by James Fairhall
I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores, of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die —
For after the rain, when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams, with their convex gleams,
Build up the blue dome of Air —
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise, and unbuild it again.
—from “The Cloud,” Percy Bysshe Shelley
Mention the word “cloud” nowadays, and many people will think of cloud computing. But the relatively benign descendents of the poisonous hydrogen-helium clouds that roiled the earth’s early atmosphere still float above us except on boring blue-sky days. Oops—a Chicagoan who thinks blue skies are dull? Perhaps I protest too much, but that’s normal for a recent convert to the Cloud Appreciation Society (www.cloudappreciationsociety.org), founded by Gavin Pretor-Pinney in the UK in 2005.
True, winter months here in the Cloudy City are too often made dreary by the dreaded nimbostratus. This featureless entity seems to envelop us (its base, starting at 0-2 kilometers high, actually can envelop us, so that we breathe its dank air) like the Mushroom that Ate Chicago. Fortunately, the nimbostratus has dozens of attractive relatives eager to take the heavenly stage. Most of us turn a blind eye to this stage, yet its changing cast of characters is fascinating and diverse.
A cloud is a visible body of super-fine water droplets or ice particles suspended in the atmosphere. But the different shapes and traits of clouds are so various that the three main classes—based on their preferred levels in the atmosphere, which determine their forms—are just a beginning. Can you name them? If you don’t ask me what I knew before I received my quarter-sized Cloud Appreciation Society pin, I won’t ask you again; but for the record they are cumulus or heap clouds, stratus or sheet clouds, and cirrus or fibrous clouds:
The three chief cloud types break down further into ten genera, each of which has several species (see http://cloudappreciationsociety.org/collecting/about-cloud-classifications). Some of the cloud species are rather subtle and only nebulously distinct from more familiar cloud forms, reminding us that clouds merge into each other with a fine disregard for human categories. A few are spectacular and unique, such as the stratocumulus roll cloud known as “the Morning Glory.” The Glory forms in the spring above the Gulf of Carpentaria in Queensland, Australia, where glider pilots surf it like a wave, sometimes with cloud lovers (fortified with Dramamine) in the passenger seat:
My intermittent career as a cloud watcher began in grade school. Occasionally, on fine summer afternoons in Ossining, New York, my friend Lee and I would climb a nearby grassy hill and—younger readers, hold your gasps of astonishment—do absolutely nothing. That is, we’d do nothing recognizably valuable today. For ten or fifteen minutes, we’d just lie on our backs on the clover and weeds, contemplating what I remember as a procession of billowy Conestoga wagons (clearly, in retrospect, cumulus clouds) floating across the sky. That was one of my earliest introductions to the fact that everything in nature changes: all phenomena are time travelers, like human beings (as I learned considerably later), moving to mysterious destinations.
Fast forward to my most recent birthday, last September 4. It was a breezy, cool, cloudy-bright end-of-summer day. My wife and I went to the Magic Hedge near Montrose Harbor. Predictably there were few winged migrants among the low trees and groves of goldenrod. But the sky was a gift reminding me of Stephen Dedalus’s description, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, of the Dublin sky circa 1898: “A day of dappled seaborne clouds.” At about four p.m., Cumulus fractus swirled in the wind
above a sun-flushed, chiaroscuro roll cloud extending from just inland over Montrose Beach and out over the lake. Volley ball players and waders were oblivious. In fact, so was everybody, it seemed; I had my birthday present to myself.
You don’t need to wait until your birthday to revel, wandering lonely as a cloud, in a gorgeous sky. Here in Chicago the New Year began with some sublime cloudscapes enhanced by the presence of a pearly, late-afternoon half moon, suspended in a low eastern quadrant of the firmament, which looked something like a cloud itself.
On January 3 a herd of hybrid clouds, Cumulonimbus incus mamma, hovered like celestial cows with swollen udders above DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus. “Mamma,” from Latin, means udder, and designates the downward projections of certain species of cumulus clouds, especially those topped with platforms resembling anvils (incus).
Each lobe of a mamma is much larger than it appears to be—at one to two miles across, larger than the campus—and lasts about ten minutes. This particular herd was overseen by high-flying, wavy Altocumulus undulatus resembling fish scales or, perhaps, the stripped skeleton of a gigantic fish. By late afternoon the mammas had vanished. The fish, or the remains of a school of fish, caught the sun’s last brilliance, sharing the sky with the early-rising half moon.
Yes, my head was in the clouds on January 3. They gave me esthetic pleasure and put me in touch, briefly, with what Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire calls “the real.” Wherever we are, clouds connect us with nature—even with wilderness, given our happy lack of control over them. And nature, as Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, “is a mutable cloud which is always and never the same.”