I love clouds. I could look at them all day, couldn’t you? As a child, would often look upwards and just watch them. I remember laying in the back of my parents car (this was before we constricted with seatbelts by state law) and looking out the rear window at a light blue sky peppered with altocumulus clouds. My mother was having me play the game of seeing shapes in the clouds. One cloud had the unmistakable profile of Goofy. I could see the floppy hat and the long snout slightly curved with a nose that looked like an over-sized olive balancing at the end. For a five year old it was something to see Goofy there in the clouds. It was something more, before my very eyes, to see Goofy change and dissipate. Yes, the movement of the clouds themselves became a source of delight. I would watch them, the cumulus clouds pulling apart like a cotton balls and becoming thin and delicate before dissolving from sight. I would watch the colossal cumulonimbus clouds that would continue to billow upward filling the sky with its snowy immensity. It was from watching the roiling, the passing, and dissipating clouds that I may have gotten an inchoate appreciation of the passing nature of things. Just watching something changing before your eyes might make you think of the million-and-one other things changing and passing right under our noses. Their passing beauty might lead to a consideration of Beauty itself…and that is not a bad thing, I think.
Nimbostratus clouds are the ones that bring rain or snow. Basically, storm clouds. Sometimes you can see them drifting close to the earth, their ragged bottoms looking could brush the ground below. Other times, on rainy days, they appear as an indistinguishable monochromatic gray dome, screwed down overhead. These days are the dreary days. But I learned that these clouds can sometimes can become darker, much darker. As a child, I was riding through the Mississippi Delta with Mama, Grandma and Grandpa. We were headed to my grandparent’s house in Greenville. We had made it past Leland and were not far from the outskirts of town. It was probably late spring, either the last of May or the first of June. The fields that we passed were full of healthy cotton; you could make out a few white bolls peeping out here and there. I loved looking at the passing cotton fields. To my mind, if the cotton was planted properly, the seed rows would run perpendicular to the highway. This created the most interesting visual effect. From the window of our speeding car, the rows appeared to be whirling by, like the blades of some great telluric fan. Sometimes, my face turned toward the window, I would make a noise, silently, loud enough for only me to hear, mimicking the sight from my window: “Shoo, shoo, shoo, shoo, shoo”.
The day promised rain for it had been overcast for most of the drive. I was prepared for that, resigning myself to an afternoon of television at Grandma’s house. We drove further, I lost in the rambling thoughts of a child, when I became aware of it. The sky had darkened and darkened considerably; I mean really dark like a cast iron skillet. The landscape, as far as the eye could see was shrouded in blackness- ominous and impenetrable. It was an awful sight. Unnerved, a feeling a dread washed over me. The blackness pressing in on us seemed to be carrying more than rain. It carried a Presence. It felt apocalyptic, in the true sense of the word. This storm was an unveiling and its revelation would suffer no dissembling. There was nowhere to hide. The bubble-safe-world of my childhood was on the verge being plunged into depths I was scarcely ready to fathom. I felt utterly defenseless before it.
Here is the strange thing. Neither denying nor contradicting the feeling of defenselessness before the Presence within the storm, there arose a strangely harmonious sentiment. Fascination. As dark as it was, no sun it sight, everything that passed our window became radiant from the Presence. The Presence was shrouded in darkness yet it was illumined and illuminating. The Presence was a radiant darkness. How a darkness can be radiant I cannot even begin to explain. When the sun shone bright above any other time, the cotton seemed to spread out as a uniform, dull green carpet, stretching from the highway and vanishing into the horizon. But from this darkness, from this Presence everything became preternaturally vivid. The green of the cotton seemed at last to achieve the hue of green, for which it was meant. It shone. It shined. Each leaf seemed to articulate itself, each plant appearing to abide in its particular uniqueness. From the Presence each and everything seemed charged and crackling with new vitality. The unveiling of the Presence unveiled the presences of all things allowing them to stand out and become more fully themselves.
