6. DESERT SKY AND CLOUDS


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CHAPTER VI

DESERT SKY AND CLOUDS


   

[page 95] HOW silently, even swiftly, the days glide by out in the desert, in the waste, in the wilderness! How "the morning and the evening make up the day" and the purple shadow slips in between with a midnight all stars ! And how day by day the interest grows in the long

 Common-place things of nature.  

overlooked commonplace things of nature ! In a few weeks we are studying bushes, bowlders, stones, sand-drifts—things we never thought of looking at in any other country. And after a time we begin to make mental notes on the changes of light, air, clouds, and blue sky. At first we are perhaps bothered about the intensity of the sky, for we have always heard of the "deep blue" that overhangs the desert; and we expect to see it at any and all times. But we discover that it shows itself in its greatest depth only in the morning before sunrise. Then it is a dark blue, bordering upon purple; and for some time after the sun comes up it holds a

 The blue sky.  

[page 96] deep blue tinge. At noon it has passed through a whole gamut of tones and is pale blue, yellowish, lilac-toned, or rosy ; in the late afternoon it has changed again to pink or gold or orange ; and after twilight and under the moon, warm purples stretch across the whole reach of the firmament from horizon to horizon.

But the changes in the blue during the day have no constancy to a change. There is no fixed purpose about them. The caprices of light, heat, and dust control the appearances.

 Changes in the blue.  

Sometimes the sky at dawn is as pallid as a snow-drop with pearly grays just emerging from the blue ; and again it may be flushed with saffron, rose, and pink. When there are clouds and great heat the effect is often very brilliant. The colors are intense in chrome-yellows, golds, carmines, magentas, malachite-greens—a body of gorgeous hues upheld by enormous side wings of paler tints that encircle the horizon to the north and south, and send waves of color far up

 Dawns on the desert.  

the sky to the cool zenith. Such dawns are seldom seen in moist countries, nor are they usual on the desert, except during the hot summer months.

The prevailing note of the sky, the one oftenest seen, is, of course, blue—a color we may [page 97] not perhaps linger over because it is so common. And yet how seldom it is appreciated ! Our attention is called to it in art—in a hawthorn jar as large as a sugar-bowl, made in a certain period, in a certain Oriental school.

 Blue as a color.  

The æsthetic world is perhaps set agog by this ceramic blue. But what are its depth and purity compared to the ethereal blue ! Yet the color is beautiful in the jar and infinitely more beautiful in the sky—that is beautiful in itself and merely as color. It is not necessary that it should mean anything. Line and tint do not always require significance to be beautiful. There is no tale or text or testimony to be tortured out of the blue sky. It is a splendid body of color ; no more.

You cannot always see the wonderful quality of this sky-blue from the desert valley, because it is disturbed by reflections, by sand-storms, by lower air-strata. The report it makes of itself when you begin to gain altitude on a mountain's

 Sky from mountain heights.  

side is quite different. At four thousand feet the blue is certainly more positive, more intense, than at sea-level ; at six thousand feet it begins to darken and deepen, and it seems to fit in the saddles and notches of the mountains like a block of lapis lazuli ; at eight thousand feet it [page 98] has darkened still more and has a violet hue

 The night sky.  

about it. The night sky at this altitude is almost weird in its purples. A deep violet fits up close to the rim of the moon, and the orb itself looks like a silver wafer pasted upon the sky.

The darkening of the sky continues as the height increases. If one could rise to, say, fifty thousand feet, he would probably see the sun only as a shining point of light, and the firmament merelyas a blue-black background. The diffusion of light must decrease with the growing

 Blackness of space.  

thinness of the atmospheric envelope. At what point it would cease and the sky become perfectly black would be difficult to say, but certainly the limit would be reached when our atmosphere practically ceased to exist. Space from necessity must be black except where the straight beams of light stream from the sun and the stars.


 Bright sky-colors.  

The bright sky-colors, the spectacular effects, are not to be found high up in the blue of the dome. The air in the zenith is too thin, too free from dust, to take deep colorings of red and orange. Those colors belong near the earth, along the horizons where the aërial envelope is dense. The lower strata of atmosphere are in [page 99] fact responsible for the gorgeous sunsets, the tinted hazes, the Indian-summer skies, the hot September glows. These all appear in their

 Horizon skies.  

splendor when the sun is near the horizon-line and its beams are falling through the many miles of hot, dust-laden air that lie along the surface of the earth. The air at sunset after a day of intense heat-radiation is usually so thick that only the long and strong waves of color can pass through it. The blues are almost lost, the neutral tints are missing, the greens are seen but faintly. The waves of red and yellow are the only ones that travel through the thick air with force. And these are the colors that tell us the story of the desert sunset.


