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Why is there air?

By Morgan Rondinelli

The more that I think about myself breathing, the stranger it feels. I sense my diaphragm stretching. There are barely perceivable obstructions in my sinuses. I can hear the air rushing past my nostrils. It’s rhythmic, but I can also control the pace. What if I forget to breathe? What if I never stop thinking about breathing? What if I breathe too fast or too slow? Yet, soon enough my cat jumps into my lap or my phone rings. I’ve forgotten about my breath, and I am taking air in and out again with ease and without thought.

Air is inevitable, always around us, unless you go to outer space or underwater. I’m not a great swimmer, and I’ve never liked the idea of scuba diving for that reason: you have to bring your air with you. I like my air to engulf me and be unquestionable. It should be an unrelenting force in my life. I never want to have to gasp for air. That would probably be the worst way to die.

Air is actually quite heavy. With the pressure uniform around us, we don’t feel it. But remove the air on one side, such as in a vacuum, and the heaviness is startling. The sky weighs billions of tons. We see its fortitude in storms, with broken branches and thrown shingles. Unchecked air can cause serious damage. Air can crush cans. Air can rip kites. Air is not empty space. Millions of molecules swirl around us touching and shaking and vibrating with our own molecules. Air is not nothingness.

Without air, what would we have? We would be completely different life forms, not so reliant on oxygen, if there even was complex life at all. Maybe we would all still be swimming underwater with gills, but even that relies on oxygen. How much of life’s evolution was dependent on there being air? Would we have walked out of the sea onto land without the presence of air? Were we drawn to the air or was the air drawn to us?

Why is there air? I’m sure there’s a scientific reason, probably having to do with the Big Bang and chemical reactions of gases within our atmosphere. But I’m trying to see a more poetic answer. Air is for making music, feeling free singing loudly in your car because you don’t have to worry about anyone hearing you. Air is for shaking trees, making red and orange leaves fall as the seasons change. Air is for pulling a hair out of your ponytail, leading to a lover pushing it gently behind your ear.

If a tree falls in the forest, and there is no air to perpetuate the sound, does anyone hear it? If not, what a loss, for there to be no branches cracking against one another, no thump of the trunk meeting ground, no mockingbirds singing their endless songs. If so, who hears it? And can it be me?

Air is invisible, tasteless, often scentless, unless something has gone very wrong or very right. A seasoned musician picking up their trumpet or a partner cooking with garlic can remind us of air’s existence. So can the added rotten egg smell of a gas leak.

We gasp for air as soon as we are born. It is our first goal, our first reach. It is the first sign that something has gone very wrong or very right. How do our bodies know how to switch from getting oxygen from the umbilical cord to using our new lungs? How do we know how to take that first breath? Maybe air exists to teach us.

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