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The truth is up there

Clouds, sun dogs, and the dream of an atmospheric education . . . How one former TV reporter brought his sky gospel to the people
By JAMES PARKER  |  August 22, 2008


Clouds, "Motion of the Ocean" (from We Are Above You) (mp3)

Slideshow: Cloud life: Cameraphone cloud pics from around town. By k bonami.

The sky’s on the move again, he can feel it. Mute, significant dramas of cloud in the late summer — huge manifestations, each one different, churned by its own bucking thermals and pockets of glare.

“This has just been the lengthiest skein of towering cumulus clouds,” says Jack. “In 30 years of almost excessive sky watching, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

And as to his mission, his vocation, there have been the usual celestial hints. Drifting serendipities. Prods of light, directing him.

“That’s the way it’s always worked with this thing,” he says. “Sometimes it’s like going up a glass mountain in Vaseline shoes. But there are connections, things falling into place, constantly. And then you have to follow them.”

There’s the organization — For Spacious Skies, a culturally mobile philosophical/meteorological think tank dedicated to the promotion of “sky awareness” — and then there’s the man: Jack Borden. And at this point, three decades into the story, there’s really no telling them apart. Who hasn’t Jack talked to, lectured, belabored, over the years, in his stop-start jazzy/professional cadences? Who hasn’t he laid his sky trip on? Educators, aviators, politicians, weathermen, mental-health professionals, prison administrators, conservationists; TV, radio, print . . . he’s crisscrossed the continent, pitching for the heavens, puffing his cloud patter. And the message? It’s really very simple.

“There are benefits — moral and aesthetic and educational benefits — to be derived from just being aware of what’s going on over your head.” Borden’s slogan Number One: “No kid who appreciates the beauty of the sky is ever going to mug a Cumberland Farms cashier!”

Jack, at 80, is avid, dogmatic, wry, ebullient, tireless. At 50, he must have been formidable; at 30, a maniac. His conversation is fast-moving and tangential. He has crystalline recall. We pass six overheated and talk-filled hours as interviewer and subject, in the course of which I fortify myself with (tallying it all up) a PowerBar, a mug of tea, a bottle of water, a swordfish steak, a Caesar salad, a Heineken, and two French rolls. Jack’s total intake: a cup of coffee and a root beer.

The man whose head expanded
From 1959 to 1980, Jack worked as a newsman for WBZ-TV. He was well-known. He stomped around, microphone in hand. He covered Kerouac’s funeral in lugubrious Lowell: “I found this Bohemian hunched over the curb with his copy of On the Road, so I asked him if he wanted to express his feelings about Jack [Kerouac] to the camera. He told me to fuck off.”

Jack interviewed the parents of soldiers killed in Vietnam. He was approached by Professor Walter Houston Clark — “a neat guy, a baseball fan like myself” — and offered a place in an upcoming LSD trial. He said yes, and found himself psychedelicized at a millionaire's house in New Hampshire. “It was the snow melting on Mt. Monadnock, the sound of streams, of water running off the roof. . . . It was a stirring aesthetic experience. My first and last trip.”

For Spacious Skies begins with a vision. Literally. It began with the heavens pouring their intolerable magnificence into a man (Jack Borden) who lies defenseless as a babe. Thirty-one years later, he and I visit the spot, the site of divine irruption — a sloping field known as the Second Pasture, in the Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary in Princeton, Massachusetts. Waist-high milkweed rises around us, purple clusters on the dark-green stalks. Chickadees emit skeptical whistles at the meadow’s edge. It’s hot.

“The weather had been a bit inclement,” remembers Jack, “and now it had cleared up and there were clouds, okay? Cumulus clouds. So-called fair-weather cumulus clouds.”

A Monarch butterfly reels gauzily by, black veins in its illuminated wings: who would be so vulgar as to fly in a straight line?

“And I'm lying next to my wife, waking up from a nap, and — there it all was! Close, out-of-scale close, real close. It was so overwhelming it bordered on scary. It was like somebody hitting me, burning me, and jabbing me all at the same time. I looked at it for not longer than three seconds, and then I had to look away. And my wife said, ‘What’s going on?’ ‘Jeez,’ I said, ‘I think — I think I just saw the SKY. For the first time!’ ”

No chemicals, Jack? Nothing in the system?

“A cup of coffee from Mister Donut. That’s it.”

Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, AD 36, blown off his horse by God-light: “Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.” Rousseau on the road to Vincennes, 1749, sucked into shining orders of superhuman truth: “I saw another universe and I became another man.” And Jack Borden on his back in Princeton, 1977, short-circuited by the firmament: “It just plain blew me away! This tremendous scene somewhere between majesty and frightfulness — it was as if the sky were saying, ‘Goddammit, if I couldn’t do anything to wake you up, maybe this’ll do it!’ ”

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  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Clouds , Jessica Simpson , Cultural Institutions and Parks ,  More more >
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