New sky above, same mud below

Dalton Delan
4 min readSep 29, 2023

“The Sky Above, the Mud Below.”

It won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1961. In it, a Franco-Dutch expedition encountered the last of the Pygmies, headhunters and cannibals in a remote region of New Guinea.

It played for a long time at Cinemas I and II in Manhattan. Every time I walked past, I thought it was the greatest marquee ever. There in midtown amid the skyscrapers and concrete, Checker cabs and Bloomingdale’s. The modern world. Urban moviegoers couldn’t get enough of that other reality trapped outside of time.

Here we are six decades later, pushing for Mars and communicating with each other with handheld tools — no longer flints and bone knives — tracing invisible paths to satellites blanketing the thermosphere. Elon Musk’s Starlink already has 5,000 of them circling the globe. Armies and countries — 60 of them so far — depend on them. The sky above is not the one our ancestors saw. It’s rush hour in a low-gravity spaghetti junction. The technology and detritus of 21st-century civilization in a ballet of bumper cars. It feels like a projection of Musk’s mind, where synapses flare and spark with manic energy. Good things happen. Bad things too.

Down in the mud below, we seem to slog backwards, the primordial ooze grabbing our boots and refusing to let go. In the blasted ruins of Ukraine fields, desperate soldiers cling to trenches little changed in a century since World War I. In the sands of the Middle East, radical Islamic terrorists train. Israeli courts fight for their judicial life. Iran plays at nuclear football. Earthquakes and floods decimate Morocco and Libya. In these Biblical lands, end times appear at hand. Back in New York, the crossroads of humanity, the United Nations and its disunited states meet.

Consider two very different leaders on the world’s radar: Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Benjamin Netanyahu.

One an unlikely champion of freedom and the other a dismantler of freedom without the provocation of invasion. Chaos reigns. Our head-of-state meets with each, while Congress dithers and withers.

Who knew a Senate under Mitch McConnell would seem to trump a House in which Kevin McCarthy has to genuflect to an out-of-control, America-First right flank? In these dark days, the human race to the bottom seems Olympian. Which octogenarian will hobble through the White House halls? A plague on both their houses. Oh wait, we already had a plague. A pox then, to go with my apoplexy.

Caught between mud and sky, homo sapiens fail to impress as a species. The way things are going, dystopia has top billing. “Game of Thrones” appears prescient. An unimaginable “Brave New World” is perfectly real. It is no longer a question of whether we will doctor our genes, only when. First-wave generative artificial intelligence has begun to replace jobs. Crossing the threshold to sentient being from computational doing is prediction not fiction. We can’t even agree on where the line is. While we’re busy signing into our devices with facial recognition, it’s no great stretch to add the Voight-Kampff test from “Bladerunner” to determine if we are replicants lacking empathy.

The lost tribes of the Amazon wear T-shirts and Nikes now. A river of doubt runs through everything. We live in an era defined by incongruity. Technology and war, artificial intelligence and emotional infantilism. Storytelling and music-making have come full circle. They are ephemeral words and notes floating in the ether, no paper or vinyl to hold them down. Back to the campfire. Apple and Android devices are all about swiping glassy nothingness, no tactile buttons to steer hands to safe harbor. Dreams of my BlackBerry. Those were the days.

Societies can’t progress when the left-behinds are stuck in mud, financial ladders are falling, social safety nets are moth-eaten. The new isolationists of the GOP think we can ignore the lands beyond the oceans, but that is a tragic turn on a ship of fools. The water rises upon our shores. We are so far behind on correcting our careless ways with the environment that Mother Nature will not spare our children. Time presses on me: so much to do with so little. If only we could stop the clock, change hearts and minds, grow forests of compassion. But no.

How to navigate an era of such polarities, with brutal authoritarianism rising and subjugating so many millions? It is hard to model democracy when it feels incomplete and inadequate to the moment. Any notion of a road rising before us is gone. We are caught in overlapping loops. The human societal experience on earth is nonlinear. Yet our life tracks one way. If wisdom comes with age, little else we would choose does. Lifting off from a muddy runway, we are reluctant pilots sans parachutes, buffeted.



Dalton Delan

Winner of three Emmy Awards, Dalton Delan pens biweekly The Unspin Room, which began August 7, 2016 in The Berkshire Eagle; it has appeared in 50+ newspapers.