I sit by a window, 30,000 feet above my home, nose pressed to the double-pane glass like a first-time flyer. I have flown dozens of times, but I never tire of the view. The perspective afforded at this height is unmatched, even from the tallest mountains. Photographs and video can never reproduce the scale and depth of the actual view. Watching the world unfold in real-time far below, I feel a connection with all I see, a connection that can never be captured on film or flashdrive. Only the view of our world from space could top this. And yes, I intend to experience that someday, too.
I am always struck by how pitifully small we are. We break and bend the land to our purposes, but from above the clouds, all our efforts are dwarfed by the impossible scale of nature’s handiwork. Water dominates the landscape here. The tiny human structures appear to cling desperately to the shreds of dry land, like ants drowning in a puddle. How vulnerable. How fragile. How precious.
Water dominates the sky, as well. The cumulus clouds of the lower atmosphere boast such intricate structures, flaunting their complexity as if they are trying to outdo one another. Each a unique work of art, their pride is evident as they carry themselves regally across the sky. I can see thousands of these magnificent creations from my window, each discreet yet all connected.
“How do they retain their shape?” I wonder. While it’s true that the shape of each cloud is in constant flux, they each give an illusion of solidity, of cohesion. How do they retain their delicate edges, which, in reality, are in no way distinct from the surrounding atmosphere? From above, the clouds can be seen in their true, three-dimensional forms, shedding the limitations of a ground-based perspective. Casting shadows that extend for miles across the land below, how can one below the cloud conceive of that which is above? How can they discern the true and full nature of the majestic cloud as it floats languidly overhead?
We are flying between stratified layers, yet another aspect of the cloudscape which is entirely lost on the earthbound observer. We are told in grade school that some clouds form at higher altitudes than others, but the fact is abstract until witnessed firsthand. From the ground, all clouds are simply “up”, and the distance between layers is impossible to discern. From my window, however, the gulf separating the strata is like an ocean separating continents. Far below, the fluffy cumulus clouds march on in their endless parade, while above, the wispy cirrus clouds have no time to spend on making themselves beautiful. Cold and aloof, they scurry away with the wind, as if seeking some faraway spot for a secret rendezvous.
We are not so very different from these graceful constructs, our atoms held briefly coherent in the vast stream of time and space. The water molecules that form the clouds will eventually dissipate, evaporating back into the surrounding atmosphere, or falling to earth as precipitation, to nourish the inhabitants of the land, plant and animal alike. But not one of those molecules will ever truly be lost – they will continue their cycle between earth and sky. And perhaps one day, a new cloud will form which contains some of those same molecules.
Our own bodies are also predominantly water. And like the clouds, the molecules that compose us will one day dissipate. Our atoms will nourish the soil from which we came, will be absorbed into the biosphere, and may eventually emerge within the confines of another body. Why do we weep for death, then? While our form may change, the “stuff” of our life on this Earth is immortal.
Indeed, we are all immortal.