The Souls of Clouds--Part One

    Many of you may remember this photograph (above) from a previous post about a hike I took along the Skyline Divide Trail near Mt. Baker. It was here, on this idyllic top-of-the-world knoll, that I overheard a hiker say, "Now I feel I've been to America."
    What we all saw and felt that day was America the beautiful. I have kept his words in my heart because they, too, were beautiful and true and they made me love the mountains, valleys, and sky even more. And because, when I arrived home the next day and picked up the day-old Sunday New York Times from my driveway, his words became more poignant: They had been spoken on September 11, ten years after the terrorist attacks.
     I had forgotten about this “anniversary” during my weekend at Mt. Baker. My internal clock is precise, but my internal calendar is off by a day most days of the week. We had no TV or internet to bring 9/11 into our lives at the cabin we rented. But now I knew. Now I walked into my house with an extra-heavy newspaper with a not-so beautiful America inside.   
       I unfurled the paper on my kitchen table. A photograph of the Ground Zero Memorial ran large on the front page. Unless you had been following the construction of the memorial, you might have thought you were looking at a rain-splattered tombstone carved with many names. The photo depicted  one of the memorial’s bronze panels where the names of the nearly 3,000 who died in the attacks have been etched. The panel in the photograph appeared bluish-gray and was covered in drops of water (rain? water splashed from the memorial pools? tears? what are we to think?). Beneath the arresting photo, the large type read “The Reckoning: A Decade After 9/11.” This was the title of the special 40-page supplement inside the paper.
    But I wasn’t ready to tackle any of this Sunday’s paper. Not because I had lost family, friends, or colleagues in the attacks (I hadn’t) or because I didn’t have strength to bear the deep sorrow that those forty pages would undoubtedly hold (I had). It was because I didn’t like the word “reckoning.” It had biblical, apocalyptic, rapture-y, overtones. Now I was feeling cynical and un-American. I wanted to be in the right frame of mind when I read this decadal review. I felt it was my duty to be moved to tears, even idle ones.      
  A grainy color photo spanned both the left and right pages. It was a bird’s-eye-view of the World Trade Center towers jutting through a solid blanket of smoke. The image was arresting. The proud towers that dominated the Manhattan skyline, that symbolized double-strength American power and wealth, now seemed diminutive and vulnerable—here moments before their collapse. But something wasn’t right. This was not the way I remembered the smoke looking after the hijacked planes hit the towers. And the towers were intact and plumes of smoke were not billowing from the gash in their sides.
    I looked to the caption for an explanation. “BEFORE: The towers in spring 2001.” The photograph was taken by Katie Day Weisenberger, a college student flying into New York one April morning. She was shooting 35-mm film of the sunrise and clouds from her window seat. Suddenly, the towers appeared above the clouds.  
    So those were clouds, low stratus clouds, blanketing Lower Manhattan—not smoke from the towers. Just moments ago, the scene was toxic and heartbreaking. Now the clouds transformed the photograph into something ethereal, beautiful, and poignant. But still heartbreaking. I am sure I wasn’t the only reader duped by this ambiguous image, an odd, low-quality image—familiar, but strangely not. The New York Times editors had likely chosen this photograph so that readers look twice. And think twice. 

TOMORROW: The Soul of Clouds--Part 2