Messages from Above

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.

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