( This is the 7th installment of the ongoing Ecotone: Writing About Place bi-weekly discussions. Please see the other essays contributed: Islands and Place )
From a jet plane the Earth sits under the hard mirror of the sky. The Sun glares down, its one unblinking eye pitiless with power, seeing all, the vast film of water, air and rock. Indifference beats upon any harborer of precious fluids, hissing admonishments to turn tail and burrow into the nearest cleft. To a watcher in space the blue marble of the planet might at first seem stillborn, but if it watches carefully the swirling surface would give away the secret: like milk roiling in a cup of coffee clouds belie both a smoldering heart and a mind fanning the idea of regeneration. The clouds themselves would give birth, like whales in an ocean of air.
The land that clouds inhabit lies forever just out of reach. I might brush the clouds during brief passages along the crests of mountains, and when gazing out of plane windows they whip by like shreds of cloth or spread out below like slow herds of buffalo, but forever they remain denizens of the troposphere and I only a guest, fit only for momentary appearance or required to press my face to a porthole, sealed like an astronaut.
Clouds possess the insubstantiality of ghosts and as such offer proof of the existence of dreams and imaginary kingdoms. You can see them and yet pass your hand through them. Castles and pots of gold vanish with the first shift of the wind. The mind instinctively seeks out corporeal definition, seeing familiar faces and rabbits and dragons, but blink your eyes and the forms have billowed out into abstractions, confounding your potter’s hand.
And yet I have witnessed the towering mountains and valleys of the cloud realm. The planes I have perched in passed among the walls like slivers of glass, crawling amidst halls of divinity that humbled the voice whispering within as I peeked out. Bergs of vapor rolled across sheets of metallic sea, trawling their nets while some god harpooned the void with spears of lightning. Clouds have uttered the most titanic sounds I have ever heard, the vibrato in their bassoon vocal chords plucking the very air of its emptiness. And clouds have given me dantean visions of perdition, such as the memory of a night time New York City glittering at the bottom of a well of circling thunderheads crackling with electricity and flashing with gunpowder.
They move in the tier above me, casting their huge shadows on the windswept hills, and softly reminding me of my mayfly existence. Like islands in the water ocean gaps define their hierarchy, and for tithe they only require that I close my eyes and take that leap of faith. All islands require faith in navigation, clouds require unremitting belief, or you end up falling. As if nothing were there.