I’ve always been a cloud gazer. When I was younger, I spent my lazy late summer afternoons on my back in the grass, looking upwards. Sometimes with my sister, sometimes alone, I’d lie there for hours at a time, keeping watch as dogs and fish and automobiles disguised as clouds wandered across the sky.
As I grew older, clouds became less magical. They became distractions, something to look at out classroom windows, indicators of wind or rain, and metaphors of anxiety or foreboding in any number of Victorian novels. Lately, though, I’ve become jealous of clouds, and so I’ve started paying attention to them again.
I remember, in middle school, learning about the different types of clouds, and falling in love with their names, words so expressive of form and weight. Cumulonimbus, voluminous and solid, the lofty cirrus, and the linear stratus, like streaks of white cotton candy swept with a broom across the sky.
Now, as I stare at clouds out the window of a bus, when I’ve escaped outside during my break at work, or from a park on a day off, I think to myself that clouds are unparalleled travelers. They are shape-shifters and wanderers, always dispersing and rearranging, rising and descending. They move with the wind, practically one with air.
Did you know the study of clouds is called nephology? Clouds form because (and bear with my recalled seventh grade science here) water vapor is lighter than air (think of steam rising from a pot of boiling water), and so when warm air and water vapor mix, they rise. And as this “saturated” air rises, it cools as the atmosphere gets colder, and eventually the vapor condenses, and tiny water particles (either liquid or frozen, depending on their temperature) hang densely together in clouds. When the particles get too heavy, they fall, either as rain or snow or sleet or hail, or whatever other forms of precipitation tumble down to earth from the sky.
When I was traveling, I looked to clouds to tell the weather, to decide whether or not to bring a jacket or an umbrella, or whether it was really the right day to climb a mountain or a skyscraper, just to see the world wrapped in fog. And I rarely noticed that clouds are always different, because everything else was always different too. Even though I’ve spent most of my life solidly living in one place or another, I’m still trying to adjust to being “home” after a year spent traveling so freely. That’s where this cloud envy, began, I think. That, and perhaps, that clouds get to fly.
We do a lot of flying, nowadays, especially when we travel, and it’s become commonplace to be thousands of feet above ground in a rapidly moving metal cylinder with wings, so it’s no surprise, I guess, that clouds don’t hold the same place in our culture as they have in past ones. But when I think about how amazing it must have been to be the first person to fly through a cloud, or to fly above one, I get chills, just the way I do when I look out of an airplane window at a vista of clouds stretching as far as the eye can see.
A week ago I was in the Grand Canyon for the briefest of family vacations, and on our second (and final) day there, the canyon was nearly cloudless, just blue sky stretching from one end of the horizon to the other like a carefully painted ceiling, an empty, depthless dome. And I really missed them, which is why I’m writing about the clouds, instead of the canyon.
Clouds give the sky texture. They move and change. They’re shape shifters, storm warnings, moon garnish. A friend asked me recently, if I had to choose between stars and clouds, which would I pick? And though I chose stars (imagine the night sky without them, or, the real crux of the matter, the day without the sun) I’m so relieved the question was hypothetical. When it comes to weather forecasts, I prefer cloudy, to cloudless.
For the past few weeks, I’ve envied clouds their freedom, their nebulous existence, their perspective on the planet. I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of my free time staring aimless out of windows and upwards over tree branches and telephone lines, thinking silently to myself That one is a wolf, that one a bird. The other day I even, somewhat upsettingly, saw a skull.
But the truth is, of course, that clouds don’t move, form, or disperse on their own—they rise with warm air, move with wind, and fall when they get too cold, and too heavy. In that way, maybe, they’re a lot like I’ve been this past year, or a lot like the way I feel I’ve been. There are important differences, I realize, when I look at myself more closely. I wander where I want to, when I’m able, and I stay in one place because I choose to, one of many choices I have that clouds don’t share.
The more I think about clouds, then, and the more I write about them, the less envious I feel. Today, I lie back in the grass, enjoying the late summer heat, musing on the northward-headed hurricane, and the rain its clouds are carrying, and I no longer see the clouds above me as laughing travelers, mocking me for my heaviness, for my inability to fly. Instead I see a dog, a tree, a face in profile, and I feel a sense of lightness, of my spirit, like so many droplets hanging densely together, lifting away from the earth, even as I am anchored, not so mournfully, now, to the ground.