At some point I took a break from my fascination of the clouds. When did this happen? Oh, I don’t know exactly. I might be right in guessing that it occurred when I began to discover that other wonder of nature…girls. They, too, seemed to float lightly about, filling the world with their enchantment. To my poor-adolescent-boy-of-a-mind they were as elusive and unpredictable as the clouds themselves. So naturally, they became singular sources of fascination.
When did it return, this love of the clouds? Well, it sounds so hackneyed but it was probably when my wife and I began to have children. Having children, you see, is a nice way of becoming reacquainted with the world.
For many years I taught at a high school near my home. My room was on the second floor and situated across a hallway lined with floor-to-ceiling picture windows. This was a real perk. The perk came in being able to see the most stunning sun rises. Now, I live in a suburb of Houston, Texas. If you know anything about the place where I live, the coupling of “stunning sunrise” and “Houston, Texas” might qualify as a non sequitur. But the given beauty of things cannot be altogether buried, try as we might with our tangled mass of power-lines and ubiquitous strip malls. As I said the sunrises were spectacular. Sometimes I would be treated to the cirrus clouds feathering the sky in soft lavenders and peaches. Sometimes they’d come in like waves, lapping up from the horizon in indigo’s and oranges. Other times, the expanse hung as a shimmering platinum sheet only few clouds resting upon it. What they lacked in number they repaid lavishly in appearance, for they burned the firmament in fiery brilliance like droplets of molten gold fallen from the forge of Vulcan.
I remember one early morning before the start of school, I was leaving my room to go downstairs for a cup of coffee. I stepped out and I saw a young man, probably a sophomore, sitting against the wall, caddy cornered from my door. I say he was sitting but it was more like a slouch on its way to prostration. He was like paint having been slopped against a wall and oozing downward, coalescing in a puddle. I offered a salutary nod in his direction that was not reciprocated. He had that sort of sleepy, blank, far away stare most high schoolers have at time of early morning. Bathed in the sterile fluorescence of the lights above and dressed in clothing, the only contrast of which, was a few hues of black, he was lost in whatever sound that loudly blossomed from his ear buds. It was a sort of dispiriting sight.
I continued on way to the lounge, checked my mailbox, got my coffee and then headed back upstairs. As I turned down the long hallway leading to my room, from the large window at the opposite end, I was arrested by the most magnificent sight. The cloud formation was of stratocumulus clouds that filled the entire breadth of the October sky. Never, in nature, had I seen in such a mesmerizing interplay of color and texture. The clouds canopied the heights in plush quilted cotton, lit underneath by the rising sun, rippling forth in peaches, purples, and violets that glowed like fire lit embers. To say it was spectacular is in no sense adequate to relay otherworldly the beauty of it. I remember thinking, dazzled by the sight, “Now that just can’t be ignored; that is enough to stop a person cold in their tracks”. And it happened; almost on cue the young fellow sitting down the hall and outside my room, rolled his head lazily in the direction of the window. Like one overcome by the siren’s song, he picked himself off the floor, dusted off his pants, and walked toward the window. He stood there for a brief moment and then did something that could fuel hours of contemplation. While looking upon that sunrise with both hands he reached up and removed the ear buds. Stop and think of what that means. Do not be too quick here. He removed the sound from his ears so as to see with his eyes.
There are sacramental moments in life and that was one if there ever was one. As I said, the scene is one worthy of hours of contemplation. I come back to it often.
