When I came to North America after living on the Normandy coast in France, I made a comment to my sister about how much bigger the sky is here in North America. She wondered how that could be, especially since I had been living on the coast and the ocean stretches for as far as the eye can see. So I puzzled about that for a while, trying to decide what makes the sky bigger, taller, and more vast here in North America.
Well the sky was beautiful in Normandy, and I loved the ocean front. I took early morning runs along the beach, and walked out of my way on the way home from teaching in order to feast my eyes on that beautiful earth-scape that is the ocean. The sunsets over the ocean could be so immensely breathtaking, with the colors reflecting back off the ocean, turning that whole end of the world into a Kaleidoscope. Those were the really special nights, like a gift from heaven to add a little more wonder and delight into my life. But the sea is moody. Its mood swings can be more severe and more frequent than the most desperate of women. The fog and mists that would rise off the sea could roll in at any time of day. Sunny weather often didn’t last more than a half an hour at a time, interspersed by the feathery snake-like wafts thickly clouding out the sun, low enough to seem like a ceiling, rather than a sky-scape. I think people from the “Wild West” could feel claustrophobic in Normandy, because the sky is often so low, and there are rarely, perhaps never, the big puffy clouds that make shapes in the sky. No, the clouds on the Normandy coast were always the feathery wafting type, and very often a thick layer of them.
Low-lying fog and clouds, added to the long narrow streets lined by tall walls of buildings means that the sunlight doesn’t breakthrough very often, and even when it does it is not very likely to brighten up your street. Out by the ocean the sunlight will reach you, away from the tall buildings, but then there is the wall of the sea.
What do I mean by the ‘wall of the sea’? My sister assumed that looking off into the horizon of the ocean would be a vast view, stretching on and on ‘as far as the eye could see’. And on very clear days, that is true. On clear, calm days the ocean does seem to stretch on and on, and the world felt bigger for it. Most days though, the clouds cut into that immensity that is the sky, creating a make-shift ceiling which not only lowered the sky but brought the line of the horizon much, much closer. Most places, the clouds stay in the sky, and so the only barrier they create is above you. On the coast it is another story, because the ocean and the clouds seem to immensely enjoy each other’s company. So now on cloudy days, you have a low ceiling on that sky, and a wall of clouds where vast expanse of ocean should be, creating a barrier on two sides, beginning to box you in. That is the ‘wall of the sea’, that rolling in of the clouds off the ocean. Sometimes it is farther out, so the box seems a bit larger, other times it is suffocatingly close. Only suffocating if you think about it that way though. It is just as easy to think of it as a big warm snugly blanket, the kind your mother would used to wrap you up in on stormy nights to keep you safe and lull you to sleep. The clouds can have the same effect, moving in around your little village, wrapping it up in their folds, tucking you away for the night.
Western N. America
And then we came to North America, and everything is ENORMOUS! It took an hour to get to town from the airport, which I suppose isn’t so strange, but then it took another hour to drive across the city—the city I am supposed to live in. Monstrous! But that’s another blog post… For the purpose of this post, we will return to the sky. The sky is also monstrous! Enormous, stretching forever and ever up, and out the sides. What makes the sky so big, here? I asked my love and we puzzled for a while. Here’s what we came up with:
I think the most obvious reason the sky is tall in North America is that we build cities out, not up, which is opposite of Europe. European cities are small in area and compact. We lived in a regular neighbourhood and the buildings were 5-6 stories tall, which means you see less sky from the street. Living in a thick forest can give the same illusion of a small sky. Another reason may be because in North America many cities are built on a grid, or have long avenues, which mean that at the end of the street you see sky. In Europe the streets are short and criss-cross all over the place, so your line of sight is -never very long before being blocked by buildings in all directions.
After much sky-watching and sky-pondering, we also came up with this most enlightening discovery: It’s all in the clouds! The clouds here are often that big-fluffy-marshmallow type which float happily across the sky, but never are soupy and blanket-like. The biggest reason for the TALL-sky illusion is that there are multiple layers of clouds in the sky. Above that first layer of puffy clouds, there is another layer of clouds, sometimes puffy, sometimes more wispy. Most often there are two layers, but sometimes there are three or more layers of clouds. The trick is that these multi-level cloud formations create vertical space up into the sky, thus extending the space that our minds process and create the effect of a very TALL sky. Pretty Amazing, I thought. And I was very grateful for the thought-provoking question which led to much time absorbing admiration of the beautiful creations in this world.