The Sky is Blue

It was one of those bright sunny days that makes the whole world seem right.  Hardly a cloud in the bright blue sky, a cool northwest breeze that refreshes you with every breath you take, and day time temperatures that are hovering right around a very comfortable sixty-five degrees.

On this day I was digging away at a stump in a field that we had created from a woodlot about five years before.  Many of the hardwood stumps had been torn out by pigs we had raised in this pasture.  This one stump, the remnants of a hemlock that had been just outside the fence line where the hogs couldn’t get to it, was the last stump in the cleared area and I was determined to have the remains removed within the morning.  The stump was only partly decayed, a surprise to me given the time that had passed.  With a pick-axe and a shovel I worked around the outside of the old root crown removing dirt and hacking away at the old root system.

Liam, my youngest son, and about five years old at the time was nearby batting a ball around.  He had a hardwood stick and he was hitting the ball as if he were playing field hockey.  Liam was always playing with a ball of one sort or another.  Even as a baby he used to hold a ball in his hand, throw it across the living room floor, and scoot on his butt to where the ball had landed only to pick it up and throw it again.  On this day he was enamored with clubbing the small rust colored rubber ball from one edge of the steeply sloped field to a wet area at the bottom of the hill where he would turn around and club it back up the slope through the tall grass and goldenrod.  The game seemed to have no particular logic other than an exercise in hand eye coordination and, of course, he was not consciously aware of this aspect of the game.  It was just fun for Liam; nothing more and nothing less.

As I struggled away at the task at hand I was glad to have him nearby.  His antics, like the scrunched up faces he would make as he was about to club the ball were hilarious.  It was hard to contain my laughter and I was afraid that an outburst of hilarity would make him self conscious.   After a while Liam came over to where I was digging and chopping at the stump and stood by the small crater I was creating.  He stared into the hole but did not comment.  He seemed to be amused by my hard work.

“Sure is a nice day”, he blurted out.

“Yep, sure is a good one”, I grunted as I threw the pick axe into the ground.

Liam looked up at the heavens.

“And the sky is so blue!  Dad why is the sky blue?” Liam asked with a big smile that spread across his whole face.

“Well, that’s a little complicated.” I said with a slight panic overcoming me hoping I could remember just why the sky was blue.

“What’s complicated?” Liam asked.

“That means it is hard to explain.  Let’s see.  You know how when the sun shines through the trees in the woods you can see a white light on the ground?”

“Yep,” said Liam pointing to the edge of woods, “like that bright light over there!”

“That’s right,” I replied, “What isn’t so clear is that white light is made up of several different colors.”

Liam looked at me suspiciously.

“I know it’s hard to imagine, but sunshine is made up of six colors; red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet.  All those colors together make white light! “ I stated starting to realize this was quite possibly beyond his imagination.

Liam, undaunted, said, “Yeah, Mrs. Markert told us that in kindergarten. Those are the colors of the rainbow.”

“Really”, I responded in astonishment, “so you know about sun light and colors.  Well, when sunlight comes through outer space to earth it has to go through our atmosphere, you know, the air we breathe.”

Liam nodded his head up and down slowly as if to indicate a yes, but an uncommitted yes.

“Well, when the light goes into the air some of the light waves pass right through and others bounce around.  It’s the blue waves that bounce around, and that’s why we see the sky as blue.” I stated, glad to have come up with some semblance of scientific fact.

Liam looked up at the sky.

“It sure is blue today”, saying it in such a manner that I was not sure at all if he heard or understood a word I said.

He wandered off, stick in had, and started batting the rubber ball across the field again.  As he wandered away it occurred to me that I had to get him involved with an organized T-ball group where he could put these skills to good work.

At the time I wasn’t at all happy with the answer I had given him to his question “Why is the sky so blue”.  I remember thinking about this while I hacked away at the roots of the hemlock stump with the pick axe.  What was I thinking?  Why did I feel compelled to give him a somewhat scientific explanation.  At age five he could not possible comprehend what I was trying to say.  And then I started to think about what it was that I could have told him.  I could have told him that blue was one of the most wonderful colors.  The color blue means freedom to many people.  It can represent a fresh start or a new beginning.  Blue is associated with loyalty, faith, and the truth.

Blue is the color of the oceans, rivers, rain, countless flowers and the sky.  It gives humans a feeling of inner peace and tranquility.  Blue means wide open spaces, like the big sky in Montana, and the vast oceans that give life to our planet.  It is a universal color loved by many.  This color can be uplifting and represent sadness at the same time.  Blue is big.  Blue is the color of unbound beauty and hope.  Blue is beautiful.

