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In Appreciation of Clouds

One summer when I was in college, I got a job on a ground crew for a hot air balloonist. As any pilot knows, you always keep one eye on the controls and another on the clouds: cloudspotting. This may be even more important when flying a balloon. A balloon is cloud-like and floats along with the wind and thermals with an assist from a blast of flaming propane to warm the air within the balloon's thin nylon skin. Clouds are a pilot's best resource, for weather, wind speed, and at what altitude to fly.

Probably the most important and more common use of cloudspotting is to pick out large billowy cumulonimbus elephants and fluffy cirrus bunnies and dogs. As an artist, whenever I need inspiration or confirmation that any shape or color combination from my wildest imagination is possible, I can find it in the clouds.

A few months back I mentioned an elite international organization that I had become a member of, the Cloud Appreciation Society. Our motto is Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and live life with your head in the clouds! I won't be surprised if my phone lines are tapped.

Book Reviews:

Joe Queenan, Stratus Seeker (New York Times, June 11)

John Harris, Flying high (The Guardian, June 1)

Richard Hamblyn, With his head in the clouds (London Sunday Times, May 28)

Susan Elderkin, A head in the clouds (The Telegraph, May 23)

Toby Clements, On a cloudy day you can look forever (The Telegraph, May 14)
The society's founder, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, has a new book out titled, The Cloudspotter's Guide. I haven't read it yet but have it on order. Last week a reporter from the Washington Post e-mailed to ask me about my affiliation with the Cloud Society, as he was reviewing the book. I noticed a lame review in the New York Times on Sunday. I suppose it's easy to mock and makes for a humorous story to get your mind off the grim headlines of the day, and that's OK. [The book is a bestseller in Great Britain, and the reviews in the British press are all positive. -- Ed.] The reporter hasn't called with his questions yet, but on my bike ride this morning it became quite clear why I'm an unabashed cloudie.

As I began my ride the sun was just beginning to light up a partially overcast sky, surrounding a low floating grey cumulus in pink and yellow; fitting for a Turner seascape or a Constable sky. With more sunlight warming the air the scene changed rapidly. The puffy clouds were accented by streaks of white and pink cirrus with a clear blue background. The reflection of golden sun light off the low clouds played wonders with the green woods. This is how to wake up any day, endless possibilities: so that's where George Inness got that?

Mid-way through my ride a low field of clouds turned dark ocher and then purple; a rain shower began. Within minutes the rain ceased, and I saw my first of three rainbows, one of them would be a double. The golden reflection from earlier was now enhanced by the moisture in the air. For that moment the woods were on fire.

Inness comingstorm

I stopped for bagels and coffee on my way home. As I got back into my car I looked up to see the third rainbow. I said to a man walking by, "look, it's good luck," but he grumbled something incoherent. I had to laugh; how could he not be moved by this beautiful rainbow? I drove off passing a group of 10 to 15 smiling, chatting people. The morning crew at the Safeway was standing in the middle of the parking lot, looking up at the rainbow. That's why my head is in the clouds. Not only do I get endless confirmation that my wildest imagination is tame in comparison, it also makes me very happy. Look up!


Anonymous said...

Clouds have long been underrated.

New York School painter Jon Schueler (1916-1992)spent most of his career painting clouds--and seriously grey Scottish clouds at that.

Check out some of them:

Mark Barry said...

Thanks for the links Thomas, my daily cloud fix.

Oksana Khadarina said...


Clouds, bagels and coffee... these are a few of my favorite things! :)

Mark Barry said...

and a rainbow, oh my...

libby said...

This is proof you are one lucky guy! Three rainbows is just excessive. I'm so jealous. Yesterday evening, the sky here was one great dark gray inverted saucer, with brightness around the edges at the horizon (or at least as close to a horizon as us city folks ever sight). I knew I was going to get rained on. I did. Yes! Clouds!

Mark Barry said...

3 is excessive but for you Libby I'll share the luck. Note: I went to post this comment the code letters were-fckued, I think my luck may be fragile at best.

roberta said...

oh this is such a sweet's a little cloud eye candy from flickr. there's lots of cloud appreciators there (me included)

Mark Barry said...

Thanks Ms R. I knew you were one of us. Very nice flickrs.

rb said...

Hamlet: Do you see that cloud, that's almost in shape like a camel?

Polonius: By the mass, and 't is like a camel, indeed.

Hamlet: Methinks, it is like a weasel.

Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.

Hamlet: Or, like a whale?

Polonius: Very like a whale.

Mark Barry said...

Love it, love it...or like a pink cadallac-with tail fins.

Anonymous said...

What beautiful reminder that art is everywhere
we only need look up look sown and look around!

Mark Barry said...

A nice meadow and bottle of wine are nice too, hint, hint.