Messages from Above

Why the Clouds Are Worth Watching

| Utne Reader January / February 2007

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.