By Lane Wallace
© 2002 Flying Magazine
First appeared in FLYING Magazine, March, 2002
Watercolors. That’s what it looked like, I finally decided. As if the familiar landscape had been painted in watercolors by a Japanese minimalist which a penchant for dusty blue.
I was flying from Santa Rosa to Sacramento on a gray, overcast December afternoon that ordinarily would not have inspired me to drag the airplane out to go flying. But my friend Kimberly had promised good champagne if I’d fly over for a Christmas party that night, so I had a mission worth completing even if the flight itself wasn’t anything spectacular.
And yet, I was struck by the unusual quality of the light and sky as I headed east over the ridgelines north of the San Francisco bay. The overcast layer was allowing only a thin, watery, bluish light from the late afternoon sun to filter through to the ground, painting the entire landscape in muted shades of blue, green and gray. The visibility was amazingly good underneath the overcast, and without the distraction from the warmer and more typical browns and golds of the California palette, I was suddenly aware of just how much water there was in the area. I could see the entire San Francisco bay, from the Golden Gate to the San Rafael and San Mateo bridges, and I could trace the Sacramento River all the way to Sacramento itself. I’d seen all that water before, of course, but I’d never really noticed how beautiful its form and patterns really were.
This is how we ought to teach children geography, I thought. They’d really get it, up here, if they could see how the landscape all flows and fits together—the ridgelines, the valleys, the lakes, rivers and bays they feed. The problem with that idea, I realized in the next moment, is that days and skies like this are rare in California—even in December.
For my surroundings that day were more reminiscent of an eastern winter sky; a canvas done in the cool, subtle dusk of blue tones, with a clear and contemplative austerity that seemed even a little out of place amidst the California landscape. California, after all, doesn’t really do winter—or austerity, for that matter. This is the land of sunshine, gold, and perpetual summer, where youthful energy and abundance dominate both the cultural and natural landscapes. Winter may bring a little rain, but with three growing seasons and snow that stays conveniently close to the ski resorts, winter in California is really just another, greener, outdoor season that offers the added enticement of white-powder slopes on which to play before returning home to flowers still blooming in the yard.
Not that I’m complaining. There was a reason I moved to California instead of New York when I left the frigid northland of Minne-snowta, and it wasn’t undue loyalty to the Los Angeles Lakers. I figured I’d put in more than my share of hibernation time, known the joys of flying in Sorrel boots and a snowmobile outfit, shoveled the roof, dug out the car, and had more fun than any human being should be allowed to have struggling with airplane engines that quit in the airport traffic pattern because it was just too darn cold for them to run with anything less than cruise power. As far as I was concerned, if I never saw a winter sky again, that would be just fine with me.
It’s an opinion I think a lot of Californians share. The endless summer nature of California is, after all, the appeal that makes millions of people willing to put up with its high cost of living, its truly disgusting commute times and traffic, and a few earthquakes every now and then. And yet, even Californians aren’t alone in our desire for all that sunshine and the exuberance of life in full bloom. For all the criticism the rest of the country sometimes levels at the Golden State, the entire American culture still puts a lot of stock in the beauty of youth and abundance.
Madison Avenue and Hollywood aside, our traditional view of what’s beautiful is almost instinctively linked to scenes and moments of brightness and bounty. Ask any of us to picture the perfect day, and our first images are likely to be of a golden summer morning—with lush green trees, crop-laden fields, sparkling sunlight on the water and puffy white clouds dotting an otherwise brilliant blue sky. A full-court press of life, with a whirl of adventure, intensity, laughter and sparkle—all in vivid colors and volume.
Even if you asked me to picture a perfect winter day, I’d probably recall the day I went ski flying in a friend’s Taylorcraft to a pristine Minnesota lake fresh with snow that sparkled and glistened in the brilliant January sun. We circled over the pine trees surrounding the uninhabited lakebed, touched down on a crystallized runway of unbroken snow, and taxied in to a picture-postcard lodge perched on the shoreline among the evergreens. True, it was more than a little cold, but the scene was still filled with sunshine, exuberance, and breathtaking color and brightness. For even in winter, my ideas of beauty are still tied to images of dazzling scenery and light.
So imagine my surprise at finding myself moved, and hushed, by the quiet serenity of a flight over a blue watercolor landscape of dormant fields and branches beneath an overcast December sky. It was a reminder that, despite our cultural focus on youth and abundance, there’s still a stark and powerful kind of beauty in silence, solitude, and a canvas drawn in fewer colors.
Artists have always known this. They know that the essence of anything—the pattern of a river flowing to the sea, the curve of a single rose petal, or the song of our innermost soul—can easily be buried in too much color or sound. Pablo Picasso could convey the essential form and sensuality of a woman with two simple lines. And the striking beauty of a single flower’s form—for which Georgia O’Keeffe is so well known—would have been lost had she decided to paint the entire garden, instead.
By the same token, the best work of many artists and writers has come out of time spent in sparse surroundings, without the distraction of parties, color and noise. It was in the silence of the North African desert that Antoine de St. Exupery found his Little Prince, and under the blackness of those vast, open skies that he was able to search for and find some understanding of the motivations that rule and move men’s souls.
And yet, it seems that many of us try awfully hard to avoid those quiet and uncluttered life spaces that allow us, or perhaps force us, to see what really lies beneath all the movement and sound. We shy away from the solitary landscape of our souls as much as we do the stark and dormant landscapes of winter.
But while I would be the last person to sign up for a life of austere surroundings, I have come to recognize the value of stripping away some of the color and noise long enough to see, hear, or understand some of the secrets that lie within myself, the world, and this thing called life. For until and unless we can find, see and appreciate the essence of anything—the structure that forms the backbone of a building, the patterns of a geologic form or landscape, or the desires, fears, and values that matter most at the core of ourselves—we can’t build anything of value upon it.
This is not to say that I’ve suddenly become a loyal fan of winter or am planning a move back to the north country. I suspect I’ll always remain a dedicated summer person with a love of wild roses, lush green landscapes, and warm, sultry breezes. But I’m slowly learning to appreciate the gifts and value of all the seasons of my life. If summer is the season of joy, then perhaps winter is the season of understanding. And each has its place.
If I couldn’t dance and run barefoot down a summer beach, I think life would lose a great deal of its appeal for me. But on the way to Sacramento, I remembered again that there is also breathtaking beauty that can only be found in the pale sunset of a muted winter sky, in the bloom of a single flower in a barren desert or snow-covered field … or in moments and places where we quiet ourselves long enough to hear the soft, uncluttered voice of our heart and soul, or the song of the earth and sky.