Celestial Palette

Everything is looking up

From a young age, I have been fascinated by what is in the sky.  Not so much from a scientific point of view, though the space race started when I was in grade school, but always more from an artistic standpoint.  The sky was always full of variety and subtlety, and was often the object of stunning beauty.

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest where the sky is often dismissed as boring and depressing.  I found the constant cloud cover a continuously fascinating shifting palette of grays, and when the sky and sun broke through, it was often dramatic. The cloud cover is often part of the landscape, drifting through the trees or covering hills and other landmarks.  I remember an artist, Mark Tobey, who was active in the Seattle area when I was growing up.  His work seemed to epitomize the soft colors and subtle grays which typify the Northwest palette.  

But then I moved to Arizona.  I could go for weeks without seeing a cloud let alone any precipitation.  Contrasts were stark.  Colors were bold.  Brown was substituted for gray.  The clouds, when they came, were often dramatic with lightning, downpours and stunning rainbows.  And there is always a glorious sunset!  In the Southwest, I became more interested in the night sky, especially here in Northern Arizona where the sky is dark.  The stars were always a novelty in the Northwest, as I could never see them.  In Arizona, the constellations, galaxies and nebulae are on full display.

Cirrus clouds are those high wispy streaks that are often the firsts signs of an approaching front.  They have a special delicate gentleness, like a baby’s curls.  The “red sky in the morning” is the Sailor’s Warning.  Red skies are common in high pressure areas because there is more dust.  Hence, if it is in the east (at dawn) the high pressure is moving away, which means a low pressure area (storm) is moving in.  Dust devils are little cyclones common to the desert when it is hot.  The air is rising off the ground pretty quickly and can become organized into a whirlwind.  They are fun to watch and usually harmless, but they can be strong and have knocked my car around on a number of occasions!  

The Martyr refers to the fact that not everyone who looks up sees the sky.  A Nebula is a visible cloud of hydrogen gas in the night sky which often is an area of star creation.  They can have fanciful names such is the Oyster Nebula, Crab Nebula, or Horsehead Nebula.  Shimmering Rainbows sometimes occur in the desert as thunderstorms, though violent, are rather compact.  Rain and sun at the same time are common.  The disturbed atmosphere can cause a rainbow to shimmer.  

A “red sky at night” is the Sailor’s Delight, as the high pressure system is in the West.  The aphorism is mentioned in the Bible, and is obviously confined to the Northern Hemisphere as in the other half of the globe the prevailing winds are reversed.  I can’t remember seeing a Falling Star growing up in Seattle.  In Arizona, I could see one every night.  I have even seen a couple of large fireballs.  But my conception of falling stars has been pleasantly altered forever since a read Neil Gaiman’s Stardust.

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