Messages from Above
Why the Clouds Are Worth Watching
Imagine a world without clouds.
Picture a place where the sky presents an empty expanse of blue,
day after day. Such a world would be dead. A planet without
precipitation could not sustain life.
Why do I even wonder about such things? It's because I've been
living in cloud gazers' heaven, the Flathead Valley in northwestern
Montana. Here in this place that lives up to the state's 'Big Sky'
motto, I watch the clouds each day in all their panoply.
Some mornings, bands of fog float halfway up the foothills of
the surrounding Salish Mountains, arriving not on little cat feet,
as Carl Sandburg wrote, but on silent hooves of deer. Flotillas of
cumulus hurry above as if the sky were a busy bay. Bruised ranges
of stratocumulus crowd and darken the day, and an anvil cloud rains
on a distant ridge. Not the least: A vibrant light show plays each
day at dusk, startling me anew every time I see it.
Last evening a mass of clouds came from the north like pink
smoke from the window of a burning house. While I watched, the mass
brightened, as if someone was turning up a dimmer switch, and in
the course of a few heartbeats evolved into salmon and orange, and
then into plum. I watched violet clouds turn to slate, their shapes
shifting, and then witnessed a line of Canada geese fly straight
through the new moon. My mind was empty and my heart full.
Henry David Thoreau once wrote that for many years he was
'self-appointed inspector of snow-storms and rain-storms.' Since
moving to Montana, I've become a serious cloud watcher and
thinker-about-clouds. Besides offering beauty, diversity, and
volatility, clouds have much to tell those who pay attention to
them. Ask any farmer, shepherd, aviator, or sailor.
'Clouds always tell a true story,' asserted
19th-century English meteorologist Ralph Abercromby. In order to
see if cloud forms were the same around the world, Abercromby
circled the globe twice in the late 1880s, then wrote about his
experiences in Seas and Skies in Many Latitudes, or
Wanderings in Search of Weather. Abercromby was so smitten
by clouds that he and Swedish colleague H. Hildebrand
Hildebrandsson proclaimed 1896 the International Year of Clouds and
published the first International Cloud Atlas that year.
The atlas, based largely on the work of English meteorologist Luke
Howard, listed ten cloud types. 'Number nine in the list was
cumulonimbus, the tallest of all the types,' writes Gavin
Pretor-Pinney in The Cloudspotter's Guide: The Science,
History, and Culture of Clouds (Perigee, 2006). 'To be on
cloud nine is therefore to be on the highest one.'
An amateur's handbook presenting characteristics of different
kinds of clouds-and 'official publication of the
Cloud Appreciation Society' -The
Cloudspotter's Guide incorporates information about the
history of meteorology along with treatment of clouds in art and
literature. Pretor-Pinney notes, for example, Shakespeare's
dialogue between Hamlet and the obsequious Polonius, who agrees
with Hamlet that a particular cloud is shaped like a camel, a
weasel, a whale.
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