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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Looking Up

On a lark, I decided to dip into the park returning from getting the newspaper at the corner 7/11 this chilly morning. I had just turned the loop at the 1 mile mark, and was bicycling east, when I looked up and noticed that the dawn sky was ablaze with golden clouds. Now it’s nice to know what the ground looks like ahead of you, whether you’re afoot or bicycling or, metaphorically, making your way through life. But it’s also good every once in a while to raise your eyes to the horizon and take in the broader view. Because it’s that broader view that will take your breath away, maybe even inspire you to take a new route.

This morning, after a couple of days of rain, it was just great to see a broader view, particularly one with glowing golden clouds amidst the brightening blue. That’s a nice thing about winter, isn’t it? You can rise as late as 6:30 (late at the Barnett house), take a spin around the park, and still get to see the sunrise at 7:15 in the morning.

We’re all so busy “getting on” with your lives that it’s easy to forget to look up and scan the horizon. But that horizon is just as real as the everyday crises at our feet, and considerably more refreshing and inspiring. Back when I was still teaching, I was able to schedule a “scan the horizon” moment into many mornings. If I had grocery shopping or other errands to do after my teaching day, I’d leave the bike in the garage and take the car in to the university. And I’d park the machine half a mile or so from campus, partly to enjoy the walk, partly because I’m frugal and refused to pay a fee for the parking slots on campus. At the end of the walk, I’d cut across the local high school playing fields—wide open spaces, gloriously wide open where even a harried professor, worried about whether the pond sample in lab would contain enough amoeba and euglena for the students to study, couldn’t help but notice the horizon bursting into view. It didn’t matter whether the sky was clear, cloudy, or in-between. It was still good to take it all in, to sweep your eyes across 180 degrees of the heavens. The beauty, the grandness of it always reminded me that, in fact, maybe there were other important things in addition to your pond water for lab.

So I’ve always cultivated the habit of looking up, and enjoying the broader view. If you’re negotiating some tricky or unknown ground at the moment, then it’s a good idea to stop and stand stock still. That’s probably a good thing, also, to just stand still occasionally. So long as you start moving again once you’ve enjoyed the view.

On my way home this December morning from the park, I saw clouds of water vapor rising out of the sewer grates on the side of the road. It took me immediately back 40 years, when my first wife Donna and I had just arrived in North Carolina where I was beginning grad school at Duke after my tour in the army. We drove to the Carolina coast in our little Volkswagen beetle and camped in a tiny pup tent overlooking the ocean one cold winter day. After a miserable night (this was before I knew about sleeping pads and decent sleeping bags) we unzipped the tent, crawled out on all fours, and staggered to our feet—and gasped.

There, stretched out as far as the eye could see for 180 degrees before us, water vapor was rising from the ocean. It was as if we had awakened to a new universe, one neither of us had dreamed existed. We just drank in the awesome view for several long minutes. Then packed up and headed for the closest hot coffee. No doubt the combination of frigid morning air and relatively warmer water in a California sewer had produced the same rising water vapor as over the Carolina ocean four decades ago. Some things are constant in the universe, eh? Including the benefits of looking up into the skies throughout your day.

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