Quick. Cover your eyes. Without peeking, can you describe what the sky looks like right now? If you can describe the sky accurately, you are in the minority. Surveys suggest that, when asked, only a small percentage of Americans know what the sky looks like at a given time, even though many believe they do.
A new organization, called For Spacious skies, is dedicated to raising the "sky consciousness" of Americans. It initiators point out that, although there are groups dedicated to clean air, height restrictions on buildings, better air-traffic patterns, and other matters that affect people's perception of the sky, no organization hitherto has devoted itself to the preservation of all that the word sky has meant to humankind through the ages.
As a kickoff event, the fledgling group held a three-day conference, here on the rim of the Grand Canyon last weekened. In attendance were a disparate group of artists, astronomers, foresters, environmentalists, writers, and industry representatives -- each with an abiding interest in the sky.
The original impetus behind For Spacious Skies came from Jack Borden, a former news reporter for WBZ-TV in Boston. While interviewing people on the street in Boston in 1977, he discovered that only one person in 10 could describe the sky overhead when a hand was placed over his or her eyes.
Not only did this surprise those being interviewed, but it cause Mr. Borden to begin pondering the importance of the sky and what such a widespread lack of awareness means to our culture.
A letter he received following his broadcast moved Borden deeply, he says, and helps explains the basic motivation of this group of sky lovers: "Your [TV] piece was able to cut through the unconciousness of individuals. It did not just get them in touch with the sky. It got them in touch with their entire pattern of perception and in so doing, enabled them to recognize and, perhaps, transform the way in which they relate to their environment. . . . This is the first step to truly living life rather than believing in it."
In pursuing this vision, Borden made contact with Jerry Wishnow, the public relations expert and organizer who created the Hot Car anti-car theft project, and hooked him on the idea.
Messrs. Borden and Wishnow acknowledge that they have had some trouble convincing people they are serious -- that For Spacious Skies is for real.
"When I first heard the idea, I was quite skeptical," admitted prominent environmentalist David Brower. But Mr. Brower, at least, attended the conference and was converted. During lunch, he spontaneously proposed establishing a National Park of the Air.
Noted landscape photographer Ansel Adams was easier to convince. He has agreed to serve as a member of the board and has donated one of his photographs to the cause. In his letter of acceptance, he wrote: "Our sky above each human, is our window on our universe, our passageway through dream and vehicle to the stars."
Another artist who has swelled the ranks of the sky lovers is environmental musician Paul Winter. The Paul Winter Consort first achieved national notoriety with an album called Common Ground which incorporates the songs of the gray whale, wolf, and eagle. Mr. Winter expressed interest in doing an album entitled "For Spacious Skies." (The phrase is in the first line of "America the Beautiful," a poem by Katherine Lee Bates which, set to the music of Samuel A. Ward, is second only to "The Star Spangled Banner" as a US anthem.)
Among the poets and artist -- as well as ordinary folk -- inspired by contemplating the sky is the noted American painter Eric Sloane who says, "My interest in painting clouds goes back many years. When I was 16 I ran away from home to Taos [New Mexico]. The clouds there were beautiful and I got to know some Indians, a people who are closer to the sky than anybody I know."
Almost all prehistoric people were closely attuned to the sky. Astronomers and archaeologists have found thousands of sites all over the world where our ancestors built observatories similar to Stonehenge in order to keep track of celestial events and used them to order their lives.
Since the Industrial Revolution, however, people have lost much of their sense of connectedness to the sky. "Today the sky is less of a subject and more of an object; an object to be penetrated by tall buildings, traversed by rapid transit, inhabited by satellite communication systems," observes Jaime Horowitz, an environmental psychologist and painter at the New Jersey Institute of Techonology.
The sky affects people in subtle ways, believes Dr. Ervin Zube, professor of environmental design at the University of Arizona, though he admits there is no conclusive scientific proof of this.
Besides wanting to increase people's "sky awareness," members of the new organization are concerned about the effects of air and light pollution which, in the words of Ansel Adams, are changing our air "from a crystalline vision to a distorting lens."
This year the Clean Air Act is up for renewal. Environmentalists and industry lobbyists are preparing for an intense political struggle. Yet the sentiment among the majority of those at the conference was that For Spacious Skies should not become simply another environmental advocacy group, but more a source of information and inspiration about the sky.
Inspired, perhaps, by the overarching nature of the sky itself, Leonard Duhl, professor of public health at the University of California, Berkeley, observed that there is already too much discussion of crises -- that what is needed is an "underpinning", a context in which these issues should be viewed, an ecollogy of cost."
He and others at the meeting here said they believe environemntal, energy, and economic issues are all fragments of a bigger picture and cannot be solved in isolation. They hope that, by focusing on the sky, on the goals common to everyone, it might be possible to help resolve the interrelated problems humans face.
The group talks of underwriting a book on the beauties and virtues of the sky , perhaps producing a program for the Public Broadcasting Service, and developing a school curriculum for sky awareness. "As long as you remember that resources are finite, I think you might play a positive role," George Patton of the American Petroleum Institute acknowledged.
More skeptical was a noted environmental activist present who preferred not to be named. "I'm afraid that their attempts to remain neutral will compromise their effectiveness," he observed.
Borden and Wishnow realize that they are fighting an uphill battle. Yet they are dedicated to the vision of bringing greater "sky awareness" to a nation of nonperceivers.
"I see five possible benefits from this," says Borden. He believes that sky awareness heightens a person's sensitivity and care for the environment, strengthens the aesthetic sense, increases a sense of well-being, motivates people to learn more, and gives a person a more spiritual feeling about life.