In school, most of us learnt this simple definition: Air is approximately 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen with small amounts of other gases like carbon dioxide, neon, and hydrogen alongside water vapour and particulate matter. We made neat little labelled diagrams of the sections of the atmosphere in our exams and after that air returned to its insubstantial existence. If we considered it through our adulthood it was that which moved the distant clouds, shook the tree heads on a particular stormy evening and at the most personal it was the carrier of winter chills. Yet now as the air around us heaves with increased pollutants, we are pushed to consider air in the profound and continuous way that only those with respiratory illnesses experience.
I remember an asthmatic friend who described an attack as her ‘lungs closing like concrete’ refusing entry to the very thing her life depended upon. She spoke of how often air, seemingly invisible and ethereal to the rest of us, was a constant presence for her. Her lungs ‘saw’ what her eyes could not. We breathe almost without knowledge. With an intake of breath, molecules from our environment reach the deepest recesses of our lungs, the tip ends of the inverted tree like passages where the tiny alveoli cells extract oxygen and release carbon dioxide in the exhaled breath. This rhythmic exchange of human breath is dependent on the connective tissue that enfolds us, holds us, conjoins us to this world – air.
Reuters put up an animated map of the world to help visualise the extent of India’s air pollution crisis. As the animation moves from day to day, swirling dark brown smog undulates over the north of India and sections of China constantly. Here and there on the map little spouts of additional darkness whirl about – the California fires, the Amazonian fires. As they dance over the continents and dissipate into the lighter areas of the map, I imagine the collective exhalation of a country’s choices into this shared connective tissue, a form of passive smoking that is impinged upon the whole.
This might seem like stating an obvious fact that biology books taught us but ‘seeing’ from your lungs has a way of taking a fact, making it somehow tactile and personal. Moving through our daily routines we like to believe in the impermeability of our bodies. The idea that we are individual and separate from this world we live in. That we might even be in competition with it. Yet the lungs tell us otherwise, they whisper of the co-creation of life, of the ways we are hooked constantly to the wellness of this world.
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