The ‘What a Planet’ Experience

     My husband Andy Schmookler wrote this piece, which I like very much.  I think he does a good job of expressing the ‘Wow’ that many of us feel at those moments when the beauty of our planet just takes our breath away.–April Moore

Once in a while, I get an experience that leads me to say, “What a planet!”

I remember the very first time I actually made that exclamation.

It was in Arizona, in the mid-1970s. At the time, I lived in Prescott and whenever the trip from home was to southern California, the route was to take Hwy 89 south out of Prescott and follow it down till it hit Interstate which we’d take west across into California at Needles.

There’s a spot on 89, still in the high country but with the road heading down toward the low desert, near a little town called Yarnell where there’s a pullover for people to look out over the landscape stretching out below. It’s like a moonscape. It’s like a desert. It is an astonishingly beautiful and eerie glimpse into a primeval record of planetary forces, a mysterious panorama worthy of a Star Wars adventure for travelers or warriors mounted on strange beasts.

“What a planet!” I cried out looking over this vast panorama, shimmering in the twi-light.

My “What a planet!” moments are special to me, connected with some of my deepest religious feelings. They are moments of being seered with beauty. More fundamentally, they are moments of sudden epiphany about where we live, which is also to say about from what we arose, which is also to say about what we are.

One of these moments is conveyed in a piece presented here before, “The Forest is Coming” (at I describe there my “Aha!” moment one spring about a decade ago as I discovered how, in the years I’d lived on this Virginia ridge, the forest had been recovering from the human assaults it had suffered, and was advancing on all fronts into the spaces that had been cleared.

What was visible to me was that something powerful was emerging from the earth—emerging not just in this burgeoning spring, but over the ten years since we’ve moved here. It was as if my mind were now able to play out a years-long time-elapsed film, and could discern in that mental reel what it is that the earth is up to.

The earth here wants to create a great forest…

My exclamation at that time wasn’t “What a planet!” but rather “Wow!” But the meaning was the same. I saw the earth as this living thing with its powerful determination to create life in the forms that thrive most mightily in any given place.

Another such experience I recall from back in 1987, when my family and I were traveling in New Mexico (long before we had any notion we’d ever live there). Toward the end of our summer trip around the wild, northern part of the state, my wife, April, and my two older children (April’s and my son would be born the following summer) were camping overnight, in two little tents, along a canyon northeast of Santa Fe.

During the black of night, a thunderstorm struck. (Summer is monsoon season in New Mexico.) Water flowing down the hillsides soon saturated our sleeping bags, and many of the hours we’d expected to spend sleeping we spent huddled, wet, in our car. But there were a few moments that, for me at least, made it all worthwhile.

The flashes of lightening were dramatic, though not easily seen because of the twisting canyon walls. But the thunder! I can recall still –quite vividly– the “What a planet!” sound that came with that thunderstorm: this indeed was ROLLING THUNDER.

I’ve always loved thunder, but never have I heard thunder like that. It was majestic, as could make one think thunder, as peoples have, the voice of earth’s creator. But, confined to the canyon, the thunder was intimate as well, like the 1812 Overture played in a room built for chamber music.

The great sound would begin further up the canyon, and then come cascading down, taking the twists and turns and gathering strength like a flashflood made of sound till it struck us full force and then bounced off the canyon walls till it splashed on beyond us down into the plain where it dissipated till the next cataclysmic clap.

This was a “What a planet!” moment accessible to the blind: oh what a brave new world that makes such stirring music as this.

It’s only a few weeks since my most recent such experience, which is the one that got me thinking about this genre of meaningful planetary epiphanies.

April and I were out for a long bike ride in the countryside (longer than planned as a result my not having noticed where 717 and 703 branched off, and of my staying on 703 whereas our car was parked back up 717). I had mapped our journey taking into account the forecast that rain was a possibility beginning around 2 PM: had I not missed that turn on 717, we’d have been done by 1:30. 703 however had us way off near Conicville at 1:30, which was very far from the country church were our car, with its bike rack, was waiting to keep us dry and take us home.

Retracing our path was out of the question, as a matter of principle, and by then was of no advantage. There was another fine route to get us home– fine, that is, if the weather held up, which the clouds gathering in the southwest suggested it would not.

About midway on this improved return route, the rain began. We don’t mind getting a little wet, so we continued. Then, the rain intensified. We were right near a thick grove of oaks by the side of the dirt road when getting wet was about to turn into getting soaked, so we stopped under that big natural umbrella. This umbrella had its leaks –I put my watch in my pocket– but at least we’d be spared the kind of soaking that chills the bones.

We looked around, and to one side there was a field of pastureland, with grasses standing about a foot or two tall. One could see the grassy land stretching from about fifty yards from us off for another three hundred yards. The raindrops also were visible for much of that distance, for this was no drizzle but a rain of substance.

Then the hard rain became a downpour. Little wind. No lightning or thunder, but a pounding rain drubbing the dirt road, pattering on the oak leaves, and driving silently into the grassy field.

It was watching the rain falling onto that field of grass that gave me that “What a planet!” experience. It had been a dry couple of weeks, with summer heat baking out the land. And now the rain was coming, filling the air with countless pixels of wetness descending into the green blanket of the field, which absorbed it all without a word but with what I felt was intense vitality infused with a kind of vegetative gratitude.

It was, I felt, a primeval scene, played out on this planet for hundreds of millions of years. Rain falling out of the sky, replenishing the life of the earth’s green children.

Well, those are some of my most memorable “What a planet!” experiences.


One Response to “The ‘What a Planet’ Experience”

  1. Judy Says:

    An exquisite piece, Andy. I, too, have memories of terrifying thunder storms, wonderous in their potential. They appear to lift me out of the ground, out of my complacency, shaking me into a deep respect for the wonders and terrors of nature. And that great feeling of having miraculously made it out alive, and all the richer for it.

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