HOW often do we spare time to look upwards in our mundane city lives We tend to suffer from tunnel vision in getting from point A to point B. Certainly, vehicle drivers need to focus their attention in busy cities or on meandering roads and can spare the occasional glance sideways. It was as a young boy that my father encouraged me to look upwards, when walking in streets in a nearby town, to admire the architecture of buildings of different ages.
As humans, we are not well equipped to accurately measure the angles of slopes or the height of buildings or mountains. We can only guess Frequently, when on geographical field trips, I would get my students to estimate slope angles and then to measure them accurately with a clinometer. Their estimates far exceeded the true inclinations of the slopes. Equally, I would get them to estimate the height of a mountain or hill we were about to clamber up. Suffice it to say their guesses were nowhere near the actual height.
Tunnel and blinkered vision are symptoms of the times in which we live. How many of our children or grandchildren, seated in the back of our cars, on a weekend drive into the countryside, turn off their mobile phones or iPads and see exactly where they are travelling and spotting the beauty of nature and the architecture of buildings that pass them by?
People wait for a plane to arrive then shuttle themselves to their seats and immediately tune into the entire online screen service, carefully selecting their options to view. How many passengers look out through the portholes to look down and view the structure of the city and to identify landmarks? On long haul flights, I select a window seat and avidly peer out on the world below. I well remember my first flight to East Asia, passing over Mount Everest to observe the crest of the world in all its glory. It was a dream come true to fly 4,000 feet above the highest mountain in the world. Another joy for me, in high altitude flights, is to see the rising sun against the curvature of the Earth; whilst others are slumbering, I sneak a glimpse by opening the porthole shutter only to be scolded by a flight attendant!
The skies above by day
In high altitude flights, we can look down on the clouds below but we cannot estimate the heights of cloud bases by looking upwards from ground level unless we are experienced airport meteorologists. How many of us, upon arising from our beds in the morning, open the curtains and look upwards from our bedroom window? We may certainly see a lateral picture of the weather but do we look upwards to see how fast the rain clouds are moving.
As amateur meteorologists we can recognise specific cloud types and their scurries across the sky. So variable is the daily weather in Kuching that my first daily duty is to go outside the house and look up to the skies. Is it going to rain, do I need waterproofs, or is it to be a blazing sunshine day and I need to apply sun protection cream to my bald head and ‘angmoh’ arms? I must admit that I have frequently been caught out as the humidity built up in the morning and in the afternoon the heavens opened with torrential downpours of rain!
Similarly, at night time, when one hour I have observed the firmament and its glory of twinkling stars, to be bombarded by rain pelting down on the roof for the next four to five hours is a sudden surprise! Both Borneo and the UK are islands suffering from the vagaries of changing wind directions and whilst 11,250km apart, at least Borneo does not suffer from snow and frost.
Nature in all its glory
It was on a shallow boat trip up a creek in the Kinabatangan River, in Sabah, that memories flooded back to me (upon seeing an orang-utan build its nightly nest) of childhood times when I climbed tall trees, observed birds in the canopies, and constructed tree camps. To see proboscis monkeys nibbling leaves on very high primary forest trees was a sight to behold. It was near sunset that a flock of hornbills returned to their nests. How tall these trees actually were, I could not even estimate.
Today, my daily dog walk in Somerset fields enlivened me by looking upwards to see a pair of peregrine falcons soaring high above and a heron in flight and to observe a huge flock of rooks returning to their roosts in nearby trees. The sun evened peeped through dark threatening rain clouds and the distant hills faded as low cloud enveloped them. I must admit that I do look down for safety sake to avoid slithering in mud and driving on icy roads but there is more to explore and visualise by looking upwards.
Night vision – celestial spotlights
People living near the centre of cities seldom have the chance to look at the firmament so strong are the neon and street lights. Born in a village and now living in a Somerset hamlet, both devoid of lights, I have been fortunate to look nightly at the heavens in anticyclonic conditions during the summer and winter months without a cloud in sight. An astronomer, I am not, but I can recognise the varied shapes of the Moon some 384,400 kilometres away and Ursa Major (The Great Bear) and Polaris (The Northern Star). On some days I can see the Southern Cross and the Milky Way with its myriad of twinkling stars. I apologise for waxing lyrical.
We are privileged today to see images of our planet and other planets taken from exploration space satellites. With my naked eye, I frequently watch, whether in Kuching or in Somerset, the movement of the largest moving illuminated light in the firmament – the International Space Station (ISS) orbiting the Earth some 402km above my head. The true shapes of coastlines, rivers and mountain ranges, taken in the images from space, make atlases almost redundant yet verify the accuracy of past and present cartographers.
The architectural beauty of buildings, the wonders of nature, changes in cloud patterns, and the night skies are all there for us to glimpse, free of charge, if only we stretch our necks upwards. I hope that the leaders of our nations at the G7 Summit to be held at Carbis Bay, West Cornwall, England, later this year, will venture forth from the conference centre and stand on that beautiful beach and look upwards, breathing in the sea air, and see beyond the present Covid-19 crisis which has engulfed our world. It is a magic location for such a conference of world leaders, in a spot I know well, for as a youth, I swam there many a time, so near it was to my birth place.