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


45 thoughts on “Skying

  1. Cheers, here’s to the sun, the clouds, that amazing blue that lifts the heart, the pink and gold to rosily herald the hope of a new day, and the flashy colours to end it.

  2. Beautiful piece, Kate. Grey skies are never just grey – there are constant tonal changes. You have to be out there in it to see it properly. The other day, as I was going to work, for just three minutes before sunrise should have been there was a breathtaking glimpse of the heavens. A gap between low clouds revealed layers of Saharan hills of gold, pale terracotta and ochre. Quite spectacular.

    I raised several glasses yesterday but if you insist Kate, another won’t do any harm today… 😉 May we all appreciate those special moments that lift the spirits and warm the heart in 2012!

    1. Your bike rides are a constant source of entertainment to me, Jan: on a bike you will often catch a skyscape you wouldn’t appreciate as much in a car. Loved that tandem piece! Consider me warned off for life! One more raised glass,then: Cheers: and here’s to many and varied skyscapes in 2012.

  3. You did it again! Once I read ‘airborne pigs’, I couldn’t focus on the rest of the post. What’s an airborne pig? I have visions of pink cartoon animals, the RAF MPs, policemen with fairy wings…

  4. The sky is where humans have always wanted to go to. To fly, to explore, to paint, to dissect scientifically. When we are kids, we lay on our backs in a park or on a hill and just look at the sky and let the clouds paint images for us. I remember seeing Sputnik as a kid and that was followed by the Mercury missions and John Glenn becoming the first man to orbit the earth in Friendship 7. That was an exciting time when you could just see amazing stuff in the skies.

    The night sky is even more beautiful as it reveals the galaxies around us and once again reminds us of our own insignificance. The fragility of the sky should be a constant reminder of the shortness of our time on earth and how we all need to find a better way to live.

    So we raise a glass and make a toast to the Sky and to its beauty and its symbolism. As Browning tells us “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

    1. Wonderful words on which to ponder, Lou. The sky is busy these days, but how will we ever wholly chart it? There are some things in comparison with which, as you say, man is small in all that breathtaking vast beauty.

      Thank you once again for a unique perspective, and for all the support you give these daily posts of mine 🙂

  5. Kate, I admit it. I’m an addicted skyer! I’d much rather be skying than skiing. In fact, it’s a little-known fact that I’m documenting the sky this year – from just outside our back door! I started to do it last year and failed, this year it’s a challenge to do it each day we are here, rain, snow, sun…. In fact today it is the most beautiful blue. Hopefully it’s the same with you too by now.

    Keep up the good work

  6. ‘It takes a certain resolve to remember the light in the midst of gloom.’ – Yes. It does. Here’s to keeping that resolve during gloomy moments…

  7. Earlybird captured my favorite quote, as the same can be said here during a mild midwinter – perhaps that’s truly why they called it “New” England.

    But also? You managed to draw up a lost–and embarrassing–memory of my college trip to London. You see, I left my passport on the counter of a currency exchange kiosk somewhere between Waterloo station and the Tate (where I went to see the Turners) and had to track it down nearly a day later to a central office on Victoria Street.

    And now I’ve dug up my travel journal and come up with a few post ideas.

    1. As a deeply scatty person myself I can only imagine what it was to be stuck thousands of miles from home having lost your passport, Cameron. Terrifying. Glad you tracked it down: one day I hope you get the chance to exorcise the ghosts and make that walk from Waterloo, past Westminster, to the Tate, in slightly less fraught circumstances.

      I’m looking forward to those posts!

  8. I’ve been a devout skywatcher all my life and Willa Cather best captured how I, a child of America’s Great Plains, feel about it:

    “The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still — and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under one’s feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it. Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!”

    – Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

    The sky. Ever changing, never changed.

  9. When we were there last, we were lucky enough to view a JMW Turner exhibit at the Tate Britain. I’ve always been captivated by his work because of the color of those skies. And, you’re right, some of the most striking ones contain lots and lots of clouds.

