We are stardust,
We are golden,
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden.
Growing up in a large city, I never really knew the sky. In Baltimore, trees and buildings kept the sky from view. To see it, you usually had to look straight up. The sky did not meet the Earth at a far horizon; indeed, you could only rarely see where they touched. No one has ever considered calling Maryland, “big sky country,” for it is not. The sky is small, a backdrop to urban landscapes or wooded hills.
My first real acquaintance with the sky came in 1972, when my parents moved our family to Arizona. We left Maryland in the early November, on a cloudy morning, and headed west for a five-day journey in our brand-new yellow Ford station wagon. Two parents, three kids, and one Old English Sheepdog. The three of us quarreled about who got to sit in the far back boot with the dog and the suitcases – a private little world distant from adult conversation and cigarette smoke. As the eldest, I often won the battle. I liked being surrounded by windows, instead of confined in the middle seat. The back offered a better view.
As my father drove across the Appalachians and into the mid-west, the landscape was still familiar. The first part of the journey took us through recognizable scenes of woods, small towns, and family farms. Then somewhere past St. Louis things started to change: trees were smaller and farther apart, the land was flatter, farms were bigger. And the sky suddenly became part of the landscape. The farther west we traveled, the bigger it became. Until west Texas. There the land seemed to disappear, and the dry earth, marked by cattle ranches and oil rigs, seemed an insignificant backdrop to the blue that swaddled everything. Riding in the back of the station wagon, I lay down and positioned myself to see only the sky, and I felt as if I were floating on a raft in the clouds. I wondered if twelve-year-olds in Conestoga wagons or Pullman cars felt the same when they sojourned west with their parents. The sky was huge, with a life-giving force of its own. For someone who grew up under the protective shelter of trees, it was overwhelming.
When we arrived in Arizona, our new house was an odd bit of eastern architecture: it had two floors. Our living room was upstairs and looked out above the surrounding suburban ranch-style houses. The living-room window looked west to Camelback Mountain; the kitchen windows faced east to the Superstitions. On any given day, you could look out and see seventy or so miles into the distance, where craggy mountain peaks carved into the cloudless turquoise horizon. The local weatherman (and they were only men in those days), for lack of anything else to say – as the weather rarely changed – reported on the sky: “Tomorrow we will have unlimited visibility.” In Phoenix, the sky was all-encompassing, the home of the day’s relentless sun and night’s welcome canopy of stars. I could understand why the ancient peoples searched its vast vistas for signed of rain, sought shelter from its endless burning light by building their homes on cliffs for shade, and used the stars to mark holy places and guide the pilgrimages of the dead. No wonder they worshiped the sky deity as creator and giver of life.