I Have Seen the Tops of Clouds


I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes. I peer around my room scared and stressed, like all the things I can contain during the day break loose in dreams I can’t remember, the echoes of all these forgotten nightmares roaming around my body. Sometimes I want to cry, or curl up, or scream. I stare into the corners of my room. I try to fall back to sleep, even though I don’t want to go back to whatever sent me here.

My daughter, about whom I wrote the first incarnation of this essay, tells me I’m depressing. I do see her point. I write about depressing things. I try to face the worst things about humanity and our situation. I started with how the oceans are dying, but since then I’ve moved on to genocide, imprisonment, the history of labor exploitation, computer security and mass surveillance, racism, and global ecological collapse. I’m fun at parties.

I was talking to a friend who was feeling down about human-caused global climate change. “It may be,” I told a friend in London as we walked across Tower Bridge, “that our ticket was punched before we ever got started.” While there is no doubt we’re cutting our time on earth shorter through carbon emissions and the destruction of the ecology, it might be that our species was never going to make it past the end of the womb of our ice-age birth. I explained this, about how fragile an organism we are, and how the ice ages cycle. She laughed, she was used to my strange form of hope.

“You have to choose to have hope, or just jump out of a window,” a person I was interviewing once told me, a person who’d been accused of techno-utopianism. We were walking along the California coast hills at sunset, talking about all the ways our technological lives could go wrong, and the many ways it is going wrong. He wasn’t utopian, it turned out, he’d thought of the worst long before his detractors had. He’d decided to try to head it off, instead of jumping out of a window.

We are diseased and angry and we kill each other and ourselves and all the world. We are killing off life on Earth like a slow moving asteroid. I try to look at this, and my own part in it. Sometimes it is overwhelming. I feel so powerless trying to comprehend all the terrible things we face, much less get past them into our future, with our humanity and our inconceivably beautiful little blue-green planet preserved.

I flew over my home this year, wild and warm and verdant all my life, and saw it dead and dry below me. And there I was in a plane, participating in its death. I think of all the beautiful things my little girl will never see, because we destroyed them before she got here. I think as well of Tolstoy’s admonition that if we cannot give up the ills of our lives then we should declare them, face them, put them on our flags. We can tell the world about the edge of our strength, ability, and virtue. We can share the failure honestly. This is good, and this helps, but it doesn’t bring back the vanished creatures and dying earth, and it doesn’t stop the relentless human cruelty.

There are the nights full of invective and hate and days I can only see the flaws in our world, and feel my own flaw from within. And there is so much fear, as I turn my daughter out into a sick, denuded, and dying world. The land will drown. The seas could turn acid and burn us from above while starving us from within. At any moment we could still be consumed by a nuclear fire, an accidental holdover from the Cold War we’ve failed to wrap up, like a binge drinker or a gambling addict who gets sober, but can’t face the past, and lets it fester.

All these grown-up monsters for my grown-up mind, they are there in the nights I wake up terrified and taunted by death. When I feel so small and broken, when despair and terror take me, I have a secret tool, a talisman against the night. I don’t use it too often so that it doesn’t lose its power. I learned it on airplanes, which are strange and thrilling and full of fear and boredom and discomfort. When I am very frightened, I look out the window on airplanes and say very quietly:

I have seen the tops of clouds

And I have. In all the history of humanity, I am one of the few that has seen the tops of clouds. Many would have died to do so, and some did. I have seen them many times. I have seen the Earth from space, and spun it around like a god to see what’s on the other side. We are the only consciousness we’ve ever found that has looked deep into the infinite dark, and instead of dark, we saw galaxies. Galaxies! Suns and worlds beyond number. We have looked into our world and found atoms, atomic forces, systems that dance to the glorious music of the universe. We have seen actual wonders that verge on the ineffable. We have coined a word for the ineffable. We have coined thousands of words for the ineffable. In our pain we find a kind of magic, in our worst and meanest specimens we find the flesh of a common human story. We are red with it.

I know mysteries that great philosophers would have died for, just to have them whispered in their dying ears. I can look them up on my smartphone. I live in the middle of miracles, conceptions and magics easily worth many lifetimes to learn, from which I can pick and choose. I have wisdom and knowledge poured around me like a river, more than I could learn in a thousand lifetimes, and I am still alive. It is good that I am alive, it is good that we are alive. Even if we kill ourselves off with nuclear fire, or gray goo, or drown ourselves in stinking acid oceans, it is good that we have lived, that we did all of this, and that we grew into what we are, and learned to dream of what we could be. The only thing we can say for sure is that we will die, but we will die having gone so far above our primordial ponds and primate forests that we saw the tops of clouds.

It is good that in the body of this weak and tender African animal a piece of the universe has gazed upon itself, this tiny appendage of existence looked on everything its eyes and tools could drink in and experienced the most pure of wonder, the most terrible of awe. It is worth it, all of it, to even for a moment be the universe gazing upon itself. We reached so far above our biological fate that we spoke love to life, all life, and to its dark universal womb.

That takes away the fear for me. Not all of it, but enough so that I can give my sleeping daughter a cuddle, and fall asleep, to dream dreams of what we’ll do next, how we’ll live this hope.

In New Zealand this year my daughter and I walked along in the forest, crowded with ferns that seems right out of the Jurassic. We talked about the Haast’s Eagle, a monstrous and beautiful raptor with a three meter wingspan that lived with us briefly on New Zealand’s south island, until we hunted its prey to extinction, and it followed after. She talked of bringing it back. I suggested that perhaps we shouldn’t start out by bringing back a bird that could eat her, but she was adamant. She wanted to see that glorious thing back in our skies. I acquiesced.

I can get past the horrible things we face. I can acknowledge the boring and unpleasant truths along the way. I can take up Tolstoy’s charge, and dream of a healing world where my daughter and her daughters will see wonders restored that I cannot conceive.

We have seen the tops of clouds.