“Not a cloud in the sky.” Sound like a perfect day? Not to me. I think a sky without a single cloud is like a table without flowers, or a neck without pearls. It’s missing the adornment that sets off its true beauty.
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I’ve always loved clouds. I love gazing at them to see what they resemble. An animal? A person? A breadbasket? Could be anything.
Cumulus clouds are best for this pleasant activity. A cloud primer I found online calls the puffy, fair-weather cumulus “the cloud of choice for 6-year-olds,” which seems about right. (To find this handy cloud directory — compliments of the Georgia Institute of Technology — search online for “common cloud names, shapes, and altitudes.”)
Even more than their funny resemblances, though, I love how subtly changeable clouds are. At a glance, they seem static, permanent. Look away for a moment, though, and when you turn back they’ll have transformed just slightly…but enough to turn the bulldog’s snout into the beginning of an elephant’s trunk.
I also love “clouding,” my word for attempting to identify a cloud’s type. (Clouding is like birding but with no audio.) The evening before I wrote this column, a phalanx of stratocumulus clouds (“low, puffy layers,” says Georgia Tech) enthralled me just before nightfall. Moments later, however, when my little dog Sadie and I stepped outside for her last potty call of the day, every last puff had slipped away and the sky was clear.
Magic so mundane it can go unremarked.
In that sense, come to think of it, clouds are like life itself — seeming static but changing constantly in ways you may not notice unless you’re paying attention.
Clouds can surprise you, too. I’ll never forget my first airplane ride as an adult. I flew from Sacramento to Los Angeles to visit one of my older sisters. The only thing I remember from that flight, apart from the anticipation of seeing Shelly, was my astonishment when I looked out the window and saw a lumpy carpet of brilliant white clouds below me. How strange to be looking down on them! It had been overcast when I boarded the plane; now we soared above those clouds. And how beautiful they were, sparkling in the sun!
Most recently, I learned of a cloud type new to me — the mammatus. According to EarthSky.org, the group that alerted me to this interesting variant, “mammatus clouds are pouch-like protrusions hanging from the undersides of other clouds.”
Well. You can almost figure that out yourself by the name, which has the same root as “mammary.”
“Composed primarily of ice,” EarthSky continues, “these cloud pouches can remain visible in your sky for perhaps 10 or 15 minutes at a time. People associate them with severe weather, and it’s true they can appear around, before or after a storm. They can seem ominous. But, in a way that’s so common in nature, their dangerous aspect goes hand in hand with a magnificent beauty.”
I’ll say! I don’t recall ever seeing a mammatus in person (I think they’re more common at altitudes where it snows), but you can find eye-popping examples of them online just by searching the name.
While researching this column, I also found, to my delight, the Cloud Appreciation Society (cloudappreciationsociety.org).
“We believe clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul,” says the group’s manifesto. “Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see within them will save on psychoanalysis bills.”
A nifty perk.
I don’t have a smartphone, but if I did I’d download the Society’s CloudSpotter app, which helps you identify even rare and unusual cloud formations. (Including the mammatus? Probably.)
On the morning I wrote this column, I was “clouding” while out at the barn to feed our pony and goat. I noted lovely cirrus clouds up high (“delicate streaks,” opines Georgia Tech). And, way off toward the Sierra, I spotted a line of low-lying stratocumulus like the ones I’d seen overhead the night before.
Funny thing about clouds. The more attention you pay and the more you know about them, the more fascinating they become.
Again…like life itself.
Sometimes clouds match up with your moods in a breathtaking way. The week after my mother died, in April of 1998, the cloud formations, day after day, astounded me. Low in the sky yet tall and muscular, they must have been cumulonimbus clouds, and I do recall that it rained off and on. Georgia Tech calls these beauties “the towering clouds that scare us senseless,” but I didn’t experience them that way at all. To me, they marked a momentous event in the most beautiful way imaginable.
Did I perceive that meaning in them, or project that meaning onto them? Doesn’t matter. It was glorious and mysterious and soothing in a way that nothing else could be.
One final thing to note about clouds: their shadows. For this, we’re back to those puffy cumulus clouds of the sunny day. Out walking near my home, I have a pretty view of the hills that roll down to the Cosumnes River, east of us. When clouds dot the sky, they create an ever-changing palette of subtle color variations and shading on the hills of that landscape. One moment, muted hues. The next, brilliant colors.
It’s singularly rewarding when you pay attention to it.
And need I add…just like life.
Jennifer Forsberg Meyer is a biweekly columnist with the Mountain Democrat. Leave a comment for her online, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.