High Tide, Low Clouds at Nisqually

On my way to lunch with an old friend in Tacoma on Thursday, I planned to stop in at the Tacoma Public Library to see the SkyCeiling installation there. The Tacoma Public Library has several branches, so I called the main library to find out which branch featured a SkyCeiling.

The woman I spoke with in the administration office had never heard of the SkyCeiling. I described it as a skylight that really wasn’t a skylight, but a deluxe illusion of one created from photographs of the sky and clouds. The high-resolution photographs were mounted on square clear tiles and installed and backlit in the ceiling. Nope. She had never heard of it. She put me on hold to check with someone else in her office. Oh, there might have been something like that in the Teen Reading Room of the Main Library, but it’s not there any longer. Where is it? They must have removed it. Really? Well, it’s not there. Where is it? I guess it’s in storage.

I was pretty sure she did not know what she was talking about, so I decided to head to the main library to see for myself. I grabbed my notebook and my camera and headed out.

As I was driving, I wondered if possibly, the SkyCeiling was too expensive to maintain, perhaps the special light bulbs that made it look realistic were prohibitively expensive and were not replaced. Or maybe one of the clouds had been decorated with graffiti. Or maybe someone punched out a patch of blue sky—revealing a light bulb, its non-celestial housing and wiring. So, maybe it was uninstalled. Or maybe the administrator I talked with thought it was a real sky light and refused to admit right then and there that she had been duped this whole time.

SkyCeiling or not, I could still spend a few hours at the library before lunch.

So I am heading north on I-5, the snowy and majestic hulk of Mount Rainier appears to my right, a low-lying fog obscuring her foothills like a skirt of cotton batting around a Christmas tree. To my left, the newly restored wetlands of the Nisqually Delta—a wild and soggy landscape created by water shed from Mt. Rainier. Nearly every flake of snow on that fourteen-thousand-foot-high mountain on my right will make its way down to the sea-level delta to my right by August. And then back up it will go—from the delta, the sound, the ocean—thanks to my friends the clouds. The clouds. The Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is a great cloud-viewing spot. Today, there is blue sky and clouds, low rows of altocumulus clouds that seem to be thickening toward the west. Nothing spectacular. I glance back down at the wetland and remember that the highest tides of the year were occurring this week. The fresh-water marshes of the 700-acre refuge hadn’t tasted salt water from the Sound since Farmer Brown built earthen dikes to keep it out a hundred years ago. The dikes were breeched this fall and the tidal rhythms of the wetlands are pulsing and surging again.

But I was on my way to Tacoma, to see an illusory skylight, or what might be the site of a former illusory skylight. But the highest tides of the year were happening; the refuge would be transformed by 16+ feet of water. I am writing a book about clouds, not wetlands. The prospect of seeing the sky and clouds in a storage closet in a library was bizarrely funny, even ironic. The weather report said today would be the only non-rainy day for the next ten days. The prospect of seeing the sky and clouds in a wild landscape at high tide was neither bizarre, nor funny, nor ironic; it was merely scenic. But I needed to be outside in the scenery. I could visit the refuge now and the library next week. How many cloud pictures do I really need? I passed the exit to the refuge before the answer came: more. I needed more cloud pictures. And why do I need more cloud pictures? I couldn’t answer that one, but I took the next exit, made a U-turn, and made my way back to the refuge.

It was cold. I was dressed for lunch at a restaurant, not a walk around a wetland. I walked fast, carrying my digital “Elf” camera in my hand, waiting to get to the far end of the refuge to the big-sky view. Along the way I passed men and women strolling in groups of two or three, toting tripods and cameras with lenses like bazooka guns. They were birders. They were aiming their enormous lenses at distant bald eagles perched in bare trees and at various speck-like birds chirping from the underbrush. There I was aiming my hand-sized “Elf” camera at the sky, at bands of clouds that stretched from horizon to horizon. I zoomed out, the birders zoomed in. I captured fragments of a 700-acre sky. They captured eyes of bald eagle, wings of winter wrens.

An hour of walking and looking and breathing in the January sky, I had a few dozen photographs of clouds at high tide. One rainy day next week, I’ll make it to the storage room of the library to see the dismantled illusion of a blue sky.