Air is the gaseous substance of life. Sky is what we see of it. How it is framed. The mind’s eye’s way of giving it structure. Blue tent, sky-space, cobalt between heaving mountains.
Air is all over us, inside us, expelled by us, renewed by the operations of photosynthesis and the evaporation of ever-warmer seas.
Sky is ubiquity. It drives into us. We gulp weather. Yet we conceive of it as “out there,” “up there,” and apart from us. Sky is “scape,” a fictive reference point to which we cling, yet it also stands for the open space we come to know as an ever-expanding, cosmic whole.
My first camera was given to me by my parents when I was 4. It was a Kodak Hawkeye. I held it to my eye and pointed it straight up at the blue California sky. For most of my adult years, I have lived in “Big Sky” country—Wyoming and Montana. Sage grasslands occupied the lower half of my view. Sky took up the rest. Birds and ducks appeared in the sky after long, isolated winters with no visitors and 40-below nights; those first arrivals of mallards, western meadowlarks, and robins were essential to my sanity. Birds were the sky’s gift, and their presence mitigated the violence of deep cold.
It is spring as I write, and the world is locked down in a raging pandemic. We hold still while airborne germs wrapped in fat float and flap all around us, threatening our lives.
Sky holds and releases a temple bell’s decay, the soul-songs of Brahms, the “space pop” of the French band Air. From our locked-down houses we blast Mozart’s “Requiem” and The Doors, look into the sky and yell, “We’re still alive!”
Air, and therefore sky, is made of essential elements: nitrogen, oxygen, argon—all gases that are colorless, tasteless, abundant. Nitrogen is sometimes referred to as “burnt air”—that is, air without oxygen. The sky grows heavy with pollution: In Wyoming’s natural-gas fields, streams of methane escape from wells; in Siberia, methane plumes rise from the Laptev Sea and the thaw ponds of Arctic tundra. Wildfire ash catches a ride on the polar drift and is dumped on the Greenland ice sheet, further reducing its ability to deflect solar heat.
Sky is a living body, a lung that spews life. In China it is chi, a life force, or tianqi, “heaven’s breath.” In Greenland, it is sila, nature and consciousness. For the Navajo Nation, sky is Nitth’i, a benevolent spirit. The Crow, who live on the grasslands of Montana and Wyoming, call sky huche, meaning “wind that blows steadily at the foot of the mountain.” In Egypt, the dying summoned the god of air and said, “I have gone up to Shu; I have climbed the sunbeams.”
Thirty years ago, I visited a paper-making village in Japan. On a clear April day, a sheet of washi hung outside on a line. It was sky blue, a rectangle of sky, and behind it hung another sheet of blue: sky after sky after sky.
In northwestern Greenland, where I spent 23 springs, lockdown meant traveling by dogsled on sea ice that looked like sky.
Sky is nothing and everything: a blank that holds solar systems, locust swarms, heaven’s gates, kingfishers, and cosmos. It’s where the Big Bang flapped everything into being. Recently, 19 new interstellar asteroids were found orbiting the sun, and astronomers have uncovered the beauty of the asymmetrical universe, where the battle between matter and antimatter was waged. Matter and cosmic imperfection won out; otherwise, we wouldn’t exist. “Imperfection is our paradise,” a Buddhist teacher said.
Sky is where the blue shawl of imagination goes astray.
On long days in Wyoming when I tended sheep, the herders and I lay in the grass and watched clouds become whales, galloping horses, running dogs, and our favorite—large penises. We also watched those cloud-bodies dissolve almost as soon as they came into being, so that tacitly we came to understand the nature of impermanence.
I don’t know why we locate heaven in the sky. With the number of pandemic dead mounting up, the sky must be getting heavy. I was in Japan after the 2011 tsunami, where the ghosts of the villages that had been washed away were thought to be behind us, clinging to our backs, hitching a ride. My heaven is alpine: krummholz giving way to granite, and the sky uncurling from fast-moving clouds.
At night I search the sky and use it as a clock. How far has the Big Dipper’s bucket turned? Is it filling or emptying, and with what? The stars of the Dipper’s handle are thought by traditional Chinese lore to confer good luck. Constellations whirl like large hands throwing good-luck rice. I sleep in “star rooms” with windows low around the bed, and from under the covers watch meteor showers zip gold lines across the sky and the International Space Station slide.
In 1986, I accompanied an infrared astronomer to the NASA observatory on Mauna Kea for a few days. That was when Halley’s Comet was making an appearance in the inner parts of our solar system. Halley looked like a slow-motion bullet train’s headlight pushing through the night. One evening at 13,803 feet with a foot of Hawaiian snow on the ground, the astronomers discovered dark matter. Teletypes pushed out waves of white paper: “What is it?” an astronomer in Australia asked. More queries came in from Chile and Scotland. I went outside and looked up. “What are we seeing?” I asked. “Nothing,” the astronomer replied, laughing. Dark matter can’t be seen at all and is known to exist only by its effect on objects. Quantum theorists now say that dark matter’s particles continually form and disappear, like the clouds the sheepherders and I watched. Others call its happenings “quintessence.” Theories aside, more is known about what dark matter is not than what it is.
Perhaps that’s the best way to think about the sky and the ways it binds and releases us. Looking up, we can all see the same things: the pink moon, sunrise’s glory, starlight, and the lovely, lonely curve of air. Our peripheral vision shapes what we think we are seeing. From my lookout on a moving dogsled, I’ve seen how the horizon’s silver stripe divides ice from air, mist from ocean, space from Earth, and dark from light as the blue tent floats down and softly covers us all.