"Cloud Study"

The art of looking up and around

This week, I learned about clouds. I remembered the big three, of course—cumulus, cirrus, and stratus (puffy and cartoonish; wispy and tissue-like; uniform and relentlessly gray)—but I didn’t know that they weren’t named until 1802, or that new cloud types are still being recorded. And though I’ve been tremendously grateful, these past many weeks, to see a slice of the sky through my windows, I hadn’t considered that airy landscape to be such a spectacular, shared natural resource, something we have in common from Manhattan to Mongolia.

But when I interviewed him for a story this week, Gavin Pretor-Pinney of the Cloud Appreciation Society convinced me that the sky is “a wilderness within everybody’s grasp.” Plants and animals, he added, certainly vary tremendously from one place to another: The girthy baobab trees in Madagascar and parts of Africa look nothing like the scrawny, shedding birch I used to watch from my old living room in Brooklyn. With a couple exceptions, though, the sky is the same everywhere. (You’re more likely to see noctilucent clouds, silvery-blue and electric-looking, on summer nights at high latitudes; lenticular clouds, which resemble flying saucers, tend to build downwind of mountain peaks, though they’re sometimes spotted elsewhere.) For the most part, you can talk to anyone, anywhere, about the sky, and have a shared experience to draw from.

That’s really appealing to me right now. Though we’re all living through a quaking, anxiety-inducing time, the particulars look different for everyone. Many of us share similar big-picture feelings—fear that loved ones will fall sick, anger over persistent or widening inequities, frustration and resentment that jobs are vanishing and rent is still due—but our daily routines, risks, and experiences of social distancing are drastically different. My daily grind currently consists of calisthenics in the morning, ballet in the afternoon, and a dozen-plus hours of shuffling quietly back and forth between a wicker chair in my bedroom and a pink velvet couch in my living room, laptop in tow, with occasional pit stops in the kitchen. I’m in awe of parents and teachers, trying to be patient and entertaining and kind; of health care providers and postal workers and the staff at the bodega down the block, showing up even if they’re scared; and of partners, striving for tenderness toward each other even as they’re managing their own fraying nerves. It would be disingenuous to think that I can relate to how any of them are experiencing the pandemic—I’m just cooped up, alone and a little antsy. That’s why I love the idea of asking people about the clouds they see. At a time when it seems bonkers to start a conversation with shallow platitudes, asking about a sliver of sky strikes me as an appealingly neutral, open-ended way to check in, and say, hey, I’m thinking of you and I hope you’re hanging in there.

This week’s poem, “Cloud Study,” by Donald Platt, is, obviously, about clouds—but also about the art of observing, and about aging and about fleeting, frustrating time. The reading below comes from the end, but I hope you wander through the whole thing. The poem centers on John Constable’s wonderful cloud study paintings—quick, preparatory oils on paper, bits of canvas, or board that you can sometimes see at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Metropolitan Museum, and many others. The one above was painted in the course of a single hour in 1822, and is typically at the Tate. (It’s currently on loan to the Hong Kong Museum of Art.) This portion of the poem is my favorite—the language is gorgeous, e.g. an “avalanche of cumulus”—and it also conveniently allows me to avoid a brutal butchering of the French words scattered throughout the rest.

Thanks for listening—and thanks for replying to tell me what the world is like where you are. Last week, Patrick Kilian, my oldest and dearest childhood pal, told me about the spring smells of northeast Ohio, where he is hunkering down and enjoying wonderful trees and soil rich with deposits from ancient glaciers. The great Karl Snyder and Angela Butel, my beloved buds in Portland, Oregon, are playing “plant bingo” with the help of a guide to the nearby flowers and ornamental trees. “My favorite whose name I know is Grace Ward Lithodora,” Karl wrote to me this afternoon. “They are tiny and electric blue and sometimes flower so thickly it looks like someone’s yard has a cute radioactive rug.” Sofia Gans—my first friend in New York, who is now a teacher in Connecticut—described how she’s been talking with her students about Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who championed binomial nomenclature, the method of assigning species a two-part name. (You can learn more about taxonomic monikers in the lovely book The Art of Naming, which I wrote about back in 2018.) “Linnaeus saw the study of nature as an imperative of humans, created by God with the ability to reason above all other species, as a way to be closer to the Creator and understand his grand design more thoroughly,” Sofia wrote to me. “Regardless of anyone’s spiritual persuasions, it seems like there’s something deeply comforting to all of us right now about getting to know and name the nature around us.”

That seems totally right to me. This week, I’d love to know what you’re seeing in the sky. Any cloud formations you can name? If you feel inclined to share a note, a photo, a sketch, whatever, you can just reply to this email; it lands in my regular inbox. Now that this letter has migrated to Substack and the list of subscribers has expanded, I see that there are some of you I don’t know personally. Hello, and please don’t be shy! I’m glad you’re here, and would love to hear from you. May we all spend a minute or two with our heads in the clouds. 



P.S. A few nice links: 

If you want to be awed by the magnificent granularity of the fossil record, look at these raindrops, fossilized in sandstone 240 million years ago. If you’re in more of a seafaring mood, the New Bedford Whaling Museum is streaming its annual marathon reading of Moby-Dick. (So far, 3,799 people have tuned in, and 3,798 of those people were not me.) Speaking of books, I love the Instagram account @covidbookcovers, where a graphic designer is reimagining famous covers to describe the COVID-19 era. I hope we can all read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Fauci or Charles Dickens’s Great Vaccinations sometime soon. The mosaicist Jim Bachor, who often transforms potholes into pretty works of art, is staying busy right now, too—he has installed artistic renditions of Purell, toilet paper, and other hot-ticket quarantine items in Chicago neighborhoods.

Talk to you next week. Good luck out there.

[Image credit: Anders Knudsen/CC BY 2.0]