Big Skies

Over the last couple of weeks, Jim and I have done a lot of driving.  Over Memorial Day weekend, we drove out to Utah.  First, we passed through a long stretch of northern New Mexico.

Big Sky in Jemez

I finally saw Shiprock on the Navajo Reservations, a landmark familiar to me from the many Tony Hillerman novels I have read.  I was dreadfully excited to finally see “the rock with wings” with my own eyes.

After a long stretch of nothing that was dramatic in and of itself, we passed up into Colorado.  There the land suddenly became well-watered, rolling, and lushly green.  Eventually, we crossed over into Utah.  Despite the basics of the ecosystem not being all the different from the one in which we live (rocky, filled with juniper and pinyon, flat plains framed with cliffs and mountains) I found much to fascinate me.  Then, last weekend, we took a day trip into the Jemez Mountains with our friend, Michael Wester.

Funny how I don’t seem to get jaded on the magnificent views, whether they’re stark landscapes of red and golden brown sandstone, or strata of rock that show the passing ages, or pastures with grazing animals, or cascading mountain streams.   I’ve said “wow” so often that I’ve found myself laughing that someone who loves words as much as I do can’t be more articulate.

I mean, I know the terms in several languages.  Mesa, butte, arroyo, gulch, escarpment, plateau, acequia, cliff, peak, valley, vale, hoodoo…  Not a single one of them expresses as much enthusiasm as that single “wow.”

I can list many of the different trees and flowers by name…  But saying “Look at that stand of apricots, just ripening.  Look how the orange and green are blending…  They didn’t have too hard a spring up here if fruit set.”  Somehow that sentence doesn’t express much of what I feel as a simple, “Wow, those apricots are beautiful.”

Our sightseeing also has brought back a lot of  memories.  When I first moved to New Mexico, people kept asking me what I thought of the “big sky.”  They were clearly very proud of this element of their landscape and thought I was having a wonderful treat.  I had no idea why I should be impressed.

There was a sky.  There was a lot of sky.  The sunsets were great.  So were the sunrises.  So were the clouds.  I really enjoyed being able to see rain falling a long way off.  “Virgas” – when you can see rain falling way up, but it doesn’t hit the ground –  were admittedly neat.   But why were people acting as if I should be overwhelmed and impressed by all of this?

Finally, it hit me.  I wasn’t impressed because I’d had known “big skies” all my life.  Sure I grew up in Washington, D.C.   Sure I’d been surrounded by towering trees and rolling landscapes that had blocked the sky, but these big skies weren’t new to me.  How come?

Well, when I was about three, my parents bought a little cottage on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay.  Our house was right on the water – about ten running steps, even for a kid.  And over all that water was the sky.

The room I shared with my sister Ann faced the water.   Since there wasn’t anyone to see in on that side, my folks didn’t bother with curtains.   We woke with dawn over the water and learned  long before we ever heard of the rhyme “red sky at night, sailor’s delight/ red sky at morning, sailors take warning” how to judge what sort of day was in front of us from the hues that tinted the clouds.

We learned to watch for storms coming and to know the hiss of the rain as it raced across the water.  I don’t think we had many virgas – rain tends make it all the way to the ground in that part of the country – but we certainly learned that rain can be falling in one place and not in another.  A rainy day was something we knew was localized – and something that would always pass.

We played in and over the water, surrounded by the sky.  The community in which we lived shared the “Big Pier” – a board and piling construction that was long enough for us to race our bikes up and down.   There were days I nearly lived out there.  I was a fanatical catcher of blue crabs, an expert with a long-handled net taller than myself.

Sure there were days we played mostly in the woods, but the water – and the big sky – were always there.  Those big skies made an impression on me.   When I was in first grade, my teacher expressed some puzzlement that I had painted a landscape in which I had made the sky come all the way down to the ground.  (My attempt wasn’t effective.  I recall my frustration that the watercolor paints made the paper get all soggy and bubble.)  My mom explained that I had grown up near that water, that I knew perfectly well that the sky didn’t stop “up there,” that the sky came all the way down to the ground.

