Will we ever tire of looking upwards?
If I could get in my old red Mercedes and direct it vertically upwards past the airborne pigs, it would take just six minutes to drive the 10 miles through our troposphere, where 80 per cent of our atmospheric gases are concentrated.
And, indeed, just five hours to drive to the complete vacuum of outer space.
Once upon a time a winning recipe surrounded the planet, by accident or design. Take about four parts nitrogen to one or two parts oxygen; a teaspoonful of carbon dioxide and a pinch of argon, and season to taste with trace gases.
Garnish with dust particles which refract the sun’s light to azure perfection: and there you have it: surely the most democratic wonder of our world.
For, with the exception of those humans deprived by other humans of the privilege, almost anyone can look up and take in the sky.
Each of us has had epic sky moments: when it was just us and the sky, and the rest of the world went away.
One of mine was on the cliffs of North Cornwall as I gazed out on a sunset to woo poets; another, sitting in a plane over the Greek islands which had absorbed Odysseus for a decade, watching the sun rise over the shell-black islands.
But it is often the interaction between sun and clouds which creates the most breathtaking skies. Indeed, here in Britain the sun can end up not getting a look in.
In the first half of the 19th century two artists became obsessive about our English skies. Joseph Mallord William Turner and John Constable painted great skyscapes, capturing the many moods of English clouds.
Just as those who paint the human body study anatomy, Constable became an avid follower of great meteorologist Luke Howard, who is one of the key voices in cloud classification. Howard’s Essay on the Modification of Clouds gave our clouds the names under which they now glory: cumulus, stratus, cirrus and nimbus.
To Constable, the sky was “the key note, the standard of scale, and the chief organ of sentiment”: and to this end he would sketch a skyscape and add notes to it about the time of day, the direction of the light and the weather conditions.
He called this intense study of the heavens ‘skying’.
His contemporary, Turner, was a virtuoso: he seemed to mould the very atmosphere to his purpose, to use the clouds as a wreath or a foil. His skyscapes are all-absorbing and perhaps one of the reasons he is great is that, more than any photograph, he captures epic sky moments on canvas.
And not all of these moments include dazzling sunlight. Some are lowering skies, which have blocked out the sun entirely.
This relentless blanket cloud cover, if it covered the whole globe, could cause an arctic winter; if we did not have it at all, the planet would be a desert which could not support life.
The rain has been slapping at the windows here in the South of England: it is a grey day in a tediously mild midwinter.
Some of us here get hungry for light in January. There is little to be had and so there we are, come rain, shine, snow or fog, with our face turned towards the meagre sky for the little vitamin D it can supply.
The dog and I were glad to get out, this first day of January. We walked across the wide tabletop of the iron age fort. As a rule, when the landscape is dark and dour, with not a flower or sign of hope, we look up.
And when I did so, I realised that labelling our midwinter skies as ‘blanket grey’ is polarised thinking.
Because I know, from distant sunny days, where the sunset belongs. And there, it was lighter: light which warms the heart, a faint kind of hope. The kind that lurked once at the bottom of Pandora’s box.
I know the sun can be there; I know an epic skyscape over the silhouettes of the trees that surround the hilltop is possible. What separates a moment like that from me is time.
It takes a certain resolve to remember the light in the midst of gloom.
And part of that resolve is the ability to see the fine shades of reality: to chart the small signs which show that above us, where the planes fly; where, if I could, I would take my Mercedes; the sun’s light is – for our purposes, anyway – eternal.
So let’s raise our glasses, at the dawn of another year: and toast the sun there, at the centre of the galaxy, way above the clouds.
Picture: Norham Castle Sunrise by Turner- source Wikipedia