We’ve been through a sweltering week or two and now it appears that the remnants of Hurricane Ida are going to pay us a brief but very wet visit. These days, there’s rarely a dull weather moment in this climate-changing world.
Some folk prefer images of a lovely sunrise or sunset; others are drawn to the arc of a rainbow or a moody, threatening sky. But when I look to the heavens, it’s cloud forms that always seem to mesmerize me. It’s not the science of clouds that captures my imagination: after all, a cloud is nothing more than an aerosol spray, a visible mix of minute water droplets, frozen crystals, and maybe a few dust particles suspended in the atmosphere. But even that explanation falls short because it doesn’t begin to account for the play of light within a cloud, or the variety of its hues, or the fantastic shapes that gather above us from time-to-time. I prefer a more imaginative, more artistic point of view—clouds as stereograms: pictures hidden within pictures.
I imagine it’s a universal childhood experience: lying in the grass, looking up at the sky, looking for some hidden image—a witch or a camel—within a bank of clouds. Not only did I love to find those hidden images, but I would also spend the next ten minutes drifting with them, watching them transform into something new and different: the bunny rabbit that became a marshmallow man, or the sailboat that suddenly turned into an octopus. A child’s imagination is like a cloud: it knows no bounds, that is until it’s cut short by some dull-witted adult who says, “Uh-oh; looks like it’s going to rain.” That’s a sure buzz kill!
There’s another element to the life of clouds: they provide dimension in an otherwise flat world. Baseball players know how difficult it is to track a fly ball in a cloudless “high sky.” There’s no ceiling, no point of comparison, no contrast. It’s easy to lose a baseball in the ether, just like it’s easy to become lost when there are no road signs to point the way.
On a steamy night last week, a few good friends gathered on a riverside dock to catch the evening breeze and share a cool drink. (There’s hasn’t been enough of either these days.) On the far side of the river, the setting sun used a towering cumulus cloud as a canvas, working an explosion of colors into the gossamer fabric of its shifting shapes. Out on the water, a graceful little sailboat—a Watch Hill-15—swung peacefully on its mooring. Then, out of nowhere, perhaps to add some perspective or to enhance the overall effect, a crop-duster came swooping low across the river, its fragile silhouette outlined in black against the massive cloud hovering in the evening sky. I reached for my camera in a lame attempt to freeze the scene. The result is the image that accompanies this Musing but it doesn’t really do justice to the magic of the moment.
No matter; I’m not disappointed. Maybe it’s just not possible to capture every fleeting moment in the life of a cloud.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown, MD. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com