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Looking at the sky may change your entire POV

Low-altitude stratus clouds.

Low-altitude stratus clouds.

It began with a cryptic e-mail from an unfamiliar source: “Look at the sky as often as you ‘can’ — for about 21 days. I’ll contact you again in 3 wks.” It included a link to a website with clouds.

Signing off with “More Light,” this guy could have been a total whack job. But something about the writing said this had nothing to do with UFO sightings. I clicked in.

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The website was ForSpaciousSkies
.com. The man who sent the e-mail, Jack Borden, a former Boston television reporter, had had an epiphany as he looked up from a meadow one day in the mid-1970s and saw the sky as if for the first time. He has been on a mission to educate people about sky awareness ever since.

“When we are unconscious in regard to our surroundings, we are irresponsible to them,” says Borden, speaking of that mission now.

It began with a series of televised man-on-the-street interviews. Borden stopped pedestrians, covered their eyes, and asked what the sky looked like. Most had no clue. They were rushing through their lives without ever looking up.

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In the 1980s, Borden left television to form his nonprofit For Spacious Skies. With the aid of numerous grants, he organized a three-day national conference at the Grand Canyon that drew more than 60 experts in astronomy, philosophy, weather, art, and the environment to discuss the planet’s atmosphere. Much of the discussions centered on preserving the Clean Air Act and promoting a greater environmental awareness of the sky.

Borden also worked with elementary teachers to develop curricula that incorporated sky appreciation into art, music, writing, photography, and science. The activity guides were picked up in thousands of schools from Pittsburgh to Lubbock, Texas. Researchers from Harvard University tested pupils in Needham elementary schools and found that the program “significantly increased the level of aesthetic sensitivity in visual art and literature,” compared with pupils who were not encouraged to look at the sky. Borden’s program was brought to nursing homes and prisons.

When we are uncons­­cious in regard to our surroundings, we are irresponsible to them.’

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During those years, recognition mounted in such forms as: funding from the National Park Service in Boston, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and corporate sponsors; media coverage from The New York Times, National Public Radio, and Smithsonian magazine, among others; and an award from the American Meteorologist Society.

Since then some of the early receptiveness to his campaign “ebbed away,” Borden says, and he feels that some of the environmental concern over sky pollution “hijacked” the more positive thrust of his campaign: appreciation of the sky’s aesthetics. But he hasn’t given up. He retired to Athol in the mid-1990s, but still gives talks, distributes sky-watching materials, and shoots off occasional e-mails to journalists he thinks he might be able to intrigue.

He offered no promises with his challenge to me to look up, but I was game. After all, I, too, had been known to go three or four days without noticing that it had been raining all week. What might I learn if I forced myself to peer at the sky for three weeks solid? What could I lose?

DAY 1 Late November: I gaze through a small windowpane in my home office windowand write: “Some clouds and a lot of blue sky.” I go back to work at the computer.

DAY 2 I remember something from high school science about cumulus clouds, but am otherwise cloud illiterate. Outside on the deck, the sky looks like one very thin and dull cloud. Very fine snowflakes begin to fall. It does not take a meteorologist to conclude that this dull cloud means precipitation.

DAY 3 Morning sky again seems covered by a dull cloud. Later, patches of blue sky make their way through distinct and separate clouds. I have been so focused on identifying cloud types that it comes as a revelation: Duh! The sky changes almost continually throughout the day.

DAYS 4-7 I start taking short afternoon walks at Adams Farm in Walpole because the mostly wooded area has open fields that make for excellent sky watching. Some identifications: a high wispy cloud that is either a contrail or a high-level filament of cirrus that denotes fair weather; a high-level cirrostratus cloud that covers the whole sky; and a mid-level altostratus cloud that explains the bluish-gray color that isn’t background sky.

One night when there is a full moon, my husband, Bill, calls me to the window to point out the shadows. I realize that I look up at stars and the moon quite a bit, and guess that most other people do, too. Borden has theorized that our tendency to ignore the sky might come from our anatomy — specifically the “overhanging brow and slope of our foreheads.” It may have served an evolutionary function for the species to keep its attention focused on the ground to scan for food, shelter, and mates.

