The first time I saw the “Earthrise” photo, taken by the Apollo 8 flight engineer Bill Anders from moon orbit on Christmas Eve 1968, I remember thinking how like a snow globe the earth appeared. Our planet’s sphere was in a gibbous phase and appeared to be a dome floating in the void beyond the moon’s barren horizon.
The idea of three humans slung snugly in the gravitational embrace of the moon shook up our globe on that Christmas 47 years ago. The photo caused us to confront a view of ourselves from the other side of the sky and to acknowledge our confinement in a small living bubble of blue and white.
Now, nearly half a century later on the eve of another rare Christmas – one with a full moon on its horizon – my appreciation of the sky as a beautiful and shimmering envelope for my life, and all earthly lives, endures.
This is a spectacular season for all sky watchers, not just magi and shepherds who watch by night. In these shortened days around the winter solstice, the sun hugs the horizon tighter than at any other time of the year, and the clouds bask in low, dramatic lighting across the dome of the sky. The great wash of transitional weather from fall to winter, swirls a motley cavalcade of clouds across this soaring proscenium arch, and it is quite a show if you take the time to look up every now and then.
Throughout the year, the various forms of water vapor and ice crystals that constitute clouds in all their shifting permutations make visible conflicting air masses in their endless vertiginous battles across low and high pressure fronts. From the fair-weather friendly cumulus clouds that drift across the sky forming bunnies and seahorses for supine daydreamers to the great airborne anvils of cumulonimbus thunderheads threatening to bring the hammer down hard on whatever innocent reveries we might have about weather, clouds are the emissaries of change in a world seemingly obsessed with the next big thing. But at this time of year, when sunshine is at a premium, the ability of clouds to reflect and scatter the season’s sparse reserves of light is welcome and quite often extraordinarily beautiful.
My iPhone has been filling up this fall with cloud photos. It started on an October vacation in Sedona, Arizona. Great stratocumulus formations scraped their soft bellies across towering red rock peaks in a procession that lasted two full and spectacularly unsettled days. The scene was straight from central casting for the beginning of the world.
In late November, a rare sun pillar accompanied a Tuesday sunrise. Sun pillars form when ice crystals rotate on a horizontal axis as they fall. This one pushed a column of magenta light straight up from the rising sun into the deep purple covering of cirrostratus clouds.
Earlier this month, I went out to photograph yet another spectacular raspberry sunrise only to have Kate point out to me when I got back to the house that I was missing the odd pink pipe-cleaner-of-a-cloud created by an airplane contrail in the northern sky.
Nothing seems quite so flimsy and ephemeral as a cloud, here one moment and gone the next. Yet this little blue and white globe of ours supports life through the eternal agency of clouds, which transport water to where we need it – from our saline seas to the sources of great rivers and purifying aquifers and to croplands and to the abiding reserves of fresh water in glaciers. Shake up the world, and it is clouds that will sort things out. And they go about their work with such awesome artistry.
On Christmas night, go view the full moon in all its barren beauty and imagine earthrise from the other side of the sky. And thank the passing cloud that hangs there separating us from the endless void for calling us to wonder about the next big thing.