IN the middle of playing Scrabble a few months ago, I used the word skyline and realized the word meant nothing. It was bogus. As a result, I nearly lost my hold on reality.
Stay with me on this: There is no such thing as a skyline. There is no place, location, region, or dimension where something called the sky meets, abuts, or runs next to something called a line.
What we describe as the skyline of a city is the equivalent of describing railroad tracks coming together in the distance. They don't. A skyline isn't.
City skyscrapers do not form a line in something called the sky, and they do not scrape anything. In fact, there is no such thing as a sky. Or to put it another very annoying way, there are so few facts around, and a sky is not one of them. What there is, scientifically speaking, is an atmosphere around the earth. Beyond that there is a whole lot of infinity.
What happens is that we lazy Homo sapiens witness a difficult but beautiful phenomenon and attempt to utter something appropriate with the words at our disposal. Skyline. We might as well utter zxtxtybvx for all the help skyline gives us in actually understanding what takes place in us as we regard what appears to be out there but isn't.
Skyline means we have barely seen what we do not understand. Then from this nonsense, our language devises an inaccurate ``label'' formed from two things that do not exist. Skyline. Is this not bogus?
Perhaps the greatest bogus fact of all time is the egregious way we have been conditioned to view the earth. Right now, picture the earth in your mind's eye: Swivel it until you can see North America and South America. Canada on top, then the United States, then little Central America, and on the bottom, the vast continent of South America.
Wrong. Viewed from outer space, there is no top or bottom to the ball of earth. Florida is not below the Carolinas. Tierra del Fuego is not at the far end of South America. California is not to the left, nor is Bermuda a speck to the right.
View the earth from Canada looking ``down'' across the United States to Mexico, and here is a new view of earth.
The problem is the legacy of cartographers who have falsely established ``up and down'' when there is no ``up and down'' geographically or epistemologically speaking. There is only ``that way,'' which is one of the great facts of all time: that we are able to point and say, ``go that way.''
THE second greatest bogus fact of all time is located in the middle of almost nowhere, a geographic marker in Marathon County, Wisc. Here is a virtually unknown, pointless celebration of an honored but totally imaginary concept. The marker is the exact point where the 90th meridian of longitude bisects the 45th parallel of latitude. The marker is therefore halfway between the North Pole and the equator.
As the excitement builds here, I argue that river sediment is more interesting.
I know a man who collects doorknobs. ``They are my life,'' he whispers, turning knobs slowly. Perhaps there are those (other than sailors and cartographers) who look upon meridians and latitudes with the same hushed passion as the doorknob man. But if we want to get past bogus facts, way past bogus facts, do we turn to the framework of meridians and latitudes for help? What on earth do they mean alongside the power of one tiny sliver of grass inexplicably parting the heavy asphalt of a parking lot to reach light?
In summary: If there is no ``skyline,'' if there is no real ``up and down'' on a globe, if ``meridians and latitudes'' are honored but nonexistent, what is out there that is a solid, irrefutable fact?
Without question the answer is hail. No wispy meridians here; no mistaking the up and down of hail. Here is one of the great facts of all time.
Hail is frozen atmospheric moisture. A piece of hail is the popcorn of the atmosphere. As small ice particles form in cumulonimbus clouds, the particles move up and down on strong wind currents. Each round trip adds a layer of ice. Sometimes the updrafts are so strong the hail is tossed out the top like popcorn, or, as the updrafts weaken, hail is dumped out the bottom. All facts.
In 1970, near Coffeyville, Kan., a piece of hail weighing nearly two pounds put a fairly good dent in the earth when it struck.
Beyond hail, maybe the great fact of all time is the smell of approaching rain. The rain, in fact, does not smell; the falling atmospheric pressure and rising humidity trigger releases of scents from gas bubbles within the vegetation and moist soil. As the air pressure lowers, the bubbles burst and fill the air with multiple scents.
And when the rain comes, scent meets the amplification of rainwater. The result is a musty, ebullient, natural perfume of time, place, and invigoration, maybe the greatest fact of all time.