Maybe it’s even simpler than that. Maybe we just don’t like the sun. Or those little dots that we get when we look anywhere near the sun.

DAY 8 An unusually warm morning. The sky is blue. The cirrus clouds are very high in the sky and wispy. I feel ahead of the game, as if I am now a true witness to the day’s beginning.

DAY 9 The sky is completely gray and dense — a low stratus cloud because of its gray, fairly uniform featurelessness. I pat myself on the back about cloud identification.

DAY 10 Stop-and-go traffic just before 4 o’clock, heading west on Route 109. I divert myself by looking at the different shades of sky: deep blue, periwinkle, and aqua. Ahead, the clouds are tattered, low on the horizon, and under-lit by the sun. I do not try to identify the clouds by type, which I think might wreck the moment.

DAY 11 On each of the four walls of the waiting room at a doctors office, there are framed photographs with large expanses of sky. I get up to take a closer look at each of them instead of watching the dumb sitcom on the TV — making positive steps in art appreciation.

DAYS 12-15 I start to think of crummy days as M-1 Days, which stands for mid-level altostratus. Have ditched the book-on-tape while clocking mileage. Actually experience not just skies, but the woods and the fields. It brings a better sense of peace.

On a walk with Bill, the clouds are thick and mid-level to the south and high and wispy to the north. He explains that this means the storm is moving out and the weather is getting clearer. I never realized how much he knows about clouds from his experience as a sailor and as a small-plane pilot. After 30 years of marriage, we have something new to talk about. I pump him for cloud data.

DAY 16 A “Skywatchers Cloud Chart” poster arrives in the mail from Borden. There are a lot of cool clouds I’d like to see, especially the lenticular altocumulus cloud that looks like a giant flying saucer and probably explains more than one UFO sighting.

DAY 17 The clouds have poorly defined edges; I decide they are mid-level stratus clouds. By a second cup of coffee, I start to think that the evolutionary reason for our sloped forehead and hanging brow is so that we do not spend the entire day watching the sky. I am not getting any work done.

DAY 18 Driving south on Route 24 on a clear, cold sunny day. The clouds are high level, and not especially fabulous — not a single flying saucer or anvil cloud among them — but the beauty of the sky is so striking it isn’t easy to shift focus back to the highway.

DAYS 19-21 Regular sky-watching both at home and during walks at Adams Farm. My husband points out cattails, high cirrus clouds that are ushering in a cold front. I like having this kind of knowledge, but there is something else going on. It seems amazingly self-centered to have so narrowly focused my visual field until now that I did not bother to notice the medium I lived in. The draw is not so much the beauty of the sky every day, but the enormity of it.

My daughter walks into the office, sees the sky chart, and asks if I am still into that “sky thing,” or if I am bored yet. I hear myself tell her that I don’t think I could ever be bored by the sky.

CONCLUSION:

I call Borden to ask him about his challenge. What exactly did he hope I would gain?

“If you are bent as analytical, you will analyze the clouds,” he says. He adds that after 21 days, something will “lock in.”

“What will lock in?” I ask.

He doesn’t answer directly. Instead, he talks about all the people who travel to national parks to get a “feeling of exultation,” and a “communion with nature.” He quotes Rachel Carson about educating children with a sense of wonder, and adds that it isn’t critical to know cloud terminology to “hit it off” with the sky. I think I know what he is getting at but push him to put it into words.

He has spent 30 years upholding a personal vow to make more people appreciate the sky, and he hesitates, as if wary of saying anything that might limit its appeal. “I’ve come to the conclusion,” he says. “that when all is said and done, it’s a spiritual matter.”

Perhaps not for everyone, but after 21 days, it resonates with me. A month later, I have already forgotten most of my cloud terminology, but I still like to admire them, and guess what they may mean. It remains a daily habit to look up several times each day, corral my thought-ridden brain, and notice the sky, the moment, and the respite of silence.

Jan Brogan can be reached at janbrogan
books@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @Janbrogan.
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