One of the earliest non canonical writings in Christianity is called the Didache. It is believed to have been written somewhere between 60-120 AD. It is an early catechism, if will. It begins with these memorable lines “There are Two Ways, the one of Life and the one of Death, and great is the distance between them.” What does this have to do with clouds, you may ask? Well seeing shapes in the clouds is a real skill mind you. If you do not keep a certain sort of innocence, by which I mean you have become too practical, and therefore obtuse, this skill can be lost. If you do not believe me go outside with, preferably, a small child, and, even more preferably, with a small child you know and see how many things you can see in the clouds. You’ll find the child seeing in a flash, castles, dragons, bears, squirrels, cars, and mountains; however, you’ll be standing there flatfooted only looking at amorphous blobs of moisture. I tried doing it recently and what had once been done with the ease of water running downstream now had all the tortured work of deciphering a Rorschach. What does this have to do with life and death, by which I mean Real Life and Real Death, you know the eschatological kind? It has to do with the necessity of wonder, a wonder that takes delight that there is a world and the recognition of the privilege of being therein. Wonder, you see, is the raison d’etre of a child. This is the essential difference between the child and the rest of us. The child’s vision is clean. Its vision is such that it can see the irreducible beauty of ordinary things and simply take delight in its loveliness. That’s right, the ordinary things of the world. You remember don’t you? Ordinary things like fire flies, like Dandelions, like clouds. The child finds delight in these things where, now, you and I find only boredom. And as one writer once noted, it is not only strange that we should find boredom before these things, it is also tragic, for “boredom is not neutral…it is the fertilizing principle of unloveliness.” To my mind, living in a state of unloveliness is a fairly apt description of death. The real kind.
(Update: I just went outside and looked at the altocumulus clouds above my home, in which, I am happy to report, I saw the unmistakable profiles of the Road Runner and Piglet. This is undeniable proof that there is some hope for my immortal soul).
Every summer my family and I take a vacation. We usually head to west of Houston either to San Antonio or toward the Hill Country. Traveling Hwy 290 away from Houston you leave the placidly flat region of the Coastal Plains and crossing into Washington County the landscape begins to rise like a swell upon the ocean. It is a most remarkable sight, this geographic demarcation of plain and hill. The further you go the rollers keep coming, rising and falling; you rising and falling with it. The drive to our destination has become something I look forward to. My wife will often make the drive going, so I will sit in the passenger seat and look out the window. The big Texas sky is blue as a sapphire and is dolloped in white, the clouds above floating in wandering archipelagos. I have learned that the sky and clouds of summer have a magnanimous friendship. Each is fully content to let their own particular presence reveal the splendor of the other, so that the blueness of the sky makes the clouds whiter and the whiteness of the clouds makes the sky bluer. If only we could do the same.
Sometimes, in the distance, I will see a grove of trees, a dense patch of deep and dappled greens resting in the midst of the wide and open grassland. Strange to say but I get the urge to ask my wife to stop the car and for all of us to get out and begin walking toward it. I imagine the car pulling onto the shoulder, rattling and vibrating like a plane striking a runway. The car slows and then comes to a stop. We open the doors of the car and our ears are met with the violent rush of the speeding traffic, our bodies concussed by the trailing gusts of large semi-trucks as they smash the atmosphere before them. We quickly step off the shoulder unto a sort earthly estuary where the gravel and trash of the highway and the grass commingle. We begin making our way toward that grove of trees. I imagine that walk. I can feel us crossing in the tall grass, the spikelets caressing our hands as we move forward, dragonfly’s hovering and darting about around us. At first our ears are still filled with the roar of the traffic behind but it gradually dissipates as we move further from the road. The sun is hot overhead but there is a breeze, the breezes brushes the tall grass like a hand stroking velvet. I can imagine a sort of decompression coming upon us the further we move from the rushing highway. The chest seems to take deeper breaths and the stretched tension in the shoulders relaxes like rubber band going slack. We finally reach the grove, a mix of Texas Red Oak and Anaquas. We enter the shaded grove and sit upon the ground. The dense tree cover offers shade and consequently there is not as much grass. Sitting here we become aware of little things that usually lay hidden like the smell of the moist soil that we sit upon. In the trees above Carolina Wrens flit and hop about. We no longer hear the highway but the sound of rustling leaves and the chirping grasshoppers. We sit there silently and listen, resting in blessed presence of the unhurried world and one another. Maybe we sit there all day, taking no thought plans, we sit there until the sun takes its leave and slowly sinks below the horizon, its fading light calling forth the fireflies, who become soft pulsating beacons, quietly ascending and descending in the tall grass stretching beyond us.
