Note: This story is intended to be listened to. Text associated below is simply a transcript of the audio.

We breathe when we walk, and even when we talk and when we sing.

As we inhale, we contract a muscle called the diaphragm, which decreases air pressure inside our lungs. With that lower air pressure inside, the outside air rushes into our lungs. And when the diaphragm relaxes, air pressure inside the lungs increases, and then air rushes out like out of a balloon.

It’s a primal — yet simple — process that, obviously, we depend on to stay alive.

We take it for granted. Or forget it happens most of the time. I am trying to focus more on this simple process now — noticing that feeling.

I have a clear memory of being a 5- or 6-year-old who loved watching wildlife documentaries. Whales always fascinated me, and I thought that the tall mist that gray or sperm whales sprayed was just for show.

But they are actually exhaling.

Whales don’t breathe like fish, pulling oxygen from water with their gills. They have blowholes through which they inhale, and when they exhale, the air is released into a lower-pressure and colder atmosphere, which makes that water vapor — that mist — condense into a spray.

Blowholes, I’d learn, are also the name given to marine geysers that can form along coastlines or islands. There’s a famous one in Hawaii’s Oahu Island that formed thousands of years ago due to volcanic activity. It’s called Hālona Point, or “lookout” in Hawaiian, a place tourists flock to see the Earth breathing next to the Pacific, which also happens to be a major lookout point for humpback whales.

Blowholes upon blowholes.

I never imagined I would find them where I live, in the Arizona desert.

This winter, I visited Wupatki National Monument, a series of settlements by ancestors of modern-day Hopi and Zuni people going back to the 12th century. There, tucked in the highland Painted Desert, somewhat hidden between the pueblo’s red-rock dwellings, I discovered another sign of the Earth breathing, just like we do.

I put my hand on the hole, an opening on the ground of about 10 by 10 inches, with a grille going across it lest someone — or something — get sucked in or out through the hole. Below me, scientists have discovered miles of underground Earth cracks where wind speeds can approach 30 miles an hour.

The interpretive sign before me said that, just 24 miles from where I stood, there was another blowhole through which the air went in and out, like this one, depending on the outside air pressure.

These kinds of blowholes are very rare, and experts don’t know if they were around in the 12th century, when Wupatki had a population of up to 150 people. I can’t help but imagine that finding such an opening, where the ground breathed, would have been a fine reason to settle this highland desert.

Original audio by Ruxandra Guidi, with sound effects from BBC Sound Effects.

Ruxandra Guidi is a correspondent for High Country News. She writes from Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on LinkedIn.

“Encounters” is a serial column exploring life and landscape during the climate crisis.

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