Sniffing the Air
Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 3/7/99

Fresh air. It's one of our most precious natural resources. It comes as the first element I encounter when I embark on a wafting expedition. I live and move every moment of my life in the medium of air. It is my breath. It carries my body's fuel of oxygen. It wafts to me odors that both entice me and warn me. It delivers the warmth of the sun and cushions it just enough to make it comfortable.

Air supports moisture and spreads it out across the face of the earth to nourish its living creatures. Air is the medium for the transmission of sound waves that carry continual messages to me from my surrounding environment.

Air, that marvelous mixture of nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide, is mysteriously invisible to our eyes. In many languages the words for wind, breath and spirit are virtually interchangeable.

For those whose world view includes a belief in benevolent and malevolent spirits, the air is often associated with that invisible realm of the workings of these hidden beings. If such be the case, air is pregnant with  information and inspiration that can only be gathered by those who listen to the wind with both fine-tuned senses and an open heart.

The air that one finds lingering over a river is particularly distinctive. It comes laden with moisture from the surface of the water and bears it up for us to enjoy with our sense of smell.

I find that the scent of a river comes in at least two versions. If it is a swift-moving water, tumbling over rocks and sand, the air above the water contains an elemental freshness. I can smell the rocks in the river. The scent is one that I associate with minerals and inorganic materials. It is a clean, crisp, invigorating smell that I experience in the midst of rapids or when standing beneath a waterfall.

On the other hand, a slow moving river that winds through heavily vegetated land carries with it the scent of life and death. The smell of richly organic soils, decaying leaves on a muddy bottom, and the odor of fish and other animal life hovers in the air over this type of water. It can be almost a rank odor, but yet, not wholly unpleasant. It is a primal, heavier air than the light air of the bubbly, rocky river.

I find deep breathing to be an excellent method of internalizing the riparian environment. But I also dream of a bygone era when the Eno River would have been clean enough to drink from without having to first pass through a modern water treatment system.

My first act of engaging such a river would have been to take a big gulp of its water.  But today, as the Eno passes through modern urban centers, that is no longer possible. On the other hand, the air above the river remains clean enough for me to safely gulp, its moisture laden volume filling my lungs instead of my stomach.

When I waft the Eno River, deep breathing delivers oxygen to the brain and quickens my ability to interpret with my five senses. Not only am I taking in messages through the air from the river around me, but I am also returning back my own waste products into the environment, and thus I am renewed.

The release of these actual physical particles often precipitates the release of unhealthy emotional and spiritual wastes that I have packed away and  that need to exit my body.

This is an opportunity to let go of anxieties, hurts, knotty problems and challenges that seem too big to meet. All these ruminations can be wafted away in the air as a conscious act of release on my part.

At the same time, through deep breathing, I open myself up to thoughts that the river may want to waft my way. These are always of an inspirational nature.

I have yet to find my hometown river sending to me anything other than the most comforting and encouraging of thoughts! These can include creative ideas and inspirations for both my work and my personal life.

Once in my inflatable kayak, I find the hammock position to be the most suitable for exchanging thoughts through the air. Reclining, with my feet propped up and my back and head supported by the seat cushion behind me, my mind is best able to send and receive wafting thoughts. The spirit of the river becomes a friend and ally in my thought process, as if it were running a grist mill for the mind. But the medium for this transaction is still the air ...

I was searching for a new spiritual path when I began wafting the Eno River in 1990. I had passed the previous fifteen years of my life as a linguistic researcher in the Middle East.

Much to my surprise, the most profound statement that I discovered in the land of the Bible was not located in the traditionally recognized sacred  texts of antiquity. Instead, I was attracted to a common expression in colloquial Arabic that I heard from street people in a non religious context - "shammat hawa." It literally means "sniffing the air."

The expression describes the experience one has when taking a deliberate leave from situations that might include the following: one is in a tedious routine, such as being trapped in a small house raising a handful of energetic children; laboring at an uncreative job; fueling a relationship that is unhealthy and going nowhere; living a meaningless existence with no opportunity to expand oneself, explore or have an adventure; trapped in poverty or an unjust political arrangement; or just being emotionally or physically incapacitated or sick.

All of us experience these situations at one time or another. You are stifled and there is a compelling need for fresh air ...

The suggestion to someone that they need to go "sniff the air," is usually greeted as slightly humorous. Perhaps it is because some people are genuinely stuck and can only dream of getting out of the bog in which they find themselves. Then it is understood as a joke. The expression is also animal-like, for the air carries the scent of the hunt and is also the realm of pheromones that are released when searching for a mate. In other words, to have the opportunity to sniff the air just might unleash the animal or truly wild nature in each of us.

Such an unleashing could bring exciting but unpredictable results for those who have been penned up without freshness for an extended period of time. These possibilities make their way to the surface and reveal themselves in the grin that usually comes upon the face of a Middle Easterner when confronted with the suggestion of "shammat hawa."

Many Middle Easterners were historically people of fresh air. Those who were desert dwellers lived in tents in remote and beautiful wilderness settings. Others lived in oasis villages and traded by periodically trekking these vast wild areas. They lived in close relationship with the animals they kept, loved the outdoors and their freedom as nomadic farmers, herdsmen and traders. They were a people of extraordinary sensory perception and their sense of smell was probably considered the most exalted of the five senses.

In the Middle East today, the expression "sniffing the air" is not commonly used in a spiritual sense. In fact, more often, it is spoken almost irreverently.  But after studying its various connotations, I find it to be a truly indigenous liberation theology. It is both honest and revelatory, originating from a wellspring of deep, heartfelt dreams for freedom and fresh air. Shammat hawa yearns for our reconnection with the untamed animal self and a closer intimate bond to the natural world.

As for myself, my new path led me to set aside the worn out texts of Near Eastern antiquity that I once so zealously studied, that structure which Henry Thoreau so well described as an "ancient and tottering frame with all its boards blown off." Instead, I have decided to go forth and sniff the air, the path of Shammat Hawa.  My waft is my conveyance and the river is my highway...  

Photo by Susan Siravo: Riverdave sniffing the air on the Eno River ...