Inspired by, and written with the aid of, The Cloudspotter’s Guide & The Cloud Collector’s Handbook by Gavin Pretor-Pinney
In the west, chronically-happy people are set to have a sunny disposition. But for Iranians, a cloudy sky is a metaphor for happiness. For a long time I too longed for tranquil blue skies, and would without fail be moody when a cloud hanged over my head — figuratively and literally. Yet the weirdest thing has happened, and I’m siding with the Iranians.
Cumulus – that’s the fluffy ‘sheep’ clouds – have always filled people with delight. These raggy clumps of cloud have always been a source of fascination for children who find all kinds of shapes and patterns in them. The wispy Cirrus clouds high up in the sky also have their charm, as if they were mythic writing left by God for us to marvel at.
Yet when ever you mention clouds, especially in Britain, there’s seldom anyone who thinks of these beautiful collections of air particles. Everyone thinks of Stratus clouds, those oppressive featureless clusters of clouds that fill up all the sky and block out the sun.
But consider this: Stratus are the only clouds that everyone has walked through. They meet us at the ground as fog or mist. It is likely that you’ve also seen stood above them on hills, or even walked through Stratus cloud that only reached below your head. You may well have seen it at a distance in the form of sea fog.
The other cloud almost universally detested is the cumulonimbus. The storm cloud. Its dark underbelly looms over the sky, occasionally lit up by lightning. Inside, the cloud is a vicious creature. William Rankin, the only man to have survived falling through a cumulonimbus clouds, has written about his experience. His account is exhilitaring:
My first shock was the incredibly cold air. I had gone abruptly from
a comfortable cockpit temperature of 75° F. to almost minus 70° F. … I could feel my abdomen distending, stretching, stretching, stretching, until I thought it would burst. My eyes felt as though they were being ripped from their sockets, my head as if it were splitting into several parts, my ears bursting inside … I saw lightning all around me, over, above, everywhere, and I saw it in every shape imaginable. But when very close it appeared mainly as a huge, bluish sheet, several feet thick, sometimes sticking close to me in pairs, like the blades of a scissor, and I had the distinct feeling that I was being sliced in two.
Then the semi-religious experience that any thinking person would have to have:
At one point, I saw such an eerie effect that I thought I had already died. I had been looking up in the direction of my ’chute, when a bolt of lightning struck, illuminating the huge interior of the ’chute’s billow as though it were a strange white-domed cathedral, and the effect seemed to linger on the retinas of my eyes. For a moment, I had the distinct feeling that I was sailing into a softly lit church and at any moment I might hear the subdued strains of an organ and a mournful voice in prayer—and I thought I had died. Maybe this is it, I thought. This is the way it all begins after death. You’re dead, Bill. It’s all over. Now you’ll have peace.
Then he experiences drowning — but thousands of feet in the sky!
…sometimes the rain was so dense and came in such swift, drenching sheets, I thought I would drown in midair. It was as though I were under a swimming pool, and I had held my breath several times, fearful of drowning. If I had not run out of oxygen, I would have held the mask over my face as protection against drowning.
Later, he describes an unimaginably frightening scene:
Occasionally, I’d look up to try and see what was happening to my parachute … and during one such observation, I saw and felt what I shall perhaps never witness again (unless in a thunderstorm). A sudden and violent blast of air, coming from the long dark narrow corridor in the storm, apparently hitting me with greater force and just prior to hitting my ’chute, sent me careening up into the ’chute itself.
The most frightening storm experience I ever had was seeing a roll cloud during an impressive storm. I believe this is a video of that exact cloud — you can see the anchor-shaped Cumulonimbus hovering above:
(It was much more intimating from where I was!)
Given such dramatic images, it’s easy to see why people have invested so much meaning in clouds. Schoenberg kept a diary of clouds thinking he could predict German victory in the First World War. According to ancient Hindu belief, clouds are the spiritual cousins of elephants. Most portrayals of heaven, after all, centre around clouds.
Cloudspotting needn’t, then, be about finding crude images in clouds. It is much more fulfilling to find the inherent beauty and magnificence in clouds, to see them as the culmination of nature. For the cloudspotter, the thrill is in discerning what makes each cloud remarkable. My favourite cloud I’ve spotted is this one, what I believe to be Altocumulus perlucidus, though I’m by no means sure. I adore the diamond arrangement of little Cumulus clouds, joined together like the decorative floor of some grand sky city, its edges trailing off in disordered beauty:
There’s even much to enjoy about more normal clouds. Look at the photo below. Notice the Cumulus fractus in the foreground and the wispy Cirrus clouds in the top left. Faintly, I can see what looks line a distant plane trail on the right — itself a form of cloud, albeit man-made. The closest clouds are likely about 1-2000 feet away; the farthest perhaps 40,000 feet.
So, who’d a thunk it, cloudspotting?
I suppose there’s no better way to finish but with some music. Debussy’s Nocturnes, the first of which is titled Nuages, or Clouds: