This is a fairly old-school, simple exercise, but it’s one I keep returning to again and again. But as usual, more on that below.
I’ve never seen the skies in other vast states, like, say, Wyoming or Montana, but I’ve seen skies in California, skies in New York, skies in Wisconsin and Florida. And it seems to me that the movies and the novels are right: There is something unique about the skies in Texas. There is an expansiveness up there, a sense that the blue above is wider than the ground below. Of course, Texas is large and diverse enough that the skies vary by region: I remember how close and intimate the heavy sky over southeast Texas felt when I was a kid, so different from the high, flat blue spreading over the wide, flat plateau of the Panhandle when I was in grad school. But my favorite skies here are certainly those over the Hill Country. They seem to dome over the hills, following the contour of the ground they cover. Maybe it’s an illusion, a kind of 3-D effect created when the heavy cumulus clouds float halfway between the earth and the high, wispy cirrostratus clouds above. Certainly, the effect is strongest in the late spring and summer. But then, I remember growing up here, the receding horizon in fall stretching out like a film effect; I remember the iron dome of winter feeling wider than the earth itself. I used to complain that Texas was too big, that any state you couldn’t drive across in one day was a state you couldn’t escape. But I was looking at the roads when I thought it. Looking at the skies in Texas, you realize how small the state is, how small you yourself are. The skies over Texas are the biggest thing in a state that prides itself on big–they are daunting but beautiful; they inspire awe; they silence you. You lie on your back and look up into the clouds and you feel a sense of vertigo, like you’re falling upward, rushing into the infinite blue but the clouds never getting closer. You could lie there forever. And in some sense, you do.
All I’m doing here is straight description, a bit of freewriting focused on sensory descriptions and impressions of the outdoors. I have found in my reading that some of my favorite passages in any literature–fiction, nonfiction, or poetry–describe the natural world. Cormac McCarthy’s descriptions of mountains and storms are astounding, no matter how recycled they sometimes feel. Bill Roorbach’s treatise on snow or his thrilling and beautiful scenes of spring violently exploding through the deep Maine winter steal my breath every time I read them. The stark simplicity yet dense richness of traditional haiku still me, and nothing drives me to try writing poetry more than their clean, religious depictions of the outdoors. So when I want to write and don’t know what to work on, I often turn to descriptions of nature.
It helps, of course, that I’m in Texas right now, visiting family for the summer. Say what you want about this state (and I’ve said plenty), but Texas is a hell of an inspiring place, and there’s always something to write about here.