LESSON 3 Above the clouds
In 1856 an attempt was made, under the auspices of the British Government, to commence a series of observations in some region "above the clouds," where the serene and quiet air would be specially favourable for viewing the heavenly bodies. The island of Teneriffe(1) was selected for this purpose, as combining more of the required advantages than any other mountain within easy reach of Europe.
The expedition was under the direction of Piazzi Smyth, the distinguished astronomer at Edinburgh; who, in a remarkable and interesting work, has since published a narrative of the expedition. In an article contributed to a popular magazine he thus graphically describes the ascent of Teneriffe to a point high "above the clouds:"—
It was only a few days after—on a morning also cloudy, and with north-east cloud too—that the little party set forth from the town of Orotava, on the northern coast of Teneriffe, to climb the great mountain, and put to the only true test of actual practice their hopes of getting "above the clouds." Through long, winding, stony pathways, between vineyards and cactus plantations,(2) between orange groves and fig-trees, they proceeded, always ascending; past gardens, and then past orchards, still ever ascending; past corn-fields and oat-fields, ascending yet higher, and then amongst natural vegetation only—ferns and heath and some few wild laurels; and now, at a height of 3,000 feet vertical, they are close under the cloud.
Before entering therein, let us pause for a moment and survey the beauties of creation in the region we are leaving behind. If, for that one purpose of severe astronomy, a position below the clouds is unsuitable, yet what an infinite amount of benefit for man to enjoy, and of beauty for him to contemplate, is connected therewith! Beneath the clouds are kindly rains and gentle dews; and these, assisted by a warm climate, encourage all those exquisite forms of vegetation which we have admired clothing the lower slopes of the mountain. Without these, where were the fruits to support human life; where the buds and blossoms and fading flowers which teach us many a lesson useful to life eternal?
But duty now calls us on our upward way. Before many more seconds are passed, first comes one cold hurrying blast, with mist upon its wings, and then another, and another. Then, in the midst of a constant dense wet fog, all creation is shut out of our view, except the few feet of sloping earth on which we are treading, and that appears of a dull gray; and the occasional spiders' webs seen across our path are loaded with heavy drops of moisture.
For half an hour we must toil on and on through this winding-sheet of gloom; perpetually on the same upward way, but strong in faith and hope of what must in the end be presented to our eyes; on still, and up higher, when suddenly a momentary break appears overhead, and a portion of sky is seen—oh, so blue!—but it is lost again.
In a few minutes, however, another opening, another blue patch is seen; and then another, and another. Before three minutes more are passed, all the hurrying clouds seem blown on one side. Fair sky is everywhere above and around, a brilliant sun is shining, and there, there below us, is the upper surface of the clouds, extending far and wide, like a level plain, shutting out lowland and city and sea all from view, and in their place substituting brilliant reflections of solar light, which make the surface of this new mist-country look whiter than snow! Yes, indeed, we are now "above the clouds;" and this view that we have attempted to describe is the first example of the heightened, the advanced, the glorified appearance of even Earth's sombre fog-banks to those who are privileged for a time to look on them from the heavenward side.
"Above the clouds!"—not only no rain, no mist, no dew, but a scorching sun, and an air, both by day and by night, dry to almost an alarming degree. The further we advance, and the higher we ascend, the drier becomes the air; while at the same time the strength of the north-east trade-wind(3) is continually decreasing, and at the height of about six or seven thousand feet has completely died away.
Not that it has ceased elsewhere as well, for the driving clouds below show that it is still in its accustomed violence there. The distant movements of those rollers of white cloud betray that it must yet be raging down there in all its strength, tearing the mist piecemeal, and bowing down the heads of suffering palm-trees, and lashing the sea into foam-crested waves. Heaven grant that no cry of shipwrecked mariners be borne on the breeze; and, more still, that no evil thoughts be engendering in the cities of men.
It was when our party on the mountain were in the fullest enjoyment of their daily and nightly views of the heavens, that their friends in the towns of Teneriffe near the sea-coast wrote to them most sympathizingly: "Oh! what dreadful weather you must have been suffering! Down here we have had for three weeks the most frightful continuance of storms—constant clouds, rain, and howling winds; and if that was the case with us, what must it not have been with you at the greater height!"
Yet at the greater height, at that very time, the air was tranquil and serene, the sky clear, and bad weather entirely confined to that lower depth in the atmosphere beneath "the grosser clouds."
What place was selected for the astronomical expedition of 1856? Who directed it? At what height was the party close under the cloud? What benefits arise to man from being beneath the clouds? How long was the party in piercing the cloud? What was the state of the sky above it? What was the appearance of the clouds from above? What was the state of the air as they ascended higher? What change did the trade-wind undergo? What showed that it had not ceased elsewhere? What was the state of the weather near the sea-coast? What above the clouds?