Any small warmth I enjoyed while the sun teetered atop its lazy winter zenith tumbles now with its maker towards the southwest horizon. The bright one leaves center stage, the temperature drops, and I become more aware of the blue curtain of air separating me from outer space. Richmond’s sky is never more blue than it is on these clear, cold January days.
As it is with everything else on earth, the character of the sky changes with the seasons. The higher leap of the summer sun spawns heat and humidity, and the curtain of gas between us and interstellar darkness is bleached and hazed by a more direct radiation of white light. Not so today. The shallow, soft glance of this winter sun inspires our sky into its deepest and most perfect performance of “The Color Blue.” Primal and primary blue. The one for which we rummaged through crayon boxes in our earliest attempts to color the sky on paper, or to put the proper curtain behind our trees and stick figures
I might have ignored the quality of the performance today had I not gone out for a jog alongside its mirror image. The James River displays at least as many moods and expressions as you or me, but the gentle gaze of the winter sun tends to call it into a mostly reflective mood. The James becomes a flowing river of sky. During my morning jog the cobalt luster of sky below directed my appreciation to the crystal blue of sky above.
Running along Riverside Drive and through Pony Pasture Park, I am also cheered along by a dense throng of long time friends. Loblolly Pine, Tulip Poplar, Sweetgum. The Oaks. The Maples. Sycamore and River Birch. Eastern Red Cedar (my best tree friend). Along road or trail the figures of the natives are silhouetted handsomely by that blue curtain of winter sky. Its good to be among them again, even after a week-long excursion to the earthly perfection of a tropical Disneyland resort a couple latitude lines south of here in Florida. It was quite beautiful there. Extraordinarily thick and green to an altitude of 10 or 15 feet. In Florida, where Wind and Sun are A-list earth actors and trees dig their toes into loose, sandy soil, higher growths can be punished for their reach. The most common silhouettes waving around above 30 or 40 feet are those of slash pine, live oak, or that signature silhouette of the tropics – the exotice palm.
Yes, a quite beautiful landscape, but one with which I enjoy only a leisurely, fleeting relationship. It forms the picturesque backdrop for some of my excursions, but I know little of its ecology. I don’t understand what the plants and animals do for each other, or the associations they have formed. I don’t understand their strategies for survival, or the way they mate pollen to flower for reproduction. I don’t clean up their droppings from ground and gutter. I don’t use them for heat and shelter. Their motions, their shade, and even their sounds are foreign to me. I don’t even know how to climb some of them! In short, though the evergreens of Florida are quite beautiful trees, they just don’t happen to be the trees I know. My friends. Those tropical trees don’t cheer me along in the same way my friends do.
I found myself looking for my friends during the drive home. Yes, we drive. If you want to draw out the strangeness of the last day of a big winter vacation to Florida you get in your car just west of Orlando and point it north along Interstate 95 as the sun rises over your right shoulder. You hold pace with downward pressure from your right foot in an attempt to drive your way out of a warm season and into a cold one all in the same calendar day. Strange times, indeed, and I wouldn’t trade those 11 hours of my life for anything. The drive forces a type of meditation one can never achieve on a plane, or even as a passenger at all. As driver you must stay awake. You must stay aware. And you must give at least reasonable attention to your thoughts, your reflections, and your apprehensions.
In this situation a simple clock or digital display of numbers is no safe way to measure progress home. Whether your attention is on the moving hands or the changing numbers, during a long haul on I-95 you will find these indicators accelerating and decelerating in unrealistic, dreamlike fashion. When you combine this edge of reality with the steady drone of 2012 Japanese driving technology, you can easily develop a longing that becomes a deadly admiration for the backside of your eyelids.
I think of other, more interesting ways to measure progress north. I read the changing message of the billboards. I note the temperature of air outside my window. I follow the shadows on the dashboard like a sundial. I note the decrease in bug splatter on the windshield. Any of these is more interesting and less hypnotic than watching numbers change.
But yesterday after calibrating these observational timepieces, I remembered my friends. Already we were in Georgia and I had barely seen any of them. Gathered along I-95 were still only the skinny and weak looking slash pines, and the thick profusion of pointy green growth in the understory. We skimmed the surface of swamps much of the way through southern Georgia watched by a strange throng of natives, but closer to South Carolina I found my first close friend in the crowd. The familiar Sweetgum, immediately recognizable in winter by its spiked, hanging ornaments. Slightly farther north and into South Carolina the understory growth was still unfamiliar, but the Sweetgums had been joined by another ornament-hanging Virginia native, the pasty-skinned Tulip Poplar, whose delicate bracts hang on its bows in winter like wooden flowers.
On the billboards for a couple hundred miles a sombrero-wearing cartoon character named Pepe encouraged me north to a place called “South of the Border,” and as we crossed into North Carolina I began to see oak trees near the farmhouses, and River Birch and Sycamore in wet areas or river basins. Deep into the drive now, with fatigue setting in, I was boosted by my first sighting of Juniperas virginiana, or Eastern Red Cedar. This one had wandered all the way down to the middle of North Carolina to cheer me home. The more stout Loblolly Pine gradually took the place of its skinnier southern relative, and American Holly trees began to gather with cedar in the understory. Sunlight had dialed all the way from right to left on the dashboard as we plunged into Virginia, where almost every fence line and median was crowded with Red Cedar. Taller Virginia natives, naked of leaves and blushed pink by the setting sun, urged me into the heart of their realm. White Oak, Red Maple, Hackberry, Wild Cherry, Elm. Beneath them the understory was now full of the smaller species I walk with in the Virginia woods. Redbud and Dogwood had joined Holly, Cedar, and young, brown-leafed Beech.
A full dashboard sundial and 32 thermometer degrees away from my starting point under a Florida sunrise, I knew now I was back in my own forest. Though darkness fell while the tires of the CRV still turned, I didn’t really need a measure of progress any more. Cheered along by friends, I knew I was almost home.