I wasn’t completely forthcoming with my scientific explanation either.  Perhaps one of the greatest failings of the human mind is that we assume the world is as we perceive it.  This is, no doubt, an easy and completely forgivable mistake.  We primarily rely on our five senses to experience life.  It is only natural to accept our human observations as a reality for all that inhabit Earth.

The fact is that both blue and violet light are scattered when the pass into the earth’s atmosphere.  Our eyes have but three sets of cones and this makes them relatively insensitive to violet light. The structure of the human eye favors blue and so that is what we see.  On the other hand, birds for example, have four sets of cones with which to interpret light.  This gives their eyes the ability and sensitivity to see violet.  Perhaps they see the sky as blue and violet, or perhaps just the color violet.  Imagine a violet sky.  It’s there, we just can’t see it with our visual receptors; kind of shakes our entire perception of the world, doesn’t it?

I remember thinking that at some point I would tell him all this; the feeling and meaning of the color blue, the notion of blue, the science of blue.  I wondered if I should also tell him why humans can’t perceive violet as easily as birds; the real reason.  The reason beyond the fact that we have three cones and birds have four.  I think it might be important for him to realize that most animals are capable of doing some things that humans cannot.  It is important for him to understand that we are not the masters of the universe.  We are just another important part of the planet.  Each part is a piece of the larger whole, every part dependent on the others; many life forms to help create one larger living organism, the planet Earth.

Most evolutionists would tell us that birds are the direct descendants of dinosaurs; the creature that once ruled parts of this planet.  Dinosaurs were huge and many were voracious predators.  It is thought that they ruled by day light because they were cold blooded and were more efficient during the warm part of the day.  Millions of years in the sun gave them the evolutionary advantage to develop the necessary visual apparatus to see all colors with great efficiency.  We humans are likely the descendants of the dinosaur’s prey; an undistinguished fact of evolutionary history.  Our forbearers had to operate at night, under the cover of darkness, when dinosaurs were relatively inactive in order to survive.  These nocturnal creatures had no need to develop the necessary apparatus to see all colors.  Eventually the dinosaur era ended.  Nocturnal creatures learned the advantages of operating during the day but their eye apparatus were a few million years behind the descendants of the dinosaur.  Because of all this birds end up with four cones and humans three; a distinct advantage for our avian friends.

The nice thing about parents growing up with their children is that there is time to introduce all of these ideas.  We can put forth concepts when our children are ready to understand them.  Sure, we might introduce some too soon, but kids file these somewhere in their brain in a category called “too much information” and tap into it later when they are ready.

As I struggled with the last few roots of the stump stubbornly grasping the soil I noticed Liam running towards me, stick still in hand striking at a very wary ball.

“Hey Liam, help me pull this stump out of the hole.  I think it’s ready to come out!”

Liam came over and stood by my side.  I hopped in the hole and put my shoulder to the stump.  Liam grabbed a rope I had tied to a large broken root.  In unison we rolled the old rotten stump out of the crater and onto the field.

“Thanks buddy, you sure are strong.  Thanks for giving me a hand!”  I said knowing he was proud of his effort.

Liam looked around.  He looked up at the sky.  He stared and stared like he was trying to think of something to say.

“Yep, the sky sure is blue.  It sure is beautiful” he said.

And together we stood side by side staring up at the sky. It sure was beautiful.  It was peaceful.  It was full of hope.  It was seemingly endless and inspired our imagination.  The sky was blue.

Written for in Marcho f 2010.

  • # 2 son

    Believe or not, I actually do remember that day. I distinctly remember you pulling that old stump out of the ground–however, I can’t say that I recall our conversation about the composition of the color spectrum. Great Article!!

  • Ratty

    And this story is just as beautiful as that sky must have been. Even that partial explanation for that blue sky was good. We all remember the little bits we learn. And when we learn more later, those first bits come fondly back to us.

  • Robb

    Kia ora,
    What a great moment to have shared with your son, moreso above that he recalls that very day!

  • Sandy

    Not only did I enjoy the story, I learned a great deal about light. Thank you very much. Like Liam, I knew the basics, but not the details.
    By the way, my grandson, Joshua’s middle name is Liam, and I picked it!

  • bill

    Thanks Sandy

    We take light for granted don’t we? I wish for one day I could have that 4th set of cones and realize what birds must see!

    Liam is now 24 years old and in grad school. It was a fairly uncommon name back then but now is run-of-the-mill.

    Thanks for reading.


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