Thursday, October 1, 2009

What a wonderful world

I am lying on my back on the cool granite of the Yosemite high country. Olmsted Point. I’m bundled up—long underwear, heavy windproof pants, a couple layers of fleece, my light blue down sweater, a woolly hat—but rather than the 20-degree temperatures I’d feared, it’s balmy, in the 40s. Still, it’s comforting to feel snug as I gaze up at the huge indigo sky pierced by stars and that moon floating high overhead, bathing this land of rock and trees in its light. Occasionally cars rumble down the Tioga Pass Road, or up it, their headlights scraping over me, the boulders, the large pine tree I’m photographing—adding a few photons to the light painting I’ve already done up close, giving more color and definition to the tree’s plated trunk, the feathery needles. My shutter is open for fifteen minutes, so I have nothing to do but this: lie on my back, my arms crooked under my head, and gaze at the firmament.

A satellite zips along—a tiny speck of light traveling deliberately, at a steady pace, girdling the earth, this planet, over and over, around and around, allowing us to communicate, to observe, providing us with data that could change our lives. And then there are the airplanes, which blink-blink-blink, red and white, across the sky, San Francisco bound. I imagine the people in their seats, reading or tapping at their laptops or simply sitting, eyes closed, listening through earbuds to Neko Case or Janacek or the Bird—no more the days of being beholden to “Jazz Favorites” and “Classical Interlude.” The flight attendant will be announcing just about now that the captain has started the descent into San Francisco, to please pass cups and trash, and the passengers will begin to rustle with anticipation. All those people, all those stories: perhaps coming home after brokering a tough business deal in London; arriving for the funeral of a black-sheep uncle, the wedding of a favorite niece; starting a well-deserved vacation, having traveled all the way from Helsinki or Tel Aviv.

Me, I’m lying on my back under the stars and a song is running through my head, the medley of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” sung so sweetly by Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole ( I was listening to it this afternoon as I was driving—creeping—along the narrow, winding Tioga Pass Road in a long line of cars, stop and go, the dense clutch of forest obscuring our view of anything but the bumper in front of us. We’d already spent half an hour stopped, engines off, and I’d settled into the wait reading Brad Kessler’s Goat Song and listening to my iPod on low. Two ambulances charged past while we sat there, ten, fifteen minutes apart, no sirens, lights flashing, headed west, out of the park. Or perhaps they were bound for a helipad. Now, as we inched around a bend and the road curved upward, Israel started his song: Somewhere over the rainbow, and the dreams that you dreamed of once in a lullaby . . . I saw more flashing lights and orange vests up ahead, arms waving. Iz now moved beyond the rainbow: I see trees of green and red roses too. I watch them bloom for me and you, and I think to myself, what a wonderful world. A white Toyota Corolla had plunged off the road, into a tree, hood smashed; its windshield was a field of stars, jagged bursts of light. We all looked. How could we not. Well, I see skies of blue and I see clouds of white. No blood, thank God. The man with his SLOW sign, the ranger in her cruiser, a few travelers standing by a car, its back hatch open, seemed loose, the emergency past. The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky, I see friends shaking hands saying, How do you do; they’re really saying I, I love you.

Two people, their day gone very wrong. And hundreds of others caught up, tangentially, momentarily, anonymously, hopefully, in that pair's lives. There but for the grace of God . . . I’m bathed in the moon’s radiance, feeling large and small at once: tiny compared to the stars and the planes and the effort it takes to throw a satellite into the sky, but also of a piece with this chunk of rock and the huge batholith that it is merely the surface of, and of this park called Yosemite, and of the lives of the people up there in the sky checking the seat pocket and down here in their campgrounds sitting around a fire. I wonder what happened to the people in the car—how they veered off the road, whether the airbags deployed, where they are now, whether they’ll be okay. How quickly our lives can change. I’m feeling the wild energy of so many destinies, from stars to human beings, seeping into my body from the burning core of the earth and from the icy black of the universe. I’m thinking of the people I love.

And my camera goes click. And briefly illuminated on the LCD screen is a tree of green, and the trails of stars coursing evenly through an indigo sky: time, life, the immensity of it all, this wonderful world, frozen in a glowing instant.

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