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On the Santa Anas, again

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FEBRUARY 18, 2023

In Southern California, we call the winds that blow offshore, to the sea, the Santa Anas. In Northern California, they are called El Diablo: the devil. These types of hot, dry winds that come off the mountains are not unique to California. They can be found in Italy (called locally “sirocco”), the Middle East (“hamsin”) and in Central Europe (“foehns”), among other places. What all of these winds seem to have in common is an association with psychological unease.

In an essay entitled “The Santa Anas,” Joan Didion described the Santa Anas as an agent of both physical and psychological chaos. The physical element of the Santa Anas’ odiousness is clear. Some of California’s most massive wildfires have been ignited by the gusting, dry winds that blow PG&E equipment down into the brush. Years ago, in December, I experienced the physical chaos of Santa Anas: the heat of the wind on my face as I practiced soccer at my high school. To the southwest I saw a faint glow in the hills, which turned out to be the nascent Thomas Fire — a wildfire that encircled my hometown in a fiery donut and left more than 1,000 houses burned and two dead in neighboring communities. 

Years ago, in December, I experienced the physical chaos of Santa Anas: the heat of the wind on my face as I practiced soccer at my high school.

But, as Didion observes, the psychological chaos induced by the Santa Anas doesn’t only derive from the fear of these fires. There’s something more mystical to the fear, more illogical, more primordial:  “My only neighbor would not come out of her house for days, and there were no lights at night, and her husband roamed the place with a machete. One day he would tell me that he had heard a trespasser, the next a rattlesnake.” In Didion’s portrayal, the Santa Anas are the climatological accompaniment to the workings of the Californian underbelly: they were gusting during the Manson murders, or when Patty Hearst, the granddaughter of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped from her apartment at 2603 Benvenue Street here in Berkeley. Their howling was the soundtrack to the killing at the Altamont raceway, and to the recent arrest of the Golden State Killer. 

The Santa Anas stir the ghosts of California. All Californians know it. As the wind rushes down the hills, we expect something bracing and invigorating. But it defies us — hot, blowing to the sea, cracking our lips. To our state psyche, the Santa Anas are the equivalent of that inaudible noise generated in horror movie soundtracks that subconsciously makes us nervous.

The Santa Anas stir the ghosts of California. All Californians know it.

Even mainstream scientists have tried to figure out why these winds make us feel this way. In 1981 an article was published in the New York Times detailing the work of researchers in Israel (inspired, notably, by mice studies at Berkeley) who posited that the increased positive ions in the air generated symptoms like increased irritability and depression by possibly affecting serotonin levels. Joan Didion even mentioned this in her essay as a possible medical explanation: “one cannot get much more mechanistic than that,” she wrote. 

If this theory sounds a little, shall we say, “unscientific” (perhaps like a modern version of the miasma theory of germs, which held that diseases were spread through a bad “night air”), that’s because it is. Subsequent research has found no such relationship between ionization and homicidal tendencies and/or irritability. Ionization doesn’t seem to be causing the mental weirdness experienced during the Santa Anas. But, then, what is? 

To some, however, the Santa Anas don’t portend doom. To that iconic member of Californian society, the surfer, the Santa Anas signal bliss. On crisp autumn mornings, the wind blows from the land out to the sea, grooming the faces of the waves and making them break cleaner and crisper: like cylinders. The surfer looks forward to the season of the Santa Anas; everyone else looks forward to the summer, when the winds blow the other way, cold and fresh, from the sea.

Contact Jem Ruf at 


FEBRUARY 20, 2023