By Cornelia Schwartz
“The sky starts at your feet!” proclaims a sign propped against the black- board of Grade 3, Room 9, at the Thompson Elementary School in Arlington, Massachusetts. Most of us probably don’t think of the sky like that – below and around, as well as above; or as surrounding, permeating, and supporting all we do; beautiful, just on its own. Last year fifteen third graders in this classroom came to regard the sky as a vivid, all-encompassing, always varying presence. In these children’s paintings, clouds – no longer just white and gray – and sky – no longer just plain blue – stretch to the ground in colors sometimes strong, sometimes subtle, alive with the variety that comes from looking carefully, again and again. To these children the sky became important, and they ”took it person- ally.” Said one of them to his teacher, ”That’s my sky!”
Eleanor Franey, whose vitality and enthusiasm make her seem too young to have taught third grade for twenty-two years, uses ”holistic” to describe her approach to teaching reading, writing, arithmetic, and other basic subjects. She had al- ways tried to relate these to each other, but not until last year did she find the unifying element to connect and animate them all: the sky. ”The sky!” she exclaims. “There’s a wilderness! And it doesn’t even cost us one cent to go on a field trip.”
On the playground, in their backyards at home, on trips in their family cars, even during a fire drill, the children pursued the class project of noticing the sky. They regularly wrote down their observations looked up and learned new words as the need for a richer vocabulary arose, and drew spelling words from each other’s writings about the sky. The sky became the focus of the third grade curriculum in vocabulary, spelling, writing, geography, astronomy, and meteorology. In learning about the continents, they also learned about the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and the wind and the weather patterns of the earth; they studied planets, stars, and constellations. Sky is air, so they wanted to know: How do we breathe? What do our lungs look like? Why is the sky blue? Northeastern University meteorologist John Burne came to the third grade classroom once a week to answer questions like these, and to conduct a science class with the children. Says Mrs. Franey, remembering that year: “Look what the sky starts!”
Like yeast stirred into the inert ingredients of flour and milk, it started a Boston-based movement called For Spacious Skies. And this happened be- cause, on a beautiful June day back in 1977, WBZ- TV newscaster Jack Borden lay down in a meadow and saw the sky for the first time – that is, he looked at a deep blue sky studded with puffy, cumulus clouds and was moved to awe and wonder at the sight of it. Someone else might have let the experience go by, kept it to himself, or told a friend; but Jack Borden is a born communicator in a communications industry. Taking his microphone to the streets of Boston on two separate occasions, he covered the eyes of passers by and asked: ”Can you describe how the sky looks right now?” No one could, although Borden had deliberately chosen to ask his question at times when the sky resembled the dramatic contrast of blue and white that he had found so striking. He asked himself – and soon he asked others – why so few of us look at the sky and instead see only objects against the sky. For most people, the sky has become, in Borden’s words, ”visual Muzak,” instead of a symphony of contrasting movement, a composition of light and color. En- listing the support of people such as Bruce MacDonald, dean of Boston’s Museum School of the Fine Arts, Bruce McHenry, chief of interpretation for the North Atlantic Region of the Parks Service, Bradford Washburn, chairman of Boston’s Museum of Science, and author Eric Sloane, Borden founded For Spacious Skies, a nonprofit venture to foster awareness and appreciation of the skies.
A worthy cause could find no more eager advocate than Jack Borden. Making full use of his training in modern media, he seizes every likely opportunity to write, talk, mail, and travel on behalf of what an enthusiastic letter-writer called "this wonderful contagion." He is the sky's unfaltering publicizer. In May 1981, he took For Spacious Skies across the continent to the rim of the Grand Canyon, where he led the first national Conference on the Sky. And in the early fall of 1982, he took it next door, so to speak, to nearby resident William Hurley, who happens to be the principal of Arlington's Thompson Elementary School. Hurley gave Borden's written material ("voluminous!") to third grade teacher Eleanor Franey, who used it with such creative effect throughout the following school year. Some of Borden's sky-awareness materials had been used experimentally in some other Boston-area schools, but only sporadically, with few lasting results. Does a continuing, vivid appreciation of the sky depend on an inspiring force-on the whirlwind intensity of a Jack Borden, on the imaginative enthusiasm of an Eleanor Franey? Or can any one of us, anywhere, experience the sky as an overwhelming, majestic presence?
