Messages from Above

Why the Clouds Are Worth Watching

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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.

Finding shapes in clouds is an old endeavor. There's even a word for it: nephelococcygia, literally 'cloud cuckooland,' from the Aristophanes play The Birds. Thoreau practiced it, describing a sunset in which he saw a 'phantom city.' About a hundred years later cartoonist Charles Schulz created a Peanuts comic strip in which Linus gazed at the clouds and spied the outline of British Honduras, the profile of artist Thomas Eakins, and a group of forms reminding him of the biblical stoning of Stephen. 'I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsie,' Charlie Brown responded, 'but I changed my mind.'

Is it possible to take a cloud at face value? Must we always be reading something into clouds? It must be that humans have paid attention to them since before written history. If clouds' curves have suggested human and animal forms, their mutability has engendered both curiosity and dread. After all, clouds don't simply come into being, exist for a while, and then disappear. They act. Massing and swelling, obscuring and foretelling, clouds precipitate, dissipate, and provide benevolent shade. Some of them-funnel clouds that rotate at high speeds and touch ground-can uproot large trees, raze buildings, and hurl aside whatever is in their path, including cars, motor homes, livestock, and humans. Killer clouds: not a common notion.

The many faces of clouds, from violent to genial, are evident in the King James version of the Bible, which refers to them more than 150 times. They give rain 'to every one grass in the field,' accompany God ('Behold, he cometh with clouds'), and mark trails ('the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way'). But clouds also represent days 'of darkness and of gloominess' and in brighter times lead daydreaming farmers to shirk their work. 'He that regardeth the clouds shall not reap,' warns Ecclesiastes.

I beg to differ. There's useful wool to be gathered above, and to neglect clouds can sometimes even endanger one's life. In his book Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer describes attaining the peak of Everest and realizing not exhilaration but 'overwhelming apprehension about the long, dangerous descent that lay ahead.' Worse, he noticed wispy clouds in valleys to the south, clouds that obscured all but the tallest peaks, without realizing what they meant. 'Unaccustomed to peering down at cumulonimbus cells from 29,000 feet,' Krakauer 'remained ignorant of the storm that was even then bearing down.' Although he made it off the mountain alive, five other climbers on their way to the summit died in the blizzard to come that afternoon, having continued their ascent instead of turning around.

Other stereotypes hold that clouds are benign, or boring, or beautiful. You can picture them easily: ethereal wisps (cirrus); dreary, heavy blankets (stratus); cotton candy (cumulus). The latter is perhaps the most pervasive image. Cumulus: the cloud of a thousand clichés. Fleecy shapes in a child's landscape drawing, cartoony images used in branding products from toilet paper to infant clothes, clouds used even to sell books.

One cumulus cloud is not the same as another. English artist John Constable spent part of his life paying attention to the nuances of clouds. As Richard Hamblyn notes in his 2001 book The Invention of Clouds, Constable painted more than a hundred cloud studies during the summers of 1821 and 1822, working on the hills of London's Hampstead Heath. It wasn't that Constable was trying over and over again to get it right. He was painting change itself, seeking to understand. 'We see nothing truly till we understand it,' he once wrote.

To really know clouds is to love them. Just look at the index to The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, edited by Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen. Over 60 subentries appear here under 'Clouds,' including entries that describe cloud colors, the time of day or season in which they're observed, things clouds resemble, lines of poetry they recall, cloud textures, their size and shadows, and, more specifically, a melon-rind arrangement of clouds, clouds at war with the moon, clouds spun from rainbows, snow from a single cloud, the need for clouds, drifting and downy clouds, clouds in the mind.

Clearly Thoreau loved clouds. But what are they? Technically, clouds are visible masses of condensed water vapor. In the sky, that water vapor is usually frozen. The loftiest clouds are made of ice crystals. When we fly above them and gaze down on what looks to be ice breaking up, we are indeed looking at ice.

Clouds form when moist air cools below its dew point, the temperature at which a vapor begins to condense. Witness the process on a personal level as tiny clouds appear when warm-blooded animals exhale into chilly air. On a larger scale, clouds provide signs of atmospheric processes, visible evidence of colliding fronts, temperature changes, and the interaction of water and particulates in the air. 'Every cloud is a small catastrophe,' Hamblyn writes.

