Sky Islands


“The sky was delicious –

sweet enough for the breath of angels.

Every draught of it

gave a separate and distinct piece of pleasure.”

John Muir

At any given time, thousands of people are up in the air – literally – but they are also nowhere. They occupy no fixed point. By the time that we look up and say, “There they are,” they’ve moved on, flying at hundreds of miles an hour across the expanse above us. I was one of them yesterday, traveling home from a conference.

That’s how I came to take a tour of islands yesterday – sky islands, those towering summer thunderheads, skyscapes of cumulus in shades of white and gray, cliffs of cloud edged with ragged shores that on land would hold a lighthouse. In Thomas Bailey Aldrich‘s poem “Miracles,” he described clouds as

“The fair, frail palaces.

The fading alps and archipelagoes,

And great cloud-continents of sunset seas.”

On land, these shapes would be rocky foothills and crags and castles, hidden inlets and beaches, and farther away, rolling plains stretching to a horizon of mountains. They would be landmarks used by sailors and overland travelers. But they’re not on land. They’re in the sky, where they change and shift, so they can’t be landmarks – or skymarks, as the case may be. Pilots who regularly fly this route will never see them in this exact configuration again. Which is probably part of the adventure of flying: What will the skies look like today?

I wonder if pilots see animal and people shapes in the clouds. I saw a few yesterday. A sheep (I know that’s cliché with clouds, but truly, it looked like a sheep.) Also a profile of a person looking up from another cloud. And a castle. I took these pictures, so that maybe you can see them too. It’s something I used to do as a child, picking out shapes in clouds. Maybe you did too. Part of the fun is that the shapes keep changing. It’s a unicorn. No, a horse. No, a dolphin. No, a turtle.

Looking at the shapes of clouds was serious business at one time. Before the days of online weather channels and weather apps, people looked to the sky for signs of what the day might bring. High, wispy cirrus clouds? Good weather. Patchy and puffy and strung out in rows? Precipitation likely – depending on the wind direction. Low and crowded together? Rain could be heavy. Low and colored gold, pink, amber, lavender, or rose? Probably no rain – for another day at least. Of course, even now we know that those white, puffy clouds are signs of a nice summer day. And we know “when storm clouds brood,” as Edward Lear put it. When we see thunderheads, we expect wind and heavy rain. (And tune in to the weather channel to find out what’s going on.) Otherwise, most of us don’t forecast the weather by cloud. We never need to.

Or maybe we do. Not to predict the weather but for the health of our souls. We need to look up. To pick out a cloud and watch it for just a minute. Let our stress drift away as we reclaim a childhood joy.

Besides, clouds have something to teach us. They have a habit of piling together and darkening the day. But there’s a saying: “The clouds that cover the sunshine cannot banish the sun.” It’s the same with the weather of our souls. Joni Mitchell sang, “So many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way.” And, sure, we can see it that way, but clouds don’t stay around forever. When life feels overcast or stormy, look for the sun. Clouds do move on, and the sun does come out again.

Besides, as I saw yesterday, clouds and sun together create beautiful skyscapes. The shifting weather of your life creates a beautiful you.

So as author Jane Yolen says, “Get out there and sniff the air.” Take a minute to watch clouds this week.

“Great, wide, beautiful, wonderful World,

With the wonderful water round you curled,

And the wonderful grass upon your breast,

World, you are beautifully drest.”

William Brighty Rands

Wishing you peace, joy, hope, and beauty this week!


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Text and pictures © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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