Every morning I look out my bedroom window, like some daily spiritual ablution, hoping to see blue skies. As the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The sky is the daily bread of the eyes.” Composer Irving Berlin expressed this natural affinity in his lyric, “Blue skies, smiling at me.” Perhaps that’s why I’ve find it ominous this summer to see smoky skies, frowning at me.
Wildfires burning in Nova Scotia and Canada have periodically spread a shroud of smoke across the Midwest and the Northeast, adding another toxic ingredient to a witches’ brew of industrial pollution, auto emissions, and greenhouse gases that have raised temperatures and spawned “natural” disasters across the world.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped us from sticking our collective head in the proverbial sand. Deadly heat waves, prolonged droughts, torrential rainfalls, floods, and frequent tornadoes haven’t made an impression serious enough to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
Even the economic costs of man-fueled climate change haven’t grabbed our capitalist nation by the lapels and shaken the sand from its ears; we continue to deflect our collective responsibility. We blame electric companies for electric bills rising with the record-breaking mercury; or the government for inflating gas prices that pay for even more pollution; or insurance companies both for the rising health costs of breathing toxic air and rising premiums in the wake of storm damaged infrastructure and homes. And then we rebuild on the same vulnerable ground. While Einstein defines such behavior as insanity; we call it business as usual.
It seems mankind has collectively rationalized this existential threat with the euphemism: “the new normal.” As long as these disasters haven’t yet threatened some of us, we deny the danger to all of us. But with blue skies shrouded in wildfire smoke, the climate-change cloud under which we’ve been living for decades has become undeniably literal.
And now it’s been predicted that the Canadian wildfires will burn through the rest of the summer. In other words, as Bob Dylan said, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” With the spreading smoke of wildfires, the climate-change cloud under which we’ve long been living is becoming undeniably literal. We have become canaries in an atmospheric coal mine. So, not only does the smoke interfere with photosynthesis, vital for agriculture upon which we all depend for food, but it also snakes down our throats and into our lungs, choking the literal life out of us. It darkens our horizon and intimates a looming wasteland for both present and future generations.
Perhaps then this smoky atmosphere may finally grab our collective attention, not so much for the physical health hazards that we thus far have ignored but for the existential shadow it casts on our soul. According to the National Library of Medicine, blue skies may “significantly relieve feelings of anxiety and depression.” A Michigan State University study similarly found blue spaces, like clear blue skies, have been linked to better mental health. Perhaps, just as the human eye is physically sensitive to the color blue, our psychic eye is also attuned to this spiritual hue.
And when pollution and wildfires rain cinders into our aesthetic eye, our desire for beauty starves. Blue skies paint more brightly the red of roses, the green of grasses, and the yellow of tulips, buttercups, and daffodils. If smoky skies become the new normal, it won’t be surprising that our horizons, both literal and psychological, may turn an angry orange. In other words, muted sunlight will not only leach brightness from Nature’s color spectrum but also hope and joy from our emotional one.
So, while we may have long minimized and rationalized the physical threat that man-made climate change has wrought, perhaps losing sight of our blue heavens will wake us to an equally serious spiritual threat. It may explain why California, which has lived under perennial wildfire smoke, has become an environmental leader in regulating fossil fuels.
As I’ve said, every morning my eyes turn naturally to blue skies, like morning flowers to the sun. And while the flowers seek physical nourishment, my soul seeks the sublime, “or,” with apologies to the poet Robert Browning, “what’s a heaven for?” May we wake today to see it always.