It's not so commonly known, but without airborne particles-specks of dust or soot, for example-we'd have no rain. Pretor-Pinney compares the process to the birth and growth of a pearl. 'Grit of an airborne kind' is needed, he writes, for water vapor to condense into a cloud. Meteorologists call these particles 'cloud condensation nuclei.'

But not all grit is equal. Take smog, the pervasive, hazy cloud we've learned to despise if not always to prevent. If you've thought it a thing of the past, or something that is confined to cities, think again. Today it mars some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country-I've seen it here in the mountain West-and it's not just a matter of occluding the view. Ozone smoke harms human health.

Jet contrails too are a kind of smog, and they have been increasing. Conspiracy theorists in recent years sounded an alarm about 'chemtrails'-more numerous, spreading, and lingering contrails that they allege show evidence of aliens or a secret government project to seed the skies or spray the masses with viruses and 'hypno drugs.' Earth Island Journal even took on the topic a few years ago in an article, 'Stolen Skies: The Chemtrail Mystery' (Summer 2002), that generally debunked the paranoid theories but concluded, 'Perhaps the appearance of chemtrails is a 'sign from on high' that our atmosphere has become dangerously burdened with pollutants.'

Contrails are to clouds as reservoirs are to lakes. Both are human imprints, signs of people at work, mucking things up, some say. If only we could hear, understand, and take the advice of the other species with whom our lives are intertwined. What might the avian population of Vail, Colorado, say about contrails? Or about cloud seeding, for that matter, the attempt to modify weather by adding frozen particles to clouds?

An article in the Colorado Springs Independent ('Snow Job,' Feb. 16, 2006) reports that an entrepreneur in Vail, on contract with the Vail ski resort, pays area landowners to host cloud-seeding generators-cannons that shoot solutions of silver iodide into the air periodically from November through January. Resort owners say snowfall increases during this time, but the article's author, Joshua Zaffos, casts doubts on the practice, paraphrasing a scientist who says that 'research has demonstrated only that weather modification might shift where rain or snow falls, not increase the available moisture.'

It's frequently the way of Homo sapiens to leap and then look, instead of first considering possible consequences and then proceeding slowly, if at all. Is that the case with seeding clouds? And besides, just whose clouds are these?

Others besides humans rely on clouds' life-giving waters. Evidence of this is clear in the world's endangered tropical and subtropical cloud forests, where plants rely on fog for moisture. The cloud forests of Costa Rica have been home to a diverse population of flora and fauna, including orchids, mosses, ferns, dozens of species of frogs, and the likes of golden toads, blue morpho butterflies, toucans, quetzals, and fiery-throated hummingbirds. But since the early 1990s, many species have been disappearing.

Science writer Bob Holmes, who has covered this habitat change in articles in New Scientist and International Wildlife, notes that biologists and climatologists have discovered the cause. In a nutshell: global warming. With warmer ocean waters nearby, the forest fog appears less frequently, and the absence of its succoring waters represents a kind of drought.

Yesterday afternoon I watched the sky's lid close, and it felt as though my room had gotten smaller. Stratus, the low gray clouds that make up an overcast sky, have a way of making me feel mildly claustrophobic. But then it rained, like a full cup overflowing, and I enjoyed the calming steady cadence and gentle percussion of raindrops on the roof. It sounded like applause.

Today the firmament is once again blue, decorated with cumulus and lenticular clouds that make it look as though the mountains have doffed their caps. For this I am grateful. Now I understand the urge to proselytize, and I bid you: Go outdoors and lift your eyes.

Thomas Merton writes in his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, 'Oh, what a thing it is, to live in a place that is so constructed that you are forced, in spite of yourself, to be at least a virtual contemplative!' This is a gift, just as the clouds themselves are a gift. We who live linear, rectangular lives would do well to follow their curves with our eyes and our thoughts.

The manifesto of the Cloud Appreciation Society reads almost like a prayer. 'We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them,' it begins. But life would not exist without them, I say. Clouds are more than 'nature's poetry,' as the manifesto calls them. They are unruly signs from above, beautiful warnings that humans neglect at the risk of plummeting like Icarus.

The contemplation of clouds does not merely benefit the soul. It is a daily way to be reminded that humans live at the whim of larger forces.

After all, clouds refuse to be mapped. Their traces disappear. It is those who watch them who become more clear.