There are many summer months in Baghdad, Iraq when you look up into the sky and all you see is a solid light blue. From one side of the horizon to the other, whether you turn your head all the way left or all the way right: light blue all around. There is not a single cloud of any sort, nor a trace of one trying to form.
Occasionally there will be smoke or something in the sky, for various reasons. And of course, there is that bright, burning sun rolling around up there. But no clouds.
When I think about this, a very vivid and simple memory comes to mind. It’s a memory of when I was 19, during my first summer in Iraq, in 2003. I was reading a field manual on land navigation (I loved everything army at the time, and mostly still do), and discovered a couple of fascinating ways how you can determine, when you’re lost somewhere, which direction is north.
The manual said that if it’s nighttime, you can use the stars. You look for the big dipper in the night sky, and focus on the 2 stars that form the far side of the cup, away from the ladle. These are called the pointer stars. They point towards the north star, and if you trace an imaginary line across them and extend it out, that line will cross the north star. Now, there are many stars in the sky, especially in more remote areas, but it is easy to discover which star on that line points north. All you have to do is reach out your arm, and use two fingers to measure the distance between the two pointer stars, and then follow that distance out, about 5 times over, along that imaginary line. It takes you right to the north star every time.
It was daytime, though, when I was reading this, so first I tried out what is called the “shadow-tip method.” Following the instructions, I stuck a stick in the ground, and that stick naturally cast a shadow of itself. I put a small rock on the tip of that shadow (about the size of a quarter is recommended). I waited 10-15 minutes, during which time, because of the earth’s rotation, the sun had moved in the sky, and the shadow had moved as well. By placing a second rock where the shadow’s tip now was, I had established, between the first rock and the second rock, an imaginary line representing east and west. Once you know east and west, north is easy to figure out. You just face east, and look left. I remember thinking that this was really quite amazing — and I still do — even though the whole thing is pretty straightforward.