The answer depends on how often a person looks at the sky, and why. A cursory glance one fine day won't do. Almost everyone has admired a sunset in pretty countryside somewhere; most of us have been delighted by one rainbow. To experience in full the beauty, variety, and majesty of the sky requires seeing it as object, not as background, in shades of white on blue, in tones of gray against gray, repeatedly, until raising one's eyes, even if only for a few minutes daily, becomes a habit. Establishing the habit requires a conscious effort of attention, because the sky is always there, and is easily taken for granted. If it were not there, if the sight of it had been removed by long illness or confinement, how deeply moving then would be one's restored view of the sky. In the words of Thomas Traherne: "Did we not daily see it, it would be incredible."
Why one looks at the sky is, all too often, the very obstacle that stands in the way of according it value for its own sake. We all know that noncommittal comments on the weather are an accepted way to "break the ice" when meeting a stranger or to fill in the gap of silence that would seem an unfriendly way to check out of the supermarket. The immediate message in the sky, for most modern people, is weather-and preferably weather suited to one's own immediate need. Weather forecasters, probably thinking of the greatest comfort for the greatest number, almost invariably couch predictions of rain or snow in terms of apology, let the earth be ever so parched. This prevalent attitude creeps over into the language: consider, for example, the use of "cloud" as a word with negative connotations in today's vernacular.
Environmentalists use the sky in a different way. They search it for signs of pollution; they agitate to clean it up. The sky is included in their concern for the health of the planet as a whole. Necessary and laudable as this kind of sky awareness may be, it is not the purpose of For Spacious Skies, a fact that has puzzled and annoyed some of its critics. But if one esteems the sky for its beauty, one is then likely to care for its well-being.
The sky is a natural rallying point for those who would look beyond it for transcendental inspiration. This, too, is a way of using the sky to get to some-thing else. How close is heaven to the heavens; but are the latter not beautiful in themselves?
In his book Look at the Sky! Eric Sloane wrote: "I believe that the sky was created for pure beholding; that one of men's greatest joys can be simply looking at the sky."
Look at the sky, just for its beauty, just for the looking. What you do with what you have seen is up to you.
This is a simple idea, though not necessarily an easy one to put into practice. It is not just that we are busy: our surroundings are busy; they arrest the eye. They act as sleight of hand to distract the eye from a vast, relatively monochromatic background. As Jack Borden puts it: "We are all part of the hum going on at the bottom of this vast visual space." What seems obvious in the visual complexity of modern cities is also true of the less vertical but still bustling suburbs. Surely, the more rural the surroundings, the easier it must be for anyone to notice and appreciate the sky. In practice it seldom works out that way. For Spacious Skies board member Bruce McHenry puts the weight of his career in the Parks Service behind the following comment: "I've lived outdoors all my life-in Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Shenandoah, the Everglades [national parks]. I was aware of the sky-but I wasn't. It was sort of in the background of all this gorgeous scenery." Probably many hikers, fishermen, and other experienced outdoorsmen would have to make the same admission.
Whether extending over a boundless horizon or appearing as a patch of open space at the end of a city street, some view of sky is available to almost everyone. In ugly, run-down urban areas, Jack Borden would have people "change the visual menu from 70 percent depressed surroundings to 70 percent sky," even if only for a little while each day. In that sense, For Spacious Skies has something to say to everyone, everywhere.
But if one could choose, is there an ideal vantage point from which to view the sky? Borden says that the sky makes its strongest impact when it can be viewed as a dome. It first struck him that way because he was lying on his back in a field. One is likely to experience the sky as a dome from the top of a high hill, or at night, when surrounding objects are sufficiently cloaked in darkness to recede from the foreground. Then one can sense the enormity of sky, stretching down as well as around and up; one becomes small on a scale that is vast beyond the norm of daily experience. This may be the best reason to foster sky awareness in young children; if the sky seems great to the adult, how much greater will it seem to the child.
Eleanor Franey's third graders may, therefore, have enjoyed a natural advantage over adults when looking at the sky from an ordinary setting, such as that of the Thompson School. Their teacher made sure that the class would share at least one unordinary view, as well. On the cold morning of November 17, the children and their parents roused themselves from sleep in the dark hour before dawn. They gathered on the hilltop of a nearby farm to watch the sunrise. Mrs. Franey brought two double easels. Some children painted; others clustered with their families to look and remember. That early dawn came back to members of the class in unexpected ways-in thoughts and pictures and learning experiences all through the year. A brief essay entitled "It's Simple" can speak collectively for the children in that third grade, and perhaps also for many of us who have left childhood far behind:
Please read what I say. if you see the wonderful beauty of the sky all the time you all ways appreciate our planet earth. if big people could only see the beauty what a great world this would be.
Cornelia Schwartz is a free-lance journalist and editor. Her article on urban greening appeared in the autumn 1984 issue of Orion.
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