It has be such a long time since I have seen the fireflies. Anyway, that is what I imagine.
One time, on our drive, I saw a buzzard circling in a lazy gyre above the clouds. In my mind I found myself as a boy sitting in First Methodist Church in Maben, Mississippi. It was a Sunday night in the summer and my Grandpa was delivering the evening message. He stood before the small group of people spaced out in the pews, a small music stand before him to hold his notes. I do not remember the subject of the sermon only a small vignette he shared of his own childhood growing up on his family’s place in Winterville, where they raised cotton. He spoke of it being a summer day, said that he had found himself sitting underneath a tree to find some relief from the heat. Leaning against the tree and looking out, Grandpa said that he remembered seeing two buzzards circling in the clouds above. He said the watched them for a long while, the buzzards slowly spiraling higher and higher upon the updrafts until they could be seen no more. “To this day, I have idea where those buzzards went”, he mused before us, with a slight chuckle and continued with on with his message.
His boyhood and my boyhood, at that time, was separated by fifty years. He shared a memory that has become a part of my memory, a memory I am now sharing with you as a forty four year old man. My memory of its telling is thirty years old but the actually occurrence is over eighty. Why do I, why do we remember such seemingly random things? I have no idea. Maybe time, among other things, is as an immensely wide flowing river that courses through our lives. Upon the river floats all manner of people, places, and events that transpire before and within us. Sometimes some piece of these, floating by, snags upon the banks of our memory. We gather these washed up bits and pieces- a recollection of a face, a nursery rhyme we sang ourselves to sleep with, the damp smell of pine straw in November, – we gather these up and cobble together a humble shanty from which to dwell and watch the river.
All of this comes from just watching a buzzard among the clouds.
Once on another trip to San Antonio, in the distance, I caught sight of a cloud’s shadow. I had the experienced, any number of times, being covered in the shade of the passing clouds above. But this, this was different. This was seeing the actual movement of a cloud’s shadow. It was a bright, hot, windy day, intermittent gusts pushing suddenly against the car. I could see the tall grass being blown about, swaying like kelp in tidal currents. Only a few cumulus clouds dotted the sky. One of the smaller ones decided to make a break for it and its shadow hurried along after. It started from a high hill diagonally and to the front, moving quickly but gently toward us. Fluidly as water, the shadow became as the very earth it raced across, wholly filling and forming itself to the ground’s contours. Few things are as graceful, as gentle, and as free as a cloud’s shadow. As the roving shade moved closer I could see the tops of the tall grass swirling and waving from within it. The nearer it came, the harder it became to see. Finally, it passed over the highway and continued onward behind us. It was over all too quickly. But I am grateful to have seen it. I often think back to that day and the seeing of the cloud’s passing shadow. One ephemeral thing making another ephemeral thing. What sound does the passing cloud’s shadow make? Nothing you can hear but everything you can feel. It seems to be the very essence of silence. It is the very sound of God.
If only you could find the place where the sky and earth meet.
We sit at the red light that leads to our neighborhood. She plays with a necklace and I look up to watch the cumulus clouds, as is my custom in the summer. Like heavenly armada they mass together, floating above, unhurried, unburdened. Looking at one of the larger one’s overhead, I muse aloud to her, “I wonder what it would be like to be in a cloud? I mean to be in it, not flying through it.”
“Heaven is in the clouds”, she replies unhurried, unburdened.
“Oh, that is true.”
“We’ll know what it’s like then”, she says, almost to herself.
Such a simple exchange, so unexpected, wholly unique and unrepeatable, like catching sight of a falling star. The gold of life is spun from such moments. Gather them up when you can.
Taking it up to hallow it, I look to the rear view mirror, and say, “I love you, Claire.”
“I love you, too.”
