The Speckless Sky, Revisited
It occurs to me that since I haven’t bothered to reinstall my archive of entries written prior to March 2002, my piece “The Speckless Sky,” written on September 12, 2001, is not currently on the site. Today seems like a good day to put it back. Here it is.
September 12, 2001
Yesterday, where I live, the sky was perfect: A huge blue inverted bowl, set on top a horizon of trees and rolling hills, and the only things in it were birds and the sun and half a moon. This is notable for two reasons. The first is that my view of the sky is largely unimpeded; from most points on my property, if I wanted to, I could see clear into Indiana. That’s a lot of sky to have nothing in. The second is that my property is directly below one of the major flight paths into Dayton International Airport (to say nothing of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base). Combine these two factors and you’ll understand why on most days, my sky is never without a plane in it and usually two, and sometimes as many as four or five, punctuating the sky like silvery hyphens.
This is not entirely unusual in my experience. When I lived in Virginia, I lived less than five miles from Dulles International Airport; again, there was never not a plane in the sky. Before that I lived in large to medium-large metropolitan areas — LA, Chicago, Fresno — where again planes were a permanent feature in the urban sky. Nor do I think my experience is notable or unusual. At any one moment, there are typically three to four thousand commercial planes in the skies above the continental United States. Given a reasonable amount of sky to observe, nearly anyone anywhere in the States will spot a plane sooner than later. And if you don’t see a plane, wait five minutes. One will pop over the horizon, contrails of ice crystals agitating behind it.
Not yesterday. For the first time in my memory, the sky was absent contrails and the steady, implacable progress of airplanes as they crossed the sky, heading from one faraway place to another place equally distant. For the first time I could remember, I saw the sky of my ancestors, the sky of every human but the last three or four generations preceding my own — unimproved by human technology, absent a human presence, unmarred by the human tendency to take the sublime simplicity of nature and yoke it to his own mundane needs. Horizon to horizon, not a thing in the sky but blue, birds and a sun that was only now accepting the end of summer with good and cheerful grace.
Ironically, the thing one really notices about an empty sky is the absence of sound. As frequently as we see airplanes, we hear them even more so; my daughter, who loves to watch planes traverse, knows to look up to see a plane not because she’s caught a glimpse of it in the corner of her eye, but because she hears it move — the hollow cavitation of a jet engine, the sound lagging behind the aircraft as if inexpertly dubbed by a bored sound technician. Listen sometime and you’ll hear the plane that’s above, behind or in front of you in the sky. You hear it so often you don’t hear it any more. Planes create the white noise of a mobile society. Standing in my yard, I was overwhelmed by not hearing the planes.
Eventually you get over the idea of not having your sky echo back at you, and you just stare and stare, your eyes looking for the flying machines that aren’t there, since you know that even though you won’t find any, it’s still not normal not to see any at all. I thought that surely my daughter, who (remember) loves planes, would notice that there weren’t any in the sky. But she didn’t. She was more interested in putting her basketball through her toddler-sized hoop. But then, she’s two and a half years old. She doesn’t know how exceptional a sky like this was. She doesn’t know how very unlikely it is that there will ever be another sky like this, another day like this.
Nighttime eventually fell, and I went out into my yard again. The half-moon set before the sun and wouldn’t rise again until well after I went to sleep; the sky was dark and stars were splayed carelessly across it. My wife came out with me, and I showed her the sights: Mars, not as bright as he was earlier in the summer, but still clear and red, an angry horsefly on the constellation Pegasus. Scorpio floated nearby, pincers pointing in the direction into which the sun and moon had fled.
My wife asked me to find the Big Dipper, so we cruised north, and I pointed it out, noting the fact that the Big Dipper is not a constellation at all, but merely an asterism, a smaller chunk of the larger constellation of Ursa Major. We followed the Dipper’s guiding stars north again, to Polaris, the star which never sets. Across it all spilled the Milky Way, the cloud of stardust and just plain old dust, a mottled glow that hints at the majesty at the core of our galaxy. It’s hard to turn away from a glorious night sky like that. But I did, to go back inside, put my daughter to bed, and reimmerse myself in the horror that was the price of this priceless, speckless sky.
I have to ask myself — and I did ask myself, several times over the course of the day — if it was selfish to celebrate the beauty I have found in that singular sky, that perfect, unblemished sky that I know I will never see again in this life. Was it wrong to appreciate its blue depths, when the cost was gray dust and black soot and red blood, mingled in the Hell mixed up hundreds of miles away? Did the peace this sky brought me mock the pain of thousands, and the pain of the untold number who loved those people? Would the mothers, fathers and children of those who have been lost find it unspeakable that on their cloud of dust and death, I found this sky-blue lining?
I don’t know. I think it may indeed be selfish to celebrate that sky. But I can’t help myself. Pandora unleashed terrors upon the world when she opened her famous box, but she also released hope, the one thing that was to give people the courage to go on with their lives. In this time, in our time, a new box has opened with all the terrors and pain and suffering we have the capacity to imagine, and more beyond those. You can go insane thinking about them. I spent the day angry and distracted, wobbling between the barely-contained desire to crack dark jokes and the barely-restrained need to bawl like a child. What kept me together was the sky. The one perfect thing on this shattered day. It was my hope.
How I wish I had never had to see that perfect sky. How grateful I am it was there.