Since the dawn of time, when our first ancestors were capable of craning their necks and looking at nature in awe, the sky has mesmerised humankind. The blue sky, insects buzzing and birds flying, the stars in the night sky forming a myriad of patterns in which to form their mythology and track the course of time, enthralled the ancients. And clouds. Clouds, too, caught the imagination of those giants of old.
For those wanting to journey further along that path of awareness, living life to the full, and being close or closer, or at one with nature, ‘cloud spotting’ is an awe-inspiring, encouraging, ’enveloping’, enlivening, and entertaining event.
‘To think creatively, we must be able to look afresh at what we normally take for granted’. George Keller
As I lay on a picnic blanket in Richmond Park, west London, with my mother beside me – and I should point out I was about six years old at the time – we played that game of looking up at the clouds and imagining what the various cloud shapes looked like. ‘It looks like a television’, my mother said. As the high winds slowly changed the cloud’s shape, I waited, laughed and then exclaimed loudly, ‘It now looks more like a whale.’ And, so it went on.
Ofcourse, years later, I took the photograph that appears at the top of this article. What an amazing cloud. Isn’t that an angel?
The lowest clouds are cumulus clouds. They’re usually fast, floating around about 3000 feet above the ground. Low, puffy clouds with flat bases, generally, their upper parts often resemble cauliflowers, and they are not the harbingers of rain. But, it may be these that are the ‘shape-shifting’ clouds that, in my boyhood, resembled animals and inanimate objects.
‘I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.’
(The Cloud. Percy Bysshe Shelley)
Above this layer of cloud lie the slow-moving, rather majestic cumulonimbus clouds, soaring from about 4500 feet to 45000 feet. With their huge height and volume, these are the clouds that bring rain and storms, and even thunder and lightning.
There is an ancient Hindu tradition that says that high above the earth it is elephants that are the bringers of rain, and that clouds themselves were the celestial relatives of the white elephants that roamed the earth. And the rain? Well, the elephants would use their trunks to shower the earth below with rain.
Stratus clouds are those are fog-like, misty, diffuse clouds. They are the kind of widespread cloud that uniformly blanket the whole sky, and which can be seen especially, but not only around mountains and coastal areas.
They can form at ground level as fog or mist, but can also reach up to an altitude of about 7000 feet.
Stratocumulus clouds, about 7000 feet above us, are thick, but usually patchy clouds, with ‘gaps’ that allow you to see the blue sky occasionally, or if its near dawn or dusk allow the suns rays to shine through in several shafts of light. This effect is called crepuscular rays, God’s rays, Buddha rays or Jacob’s ladder.
Boats sail on the rivers,
And ships sail on the seas;
But clouds that sail across the sky
Are prettier far than these.
There are bridges on the rivers,
As pretty as you please;
But the bow that bridges heaven,
And overtops the trees,
And builds a road from earth to sky,
Is prettier far than these.
To the Moari’s these ‘fingers’ of sunshine were known as the ‘Ropes of Maui’ (from the Maori tale of Maui Potiki restraining the sun with ropes to make the days longer), or the sun drawing water, from the ancient Greek belief that sunbeams drew water into the sky (which isn’t altogether odd as it seems to be an early description of evaporation).
Above these clouds, at about 16000 feet are altocumulus clouds. They can be a multitude of rounded ‘clumps’ of cloud, almond shape, and resemble fish scales – hence it may be called a ‘mackerel’ sky. In France it is sometimes called a ciel moutonné (fleecy sky); in Spain a cielo empedrado (cobbled sky); in Germany it is known as Schäfchenwolken (sheep clouds), and in Italy the clouds are known as a pecorelle (little sheep).
Hamlet: ‘Do you see that cloud that’s almost shaped like a camel?’
Polonius: ‘By the mass, and it’s like a camel, indeed’.
Hamlet: ‘Methinks it is like a weasel’.
Polonius: ‘It is back’d like a weasel’.
Hamlet: ‘Or like a whale?’
Polonius: ‘Very like a whale’.
[Hamlet. Williams Shakespeare]
Still laying on my back, this time a few months later, and back home in Capel Curig, in Wales, I was looking up at a mackerel sky, one evening. I have found the ‘cure’ for insomnia, not that I suffered from that at six years of age. But, in laying down, looking up, I decided it would be a good idea to count those clumps of altocumulus clouds, the ‘scales’ of that mackerel sky, and promptly fell asleep. For me, then, it seemed better than the proverbial counting sheep in one’s mind’s eye.
Clouds are fascinating, and there’s more. But, meanwhile, I would encourage you to sit, pause and gaze heavenward, and just meditate on clouds. Enjoy their beauty, the bounty of the Cloud-Giver, recapture your childhood and see if you can see a dog, a whale, and elephant, a television in cloud shapes, or even an angel? What are you missing?
[Part 2, soon]