The sky here is so big. There seems to be so much more sky in New Zealand than there is in most of Europe. Maybe Spain has a sky as big, but that Spanish sky is blue, vast and empty. Yes, that’s it, it’s the lack of emptiness. It’s the clouds. Spain’s sky is vast and empty because there are hardly ever clouds, whereas New Zealand’s sky has its grand scale measured by the presence of clouds; all kinds of different clouds. Streaky cirrus that are so high up they catch the sun long after it has set; billowing cumulonimbus the size of mountain ranges, which still manage to be dwarfed by the gigantic sky; little fluffy white clouds that drift slowly like foam across the upside down sea that is our view into space. Low, ominous, rain clouds that drift in bands and saturate everything for a few minutes then drift off again like a feckless lover. More different kinds of clouds than I know how to name and never just the one type in a day or even an hour – they are all there and their presence within a sky, that for the most part remains very big and blue, makes the sky seem enormous, even endless. And this cloud drama is happening all the time – New Zealand skies are a theatre for cloud plays. If there was music, they would be cloud operas and, perhaps, back in the time when all the birds were still here, New Zealand was a place of grand, dramatic air opera, with troupes of clouds performing the visual spectacle and tui, kakariki, hihi and all the other very loud birds pouring forth song.
I heard a story yesterday that a traveller in colonial days stepped off a ship onto Waiheke Island and found the noise of birds deafening and unsettling. The next time he came to Waiheke, he was surprised by the lack of extreme birdsong he’d experienced previously. I have never known birdsong like that, but I hope to hear something like it within my lifetime. There are parts of Waiheke you can hear traces of it and – happily – those parts are increasing. I think this is happening throughout the country, with the momentum of conservation gathering pace. Something I would like to do now that I’m home is be part of that momentum.
For now, I can look at the silent opera of the skies and imagine the birdsong that ought to accompany it. Even without the missing voices, the New Zealand sky is dramatic and grand. And so very big.