    The analogy to life is fitting. When mine is covered with clouds, it is hard to remember that the sun will shine again. But, it will.

    1. I think you probably caught the ‘Skying:Looking at Clouds’ exhibition which runs until September 2012, Andra…a lovely show. Right now things are a little cloudy for me too: I think we’re both trying to peer through the clouds to the years ahead; we can at least assure ourselves there’s a sun up there somewhere:-)

  10. Oh yes indeed! I mentioned my love of Turner just this morning. I really did, so when I saw your post I had to smile at just that small coincidence. One thing that came to mind while reading this beautiful piece is that I do seem to need sun to stay emotionally afloat, but that’s not too often a problem in California. But when we go to the ocean, which we do frequently, it’s foggy and often without sun, and given the expectation of that climate change I don’t miss the sunshine. So to some extent it may be about expectation. Which brings me to the more personally salient point, it is perspective. Metaphorically I need to look up as much as possible. And I need to sense the sun when I don’t feel it. The sky is a hopeful place to transport as often as possible. Encouragement. Debra

    1. Today, the day after I wrote this post, much of the day has been diamond-clear sunshine, Debra: a completely different feeling. I think you are absolutely right about perspective. Look up to the sky and you remember your place in the world, as Lou put it so well above. And I love your sentence about sensing the sun, even when it’s not evident. Must absorb that one. Thanks, as always 🙂

  11. Oh, Kate, this is just what I needed on a sun starved January the 2nd! The wind is blowing the bits of snowfall around here with a vengeance. It is good to remember that the sun is still up there, above the clouds.

    1. It’s times like this I would love to be a pilot, Penny, and zoom up there to break out and take a look. However, it’s not our part right now. A few months and the suns rays with be stronger for us. All the best to you all, comrades in latitude.

  12. If the sky was always blue with fluffy white clouds and the sun shinning would we appreciate it so much. I heard that the many colours in some of Turners skies was as a result of volcanic activity which created a strange effect over the skies of Europe at the time.

  13. Wonderful post, Kate!

    I loved your reference to “airborne pigs” . . . I painted a small watercolor once of just such a pig. I’m sure it will be worth millions . . . “when pigs fly.” 😛

    The sun IS always shining, and bluebirds are always flying, . . . somewhere over the rainbow.

  14. today the sky was so blue and crystal clear…. what will tomorrow bring. Not good weather according tot he weather forecast.

  15. Once, on a helicopter trip and while sitting in a glass bubble, I felt out-of-body. I swear we saw that same pig!

    Yesterday, I was awed by our cloud formations, too, and noticed colours I would not have named in the past. Are clouds becoming more creative? 🙂

  16. Exquisite, inspired post, Kate, thank you! I love that word “skyiing” and the whole concept. For us, 2012 began with an “epic sky moment” gazing into the heavens after our sailing sky lanterns 🙂

  17. Places I have found particular skying moments include Skye (not joking) and Namibia. Strange, almost alien, light.
    I am crazy about Constable paintings. Not so much with Turner.
    Your flying Mercedes fancy really provides food for thought. That close! Just a little detail like gravity to overcome.

  18. I love skyscapes, and paintings that are 2/3 or more sky captivate me. There is something liberating about the drift of clouds, something that unbinds the imagination and soothes the harried psyche. Today, my window is filled with enormous fleecy bales of fresh linen clouds against a bright, blazing blue straight from Crayola-land. A childhood sky, and gusty with mirth.

  19. That’s a gorgeous painting. Nice thoughts on the sky – you bring out that sense of personality and purpose seen in all that is above us – or actually, surrounds us.

  20. ahhhhh, Kate, this skying post is a gem in so many respects but my favorite aspect is highlighting how fragile is our layer of sky that “skins the planet” from the vacuum. It’s only a six minute drive thick. Isn’t that astounding? Love how you brought that home. Brilliant. thank you for everything.

  21. The sun coming out in the middle of the Britsh winter (yes, and pigs might fly, haha). I do love those moody, gothic British winter skies, Kate – it’s just the length of time that they tend to hang around that would get to me.

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