The Force of Fiction

   This is a work of fiction on par with Joyce's Ulysses in terms of complexity, style, mastery of language, and inventiveness. I am two-thirds of the way through. I do not think it is about clouds. (I bought it because I judged a book by its cover).
   In my present struggle with atmospheric pressure, I had to laugh at this:

"Funny, thinks Milton. Power, time, gravity, love. The forces that really kick ass are all invisible."

What We're Not Seeing

  I wonder often how disappointed people were when, in 1783, scientists and inventors collaborated to launch the first hot-air balloons heavenward. What was the reaction on the ground when the manned balloons returned with no news of angels, spirits, or gods dwelling in the glorious clouds? How to report that no, great grandma wasn't up there like we thought? 
  What brings these questions to mind is a marvelous book by Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. One chapter chronicles the fantastical, scientific, and often hilarious aerial experiments designed to get man air-borne in lighter-than-air contraptions. Paris and London were the centers of the experiments--ones involving paper-makers, chemists, doctors, infantry officers, eccentrics, and gondolas full of scientific instruments, champagne, cold chicken, and buxom women in low-cut outfits to swell the already enormous crowds that gathered for the ascension. 

  Holmes stories of the late18th-century and early 19th-century balloon craze are well told and balanced between the mad-cap adventures and real scientific missions sponsored by the French Academie des Sciences and the English Royal Academy. Balloon ascents were consider key to discovering the secret of flight, the nature of the upper atmosphere, and the formation of weather. 
  Holmes writes that ballooning drew attention to the clouds--to their "seasonal varieties and characteristics, and above all perhaps to their astonishing beauty." The Romantic preoccupation with clouds can be followed in the paintings of Turner and Constable and in the poetry of Coleridge and Shelley, Holmes notes. What is fascinating is that, according to Holmes, ballooning produced not a new vision of the heavens as much as it did a new vision of the earth. "The early astronauts suddenly saw the earth as a giant organism, mysteriously patterned and unfolding, like a living creature...It was comparable to the first views of the earth from space by the Apollo astronauts in the 1960s, producing a new concept of a 'single blue planet' with its delicate membrane of atmosphere." 
   So, while I am digging for the story of how "the church" responded to these discoveries, I leave you with this, from cartoonist Roz Chast. 


  Last month I posted a blog about the Banff Mountain Film Festival and included links to the website of Australian photographer and filmmaker Murray Fredricks. I ordered a DVD of his film Salt, which was shown at this year's festival. I've watched it several times; I think about it all the time. Fredericks has created a film where the stars, light, time, space, being and nothingness converge in an almost hallucinatory atmosphere. This is a beautiful and haunting film.
   As is the "bonus" short film called Iridium (included on the DVD).  One of my alert cloud-loving blog fans in Bellingham was kind enough to send me the YouTube link to the film.  Click Here to watch it and take in the splendor of the skies.

Mary Oliver on Clouds


All afternoon, sir,
your ambassadors have been turning
into lakes and rivers.
At first they were just clouds, like any other.
Then they swelled and swirled; then they hung very still'
then they broke open. This is, I suppose,
just one of the common miracles,
a transformation, not a vision,
not an answer, not a proof, but I put it
there, close against my heart, where the need is, and its serves

the purpose. I go on, soaked through, my hair
slicked back;
like corn, or wheat, shining and useful.

This is from Mary Oliver's Why I Wake Early, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the Natioanl Book Award. I confess: I did not obtain, or even try to obtain permission to copy this poem. I am not sure what to do about this. I have been buying and reading and loving Mary Oliver's poems for many years. Should I apologize to her for sharing (stealing? borrowing?) her poem on clouds or should I see my blog as free advertising for Mary Oliver who does not need advertising. She packed Seattle's Benaroya Hall last year; she floated on stage--a wisp of a woman in black--and received a very long (almost embarrasingly long) standing ovation--before she had uttered a word. She waited for every exuberant soul in the audience to sit down and then she looked out and up and said, "There certainly are alot of you."

Still, she deserves every penny I have. Perhaps I should put a blank check in the mail and send it to her through her agent or publisher. Somehow, I do not think she would find my money useful in her pursuit of the soul. Instead, I will keep reading her poems every morning and continue to urge everyone to find her poetry--at your local bookstore, at the library, or online. Here is a link to her books on Powells and to Amazon. Googling "Mary Oliver" will yield a bounty of poems and biographical information about this "shining and useful" woman.