 Spectrum colors.  

Ordinarily the sky at evening over the desert, when seen without clouds, shows the colors of the spectrum beginning with red at the bottom and running through the yellows, greens, and blues up to the purple of the zenith. In cool weather, however, this spectrum arrangement seems swept out of existence by a broad

 Bands of yellow.  

band of yellow-green that stretches half way around the circle. It is a pale yellow fading into a pale green, which in turn melts into a pale blue. In hot weather this pallor is changed to something much richer and deeper. A band [page 100] of orange takes its place. It is a flame-colored orange, and its hue is felt in reflection upon valley, plain, and mountain peak. This indeed is the orange light that converts the air in the mountain canyons into golden mist, and is measurably responsible for the yellow sunshafts that, streaming through the pinnacles of the western

 The orange sky.  

mountains, reach far across the upper sky in ever-widening bands. This great orange belt is lacking in that variety and vividness of coloring that comes with clouds, but it is not wanting in a splendor of its own. It is the broadest, the simplest, and in many respects the sublimest sunset imaginable—a golden dream with the sky enthroned in glory and the earth at its feet reflecting its lustre.


 Desert clouds.  

But the more brilliant sunsets are only seen when there are broken translucent clouds in the west. There are cloudy days even on the desert. After many nights of heat, long skeins of white stratus will gather along the horizons, and out of them will slowly be woven forms of the cumulus and the nimbus. And it will rain in short squalls of great violence on the lomas, mesas, and bordering mountains. But usually the cloud that drenches a mountain top eight thousand feet up will pass over an [page 101] intervening valley, pouring down the same flood of rain, and yet not a drop of it reaching the ground. The air is always dry and the raindrop

 Rainfall.  

that has to fall through eight thousand feet of it before reaching the earth, never arrives. It is evaporated and carried up to its parent cloud again. During the so-called "rainy season" you may frequently see clouds all about the horizon and overhead that are "raining"—letting down long tails and sheets of rain that are plainly visible ; but they never touch the earth. The sheet lightens, breaks, and dissipates two thousand feet up. It rains, true enough, but there is no water, just as there are desert rivers, but they have no visible stream. That is the desert of it both above and below.


 Effect of the nimbus.  

With the rain come trooping almost all the cloud-forms known to the sky. And the thick ones like the nimbus carry with them a chilling, deadening effect. The rolls and sheets of rainclouds that cover the heavens at times rob the desert of light, air, and color at one fell swoop. Its beauty vanishes as by magic. Instead of colored haze there is gray gloom settling along the hills and about the mesas. The sands lose their lustre and become dull and formless, the vegetation darkens to a dead gray, and the [page 102] mountains turn slate-colored, mouldy, unwholesome looking. A mantle of drab envelops the scene, and the glory of the desert has departed.

All the other cloud-forms, being more or less transparent, seem to aid rather than to obscure the splendor of the sky. The most common

 Cumuli.  

clouds of all are the cumuli. In hot summer afternoons they gather and heap up in huge masses with turrets and domes of light that reach at times forty thousand feet above the earth. At sunset they begin to show color before any of the other clouds. If seen against the sun their edges at first gleam silver-white and then change to gold ; if along the horizon to the north or south, or lying back in the eastern sky, they show dazzling white like a snowy Alp.

 Heap clouds at sunset.  

As the sun disappears below the line they begin to warm in color, turning yellow, pink, and rose. Finally they darken into lilac and purple, then sink and disappear entirely. The smaller forms of cumulus that appear in the west at evening are always splashes of sunset color, sometimes being shot through with yellow or scarlet. They ultimately appear floating against the night sky as spots of purple and gray.


 Stratus.  

Above the cumuli and often flung across them like bands of gauze, are the stratus clouds— [page 103] clouds of the middle air region. This veil or sheet-cloud might be called a twilight cloud, giving out as it does its greatest splendor after the sun has disappeared below the verge. It then takes all colors and with singular vividness. At times it will overspread the whole west as a sheet of brilliant magenta, but more frequently it blares with scarlet, carmine, crimson, flushing up and then fading out, shifting from one color to another; and finally dying out in a beautiful ashes of roses. When these clouds and all their variations have faded into lilac and deep purples, there are still bright spots of color in the upper sky where the cirri are receiving the last rays of the sun.


 Cirri.  

The cirrus with its many feathery and fleecy forms is the thinnest, the highest, and the most brilliant in light of all the clouds. Perhaps its brilliancy is due to its being an ice-cloud. It seems odd that here in the desert with so much heat rising and tempering the upper air there

 Ice-clouds.  

should be clouds of ice but a few miles above it. The cirrus and also the higher forms of the cumulo-stratus are masses of hoar-frost, spicules of ice floating in the air, instead of tiny globules of vapor.

