Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Sky's the Limit

Years and years and years (and years and years and years and - I could go on like this forever) ago, I was staying with some friends in Melbourne and we went to visit someone who was living in a hall of residence at La Trobe University. It was the usual basic 70s sort of place, made of those big concrete bricks we used to call Besser bricks (was that the manufacturer's name, perhaps) that the architect had decided to leave bare and exposed on interior walls, ostensibly for stylistic reasons but really, I suspect (like so many decisions taken in the name of post-1960s architecture) to reduce costs.

Anyway, we sat in the shared living area, drinking mugs of tea or instant coffee (we used to drink a lot of that back then - worse still, it was usually International Roast, [the cheapest, for good reason]) when a tall red headed man joined us from one of the adjacent rooms. It turned out he was a postgraduate student from England and he was homesick. 'It's the skies here', he said, 'they're too enormous.'

I sort of know what he means, (although I don't feel the same way he did). The sky here is wider and higher, somehow, than in Europe, and the horizons seem bigger too. The fact is, there is so much space in this country that nowhere can really be described as cosy. Losing an awareness of your own tininess and the vastness of the universe is all but impossible.

This can be alarming. It is, after all, a bit daunting to be confronted by your own insignificance, especially if you're used to the tamed landscapes of Europe - neatly parcelled into hedgerowed fields, punctuated with church steeples and country inns - where it's quite easy to forget that man is not actually creation's master. Here, especially in the country - and that doesn't mean anywhere remote, just somewhere beyond the reach of nextdoor neighbours - you can sit on a verandah watching the last of the sunlight drain from the horizon and all of a sudden you are lost in an awareness of the mightiness of infinite space.

However, while at first this may seem overwhelming, it can, once you get used to it, be a liberating experience too. After you stop believing you're on a stage, where your performance is making any kind of difference, you are free to do anything. Mistakes don't really matter. Perhaps that is why Australians are often so prepared to give anything a go, to try their hand at stuff that they might not be much good at, just to see. Abroad, I think we may often seem rather loud and loose, but that's just because we're not used to confined spaces. We think we can shout and no-one will notice. Our sky's not a limit so much as a benign indifference and that frees us - we know that no-one's looking.

It's a pity I can't take a picture of the night sky here. Provided it's not cloudy, it's absolutely marvellous, splashed with so many brilliant stars. I always miss it after I've been away a week or more. Still, even the skies of day time are wonderful and my camera can manage those at least. Here are a few from the last few days to show you what I mean:


  1. I especially like the first photo

  2. I moved to the Washington area after nine years spent near Denver, which is on the high plains. It seemed to me that this area was always dark and rainy.

    In the high plains, nature tends to favor a grassland: trees grow along watercourses, or where the locals water them. In the Potomac valley, nature tends to favor a climax forest: trees grow anywhere somebody doesn't cut them down. The sparse tree cover of Denver makes for longer twilights and brighter nights. The dense tree cover of Washington makes for early twilight--it can be dusk in the parks or neighborhoods when the sky is still bright--and nights that when only a cat can see much.

    But Washington is built at the fall line, where piedmont meets coastal plain, so one has a good deal of relief here and there, making for some vistas with a good deal of sky.

    1. I suppose big skies are actually a bit of a New World thing in general - I imagine Canada has them too, which slightly shoots down my theory about Australian relaxed adventurousness being due to a sense of insignificance.

    2. Don't give up too soon--the prairie provinces have a lot of space but not a large population. Ontario and Quebec have a lot of forests, as does British Columbia. I've never heard of the Albertans etc. being known for relaxed adventurousness, but then I haven't heard much about them at all.

    3. Hurrah we can continue being louche laidback dare devils and blame it all on our skies after all.