I broached this subject on W-day of the A to Z Challenge.

I grew up in Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes. When I was a kid we had a lake cabin we would visit every summer for a couple of weeks of waterskiing, swimming, mosquito-swatting, and fishing.

Minnesota is also a land of thunderstorms. It’s flat enough that you can usually see the clouds building and there’s a certain darkness that means a storm is on its way.

fishing pole
(thanks to laeste on sxc.hu)

One day as the dark clouds headed our way, Dad told me to go down to the boat to put away the fishing poles and raise the boat on the lift. By the time I got to the dock, the wind was already starting to pick up. I cranked the lift so the boat was completely out of the water and then hopped in to stow the fishing lines and put the poles down in the bottom of the boat.

As I tightened the line on a pole, I must have turned it just right because the line begin to hum in the wind. The sound was so eerie and fascinating that I held the pole up and just listened. Finally I hunkered down in the boat so the wind wasn’t actually blowing in my ears while holding the fishing pole up into the wind like an antenna (or lightning rod).

I found that by pulling on the line, I could change the pitch of the sound even as the capricious wind changed the volume and occasionally drew different harmonics out of the line. I think the sound and the dark skies of the coming storm combined to mesmerize me. I don’t know how long I stayed like that, “playing” my fishing pole wind harp. It probably wasn’t that long since I’m sure it started raining not long after, but those minutes stuck with me.

Years later, I heard Garrison Keillor on “A Prairie Home Companion” tell a story about a harpist who set her electric harp on an outdoor stage and just let the wind play for the audience. Hearing that story brought up the memory of my fishing pole wind harp. Being in the time of Google, I did some searching and found out that wind harps have been around for a long time.

Aeolian Harp historical re-creation
Re-creation, ~1870 Aeolian harp

It turns out wind harps were also known as Aeolian harps, so named for Aeolus, Greek god of wind. Apparently already known in the ancient world, they are described in writing as early as the 17th century.

In my searches, I found that many others before me had spontaneously “discovered” wind harps by happening upon anything from telegraph lines to dried sinew stretched across a turtle shell catching the wind. So, it seems my fascination with the sound is not unique.

Apparently the popularity of wind harps had its heyday in 19th century Europe, but they can still be found today in forms ranging from small window-box harps to large installations.

Soundscapes International wind harp
wind harp installation

Have you ever encountered a wind harp? What was your experience of it?

Wind harps and fishing poles
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