The light turns and we proceed homeward.
They are composed of very miniscule water droplets or ice crystals, so tiny that they are light enough to float high above the terrestrial body. They are formed when water vapor, in the air, is heated by the sun. The heated air begins to rise. As it rises it cools and expands, some of the vapor condenses upon extremely fine dust particles floating in the, air becoming a tiny droplet of water. When phenomenon is replicated billions of times over, a cloud appears. The water crystals are large enough to refract the wavelengths of light, coming from the sun; from this they have their white appearance.
Now this is how it happens. Light passes through the clear gelatinous dome of the cornea. Because the cornea is curved the light coming through the eye is bent. The colored part of the eye, the iris, adjusts the size of the pupil, dilating or contracting depending on the amount of light trying to enter in. The light continues on and meets the lens, laying behind the pupil, it focuses the light further, and unto the retina, an image. The retina is delicate and sensitive photo tissue. It contains photoreceptor cells that translates the illumined image into electrical impulses. From the retina, these impulses travel along the optic nerve to the occipital lobe of the brain. It takes only 13 milliseconds. The eye is the conduit. We actually see with our brains; that organ weighing three pounds, consisting of seventy five percent water and sixty percent fat.
What has been described above are the facts. This is how clouds form. This is how sight happens. For us, this is a necessary condition for reality.
During the summers of 1821 and 1822 in Hampstead, England, a landscape painter began painting what he called, “cloud studies”. In the beginning the studies include some terrestrial referent, a line of trees rooves of cottages, or the spire of a church. However, on September 13, 1821, terra firma is left behind and he only paints the clouds themselves. They are the most remarkable paintings. Huge cumulonimbus clouds fill the canvas. They are ethereal but they equally energetic; you can almost see the clouds billowing and flowing. “I am a man of the clouds” he wrote to a friend of his. For John Constable’s work, the sky and the clouds became, as he described, “…the keynote…the chief organ of sentiment.” Constable painted clouds with such detail, that meteorologists who have studied these paintings say that one can tell the time of year, even the hour of day from them.
In the early morning hours of December 15, 1899, French composer Claude Debussy,
completed his Nocturnes. They were inspired after wick of his imagination was sparked by a series of paintings he’d seen on exhibition in London, by the American painter, James McNeill Whistler. Whistler’s series was entitled Nocturnes. In the introductory notes, Debussy said of his own Nocturnes, “[t]he title Nocturnes is to be interpreted…in a decorative sense…it is not meant to designate the usual form of the Nocturne, but rather all the various impressions and the special effects of light that the word suggests.”
There are three movements to Debussy’s composition, the first of which is entitled “Nuages” or “Clouds”. He said of this movement, “’Nuages’ renders the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white.”
When the first few notes greet the ear they enter the imagination and speak of banks of clouds making their pensive procession across the gloaming.
Nocturne in Black and Gold The Falling Rocket
Concerning Constable and Debussy, these are the facts, the facts of reflective and creative imagination. And these facts depend on material facts, such as those governing the formation of clouds and the possibility of sight. The physical fact, the relationship between visible object and eyesight, is not something we can control. To have eyes open is to look at what is there. But there is a great difference between and looking and seeing. Some people gaze upwards and look only at floating vaporous aerosols and then move on with their day. They do not see dragons or kittens, much less entrusting that image to paint and canvas or committing it to music. But some do. And the fact that they do cannot be reduced to only material facts, as necessary as they are. Even the fact that there are things to be seen- clouds, cotton fields, hawks, shadows- and thing that sees- you and I- are literally unanswerable from the material facts themselves. Likewise for there to be paintings, orchestral arrangements, or even reflective memory on clouds, the material facts themselves are not enough. The material facts alone could neither explain the cloud studies of Constable nor Debussy’s “Nuages”. For that explanation you need something further. Something like wonder. Something otherworldly. Something like love.
But that is for another essay.
Until then, go out and enjoy the clouds.