical elements (the others being fire, water, and earth); as atmosphere or sky; and as breath.
THE ELEMENT OF AIR
As long as humans have been pondering Nature, we’ve learned to observe the air as a unique presence and substance rather than an absence. It’s recognized by many cultures as a primary constituent of reality, one of the classical elements: it’s not solid (earth), it’s not liquid (water), it’s not plasma (fire), and it’s not nothing.
It’s the transparent but lively force that is the wind, carrying the birds and coursing among and through all terrestrial creatures, fueling our all bodies in an even more intimate way than hydration and sustenance. It’s the something that fills the open expanse between here and the Heavens.
ATMOSPHERE AND SKY
In this atmospheric or sky sense, air is the envelope of substances surrounding the surface of the Earth. Given how we colloquially talk about the atmosphere, we might think of it merely as the domain of clouds high overhead. But it begins at ground level. In fact, due to the pull of gravity, most of the sky’s contents are quite close to the Earth: about three-quarters of our air is located within the nearest 11% of the atmosphere – or under 36,000 feet (the height at which commercial planes typically fly) – with the concentration increasing the farther down we go.
Despite this varied, layered distribution, the chemicals that compose the air do exist in about the same ratio to each other everywhere in the world. 78% is nitrogen (N2) and 21% is oxygen (O2). The other 1% is trace elements, including tiny proportions of water vapor, CO2, ozone, and geological, organic, and industrial particulates. This 1% of air is what varies in composition across the globe, e.g. ozone is more prevalent high up, water vapor is more prevalent at sea level. And, because of the immense impact these chemicals have on the web of life, this 1% is what almost all our atmosphere-related stress – from climate change to airborne illness, from allergies to bad breath – is about.
As far as air as breath, we’re talking about the mere 25% of the O2 that our lungs can actually filter out of the air (nitrogen doesn’t nourish us, so total we use only about 5% of each inhale), plus the extra CO2 we expel, plus the other miscellanea that get caught up in that. Incredibly, these tiny, inefficient movements are all it fundamentally takes to keep us alive. And we’re fundamentally dependent on them, so much so that we do them over 20,000 times per day without a single conscious thought.
If we exhale as far as we can, we’re reminded what emptiness actually is: a vacuum, into which air naturally rushes. It does this, because, according to Nature’s fondness for seeking equilibrium, it “wants” to equalize the pressure among the local atmosphere.
This phenomenon of air pressure – the astonishing weight of air – is what we turn to next, in Part 2! Stay tuned!