There is nothing remarkable about the desert [page 104] clouds—that is nothing very different from the clouds of other countries—except in light, color, and background. They appear incomparably

 Clouds of fire.  

more brilliant and fiery here than elsewhere on the globe. The colors, like everything else on the desert, are intense in their power, fierce in their glare. They vibrate, they scintillate, they penetrate and tinge everything with their hue. And then, as though heaping splendor upon splendor, what a wonderful background they are woven upon! Great bands of orange, green, and blue that all the melted and fused gems in the world could not match for translucent

 The celestial tapestry.  

beauty. Taken as a whole, as a celestial tapestry, as a curtain of flame drawn between night and day, and what land or sky can rival it!

After the clouds have all shifted into purples and the western sky has sunk into night, then up from the east the moon — the misshapen

 The desert moon.  

orange-hued desert moon. How large it looks! And how it warms the sky, and silvers the edges of the mountain peaks, and spreads its wide light across the sands! Up, up it rises, losing something of its orange and gaining something in symmetry. In a few hours it is high in the heavens and has a great aureole of color about it. Look at the ring for a moment and you will [page 105] see all the spectrum colors arranged in order.

 Rings and rainbows.  

Pale hues they are but they are all there. Rainbows by day and rainbows by night! Radiant circles of colored light—not one but many. Arches above arches—not two or three but five solar bows in the sky at one time! What strange tales come out of the wilderness! But how much stranger, how much more weird and extraordinary the things that actually happen in this desert land.

High in the zenith rides the desert moon. What a flood of light comes from it! What

 Moonlight.  

pale, phosphorescent light! Under it miles and miles of cactus and grease-wood are half revealed, half hidden; and far away against the dark mountains the dunes of the desert shine white as snow-clad hills in December. The

 Stars.  

stars are forth, the constellations in their places, the planets large and luminous, yet none of them has much color or sparkle. The moon dims them somewhat, but even without the moon they have not the twinkle of the stars in higher, colder latitudes. The desert air seems to veil their lustre somewhat, and yet as points of light set in that purple dome of sky how beautiful they are!

Lying down there in the sands of the desert, [page 106] alone and at night, with a saddle for your pillow, and your eyes staring upward at the stars, how incomprehensible it all seems! The immensity and the mystery are appalling; and

 The midnight sky.  

yet how these very features attract the thought and draw the curiosity of man. In the presence of the unattainable and the insurmountable we keep sending a hope, a doubt, a query, up through the realms of air to Saturn's throne. What key have we wherewith to unlock that door? We cannot comprehend a tiny flame of our own invention called electricity, yet we grope at the meaning of the blazing splendor of Arcturus. Around us stretches

 Alone in the desert.  

the great sand-wrapped desert whose mystery no man knows, and not even the Sphinx could reveal; yet beyond it, above it, upward still upward, we seek the mysteries of Orion and the Pleiades.


 The mysteries.  

What is it that draws us to the boundless and the fathomless? Why should the lovely things of earth—the grasses, the trees, the lakes, the little hills — appear trivial and insignificant when we come face to face with the sea or the desert or the vastness of the midnight sky? Is it that the one is the tale of things known and the other merely a hint, a suggestion of the unknown?

 Space and immensity.  

[page 107] Or have immensity, space, magnitude a peculiar beauty of their own? Is it not true that bulk and breadth are primary and essential qualities of the sublime in landscape? And is it not the sublime that we feel in immensity and mystery? If so, perhaps we have a partial explanation of our love for sky and sea and desert waste. They are the great elements. We do not see, we hardly know if their boundaries are limited; we only feel their immensity, their mystery, and their beauty.


 The silences.  

And quite as impressive as the mysteries are the silences. Was there ever such a stillness as that which rests upon the desert at night! Was there ever such a hush as that which steals from star to star across the firmament! You perhaps think to break the spell by raising your voice in a cry; but you will not do so again. The sound goes but a little way and then seems to come back to your ear with a suggestion of insanity about it.

A cry in the night! Overhead the planets in their courses make no sound, the earth is still, the very animals are mute. Why then the

 The cry of the human.  

cry of the human? How it jars the harmonies! How it breaks in discord upon the unities of earth and air and sky! Century after [page 108] century that cry has gone up, mobbing high heaven; and always insanity in the cry, insanity in the crier. What folly to protest where none shall hear! There is no appeal from the law of nature. It was made for beast and bird and creeping thing. Will the human never learn that in the eye of the law he is not different from the things that creep?

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