Sunday, June 18, 2017

On a Motionless Sky



Life is motion. If something moves, we instinctively think that it is alive. Anyone who has walked a dog will understand that canine eyes perceive the world in two categories – things that move on their own and things that don’t. Small children have the same perception: I have heard children say that clouds are alive because they move under their own power. And are we sure that this naive perspective is necessarily wrong? The avalanche that sweeps down a mountainside and destroys a village seems to move with malice aforethought. And so does the tsunami, the waterfall, and the tornado. Such forces seem to be living agents. We know that they are alive because they move.

A powerful storm advanced on the small city where I live. At that time, I was working in my law office, below grade, with a concrete-walled window-well behind the glass panes over my computer. My view upward through the basement window is half concrete and half-sky. The lower part of window opens onto the concrete box, an open vault with the marks of the forms that framed the box still visible as ridges and shallow cracks in the concrete. Sometimes, a squirrel will run along the top of those three walls enclosing my window and I will see the rodent as a strange, unfamiliar apparition, from a low angle with the beast poised against the sky and, therefore, seeming a colossus. The upper-half of my window shows the sky, an open expanse cleft in two by the furrowed brown pillar of a tree. In this season, the tree’s branches make a fringe at the top of the view defined by my window, an elegant lace of twigs heavily laden with green leaf, some dead limbs like claws also extending down from above, like a sort of memento mori.

The blinds on my window were open and I looked up above the concrete well to the sky. Everything had ceased to move. I saw that the sky was angry and congested: a black wall was thrust forward ahead of the approaching storm, a prow of dark cloud like the iron cowcatcher on the front of an old locomotive and, at the edges of that dense wedge, the cloud had broken apart, unfurling little pennants of tattered grey. But the remarkable aspect of this aerial landscape was that it was wholly motionless – no part of the mass of clouds seemed to move at all. The immobility of the storm toppling forward out of the sky was all the more incongruous because the shapes of the clouds were streamlined, cut and sculpted so that they could fly at high-speed, screeching like banshees, across the sky. I looked from the motionless clouds to the limbs of the tree and its branches – nothing moved at all, there wasn’t even the faint vibration that you sense in living vegetation, the tiny aura of life that surges faintly through the veins of a leaf. All was stationary, frozen, petrified.

For a moment, I felt panic. Perhaps, I was the one who had died. It didn’t seem possible that all of this evidence of wild, frenzied motion –the clefts in the clouds, the rifts in the sky through which, undoubtedly, gale winds were pouring, even the solid rays of falling rain – could be wholly still, frigid statuary occupying the lofty heights of the sky. I rose from my desk, felt myself to be alive, but who knows – perhaps, in their last instants, the dying and dead feel themselves able to move robustly through an earth that has turned to marble. Perhaps, this is the grave and immense thing itself. Before consciousness flickers out, perhaps, it pins the world to the mind as a last snapshot, a final motionless panorama that only gradually fades away.

I went into the hallway to see if there were other living beings in the office. Everyone on the lower level had left for the day. The doors into the silent offices were open. Where there were windows, I saw the stolid stone vault of the window well, the striated and deadly-looking sky still entirely motionless and the edges of trees and bushes completely becalmed.

Upstairs, a couple of secretaries had gathered in the lobby. They were inspecting the sky through the windows.

"Do you see how still it is?" I said.

I went outside and stood on the sidewalk. The sky overhead was a wild canvas, motionless as a painted picture. The air was heavy, humid, bearing little veins of dry, bright air that were not yet moving. Not a leaf stirred. The silence was immense and imponderable and the stillness in the sky was like an announcement of the end of things.

Then, the storm went off like a bomb. The sky vanished in a white downpour. The trees twisted and bent and the dead limbs snapped off them and skittered like spiders across the parking lot.

It was over in 20 minutes. The intersections were flooded. The river was engorged and flowed between its corridor of trees as a sullen, impenetrable flood, a kind of viscous syrup moving with the speed of a freight train but betraying no sign of its motion other than froth and spray where a low-hanging branch cut a white furrow in the current. At each intersection, parts of trees had fallen to the ground. The big branches were shrouded in leaves and they sat decorously on the sidewalk, like girls in emerald green ballroom gowns reposing on the grass. A brown litter of twigs and fallen boughs was scattered across the lawns. The sky was now vivid with fragments of storm hurtling this way and that, sunlight tunneling down through provisional clouds that were fleeing to the horizon.

The smaller limbs fallen from the tree will wither in a day and the leaves will wilt and turn brown. But the bigger branches, the green debris the size of a car or larger – these torsos and limbs of trees will remain green for half a week, sap still coursing through the branches and invigorating the leaves so that these will remain bright green for a week or more. Birds will see the leaves and branches rippling on those broken-away parts of trees, leaves moving in the wind, and they will try to build nests in the toppled limbs. Squirrels will chatter and, perhaps, mistake the last vibrant color in those leafy branches for sustaining life and work to re-establish their nests in the fallen limbs. And the breezes will blow and the trees standing along the lanes, intact, or mostly intact, will glitter in the wind.