And now, once again, I’m living surrounded by a big sky.  The trees here don’t get very tall, so ever though my yard is framed in them and I live in the city, I can easily see the Sandia Mountains to the east.  Black basalt mesas are visible right outside my front window.

Embracing it all is the sky.  Often it’s such a brilliant blue that Jim jokingly commented that obviously the Lone Ranger (in the television incarnation) wore a blue outfit in order to camouflage better against the sky.

Makes sense to me…   How about you?


8 Responses to “Big Skies”

  1. paulgenesse Says:

    Hi Jane,

    Loved the description. You could probably describe a cereal box and keep me reading onward.

    I’m really enjoying reading Buried Pyramid. I’m about halfway through it. Thirteen Orphans is next.

    Big skies are nice. I grew up near Death Valley in Nevada, and we had spectacular sunsets practically every night, so I didn’t appreciate them much. Now, I know what a gift it was to see the red, pink, gold, purple, yellow, skies every night.

    Have a great week,


  2. heteromeles Says:

    I grew up in a brushy canyon, so I was understand how impressive big skies are when you spend a lot of time out in them. One of my teachers talked about the effect of “home habitat” on how a person’s idea of normal vs. what’s new and spectacular, and I think he was right.

    Otherwise, it’s great to see someone talk about how it’s important to be enthusiastic about reality Some people get caught up in the words and miss the picture, and it seems to be a particular trap for writers. I don’t think it matters whether it’s someone who’s proud of their vocabulary, or obsessing over what best captures a scene, it’s just that sometimes the experience is the most important part.

    As for the big sky, it’s interesting how often it isn’t celebrated. For example, California’s Central Valley is so flat that at one point, I took a ruler on a drive, just to check the horizon (yep, still flat). The odd part was that we were always looking for mountains, something to break up the monotony of hundreds of miles of industrial agriculture. That enormous sky was up there the whole time, but we were bored, ants scurrying across the floor, not looking up. There’s something about industrialized landscapes that takes the enthusiasm out of it, at least for me. Oddly, drives became more interesting when I started learning the names of the plants, because I was always guessing the names of whatever I drove past. Knowing the words isn’t always bad, I guess.

    • Sue Says:

      As an amateur photographer — in the olden-days sense of the word, before everyone had a camera-within-a-phone in their pocket — there have been so many events in my life where I was torn between experiencing the moment and documenting it. Decades ago, when I was often the only one in the group with a camera, I felt a responsibility to preserve the event for us all (pictures of the kids doing something wonderful!). Now that it’s a shared responsibility, I find I pick up my camera much less often, and enjoy more. I do worry about the ephemeral nature of all those digital photographs, though. My boxes and boxes of negatives may not often see the light of day, but they are a more permanent record than bits and bytes on media that requires a particular gadget, program and electricity to access. Maybe it’s my age speaking when I worry that Facebook won’t really take the place of the family photo album?!

  3. Barbara Joan Says:

    Having grown up in Ohio where there were no big skies I was always entranced by watching the sun come up on the water or the moon set over the water. How many times I tried to capture that magic with my camera only to fail.

    So big skies wide vistas are a joy to me. On the other hand, I really enjoy my little walled garden where I feel like I am in my own Secret Garden and which every now and again I open it up and share it with friends.

  4. Dominique Says:

    Before moving to New Mexico I lived in San Francisco. When we arrived, I remember be absolutely awed by how bright the stars are here and how many of them filled the sky. Since then I continue be amazed by the skies that you mentioned Jane. I do miss the water though…

  5. Sue Says:

    We always tease my sister about her first comment on New Mexico skies: “There’s so much DISTANCE out here!” Having grown up mostly in the east, but not on the water, it was a stunning difference to me when I became a New Mexican. When we visited Hawaii, we felt a sense of familiarity, and it was a while before we realized it was that same big sky — at least while facing the ocean — that was evoking the feeling.

  6. janelindskold Says:

    Like Barbara Joan, I like small spaces, too.

    As a gardener, microclimates provide unending fascination.

    I wonder what other kinds of landscapes there are I haven’t considered?

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