Clippings: Notes of a pandemic skywatcher
I am not a winter person. I don’t like winter. Never have. I have lived in Maine or Vermont nearly my whole life. That’s probably why I don’t like it: pure Yankee obstinacy. I don’t want to live anywhere else though, even in winter.
Winter is winter in Vermont, but not all winters are the same. Some are better than others and this has been just about the best one I can remember. It has been a pandemic blessing, a beautiful winter, with plenty of snow for skiers, cold enough weather for making snow and keeping it on the ground, but not brutally cold temperatures, below zero . . .
(At least till last weekend, when we got our first rain, the ground froze, and it became slick underfoot.)
And sun! More sunny days than any winter I can remember. Seems to me, we’ve had many of those postcard days of brilliant sunlight following a fresh snowfall, pristine white, clear blue cloudless skies, a blindingly beautiful landscape. Normally, we get two or three of those exhilarating days a winter: this year we’ve had a dozen.
Sun in the winter raises the spirits; rain in winter, that cold rain, that dreaded “wintry mix“ is against the natural order in Vermont.
We’ve had not just sunny days. My favorite days are often those with something of everything, when the weather forecast is “cloudy, with sunny intervals, and a chance of flurries,” the days that give truth to the cliché: “Don’t like the weather in Vermont, wait a minute, it’ll change.”
The sky on those days is so variable, changing from hour to hour, minute to minute even, as weather systems emerge and retreat. Cloudy days, or sunless parts of days, are quite beautiful too, not solid at all but layered in horizontal swaths of different shades of gray, even quilt-like patterns of circular shapes, interrupted often by patches of blue.
I am powerfully moved this year, this pandemic year, by the natural landscape of my life, the setting of my quotidian routines — and particularly the sky!
These days I am a cloud-watcher, even a connoisseur of clouds. I am Luke Skywatcher.
I find myself taking photos every day, photos of the winter landscape now — before that, the beautiful landscape of autumn, and the lush green world last summer.
I take photos of the sky above the Greens to the east and the Adirondacks to the west — and in the foreground the open fields, the woodlots, thickets, and groves, the occasional building, that stretch to the horizon of forested mountains and the sky.
Even in my COVID-restricted life, I have found reasons to go into the town of Middlebury along Route 30 from my home in Cornwall. About a mile from town, there’s big left turn before the downhill and straightaway that lead to the golf course and college and town.
At that turn, the state should make a cut-out and put up a sign that says “Scenic Vista.” It is a striking, expansive view and I am compelled most days to stop the car on the shoulder, get out: Click. Click Click.
Why now, this impulse, this predilection?
I have always appreciated Vermont as the physical setting for my life. Why do I find it more exhilarating now? I spend much of my life indoors. I don’t play in the snow. I shovel it. I don’t hike or camp out in the warm weather. I mow the lawn. I go to ball games, play some golf — I’m hardly an outdoorsman.
I’m more Emerson than Thoreau. I love nature . . . from my window. Thoreau wanted to infer the universal from the particular. I’m kinda the other way around.
The explanation of my photo addiction may be really simple, mundane even. Perhaps it’s because I have this miracle device that fits in my pocket. It’s a camera — and unbelievably enough, it’s also a telephone.
I send the best images to my friends and family members as text messages. It’s so easy, visual communication. Immediate gratification. I imagine they roll their eyes and think the old guy is addled: “Goodness! He’s out there taking pictures of the sky again!”
Is it pandemic fever, the result of being cooped up for so long? Maybe. Is it some kind of spiritual awakening, gazing at the heavens, the firmament? I don’t think so, not at the conscious level anyway.
It may indeed have to do the pandemic and intimations of eternity. We are reminded every day of death. The COVID scorecard is constantly repeated: 500,000 deaths nationally, 204 deaths in Vermont. Last Week’s Independent had four pages of obituaries (though not many necessarily arising from COVID).
I am glad to be alive, more so than I can remember, and more attuned and appreciative of the natural world — and gestures of kindness and good will too. But that can be attributed to advancing age, running out of time.
I also think it has something to do with the death of my sister, Martha, my only sibling, last May, after living with cancer for two years. She was a photographer. Actually, she was a special ed teacher and a passionate and highly skilled photographer.
In her last years, she found herself viewing the natural world in more and more abstract forms. It seemed that she was blurring the boundaries between the elements — air, earth and water, creating a sense of the world as One. She was drawn, she said, to “shadows, reflections, fog, angles of the sun.”
As I think of her and her work, I am reminded of Thoreau’s famous observation, “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in . . . . Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.” He declares he would “fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.”
Now when I go out with my camera/phone, I just tell people I’ve “gone fishin’.”
A friend told me recently the way to get through the pandemic is just putting one foot in front of the other. That plain speaking is good advice.
I would just add: every few steps, look up!