Maybe we should all join the cloud appreciation society. It sounds like fun!
Book's sunny take on clouds a surprise hit
Sunday, September 3, 2006
As metaphors, clouds are almost never good things. There are clouds of suspicion, clouds of anger, clouds on the horizon, cloudy judgments. Clouds loom, darken, threaten, menace. Clouds get in the way of our tan. Oh, we do not like clouds.
And with them, of course, there's the rain: the tears of a cloud that wash out weddings, poison picnics, send us all running for cover. Keep on the sunny side of life, the song tells us, for the clouds and storm will in time pass away.
If ever a feature of nature was ripe for a PR makeover, clouds are it.
Enter Gavin Pretor-Pinney, a deliciously wry writer whose book "The Cloudspotter's Guide" just may rescue clouds from ignominy -- or at least get us to look up as they slip by, ever-changing, right over our very noses. Published earlier this year in the United Kingdom and just this summer in the United States, the 38-year-old Englishman's treatise has been a surprise hit -- at least in Great Britain, where it rests comfortably among the top-10 nonfiction titles. Never mind the silver lining. It turns out the cloud is the thing.
Delving deep into cloud science, but also the lore, literature, art, history and even religion associated with them, Pretor-Pinney provides a thoroughly readable narrative about these wonderful "expressions of the atmosphere's moods that can be read like those of a person's countenance." Clearly these lofty masses of millions of water droplets and ice particles can bring out the poet and philosopher in one.
For Pretor-Pinney, it all started as a bit of a lark. A friend who knew of his peculiar fascination asked him to talk on the subject at a literary festival. Fearing that no one would show up, he declared the talk "the inaugural lecture of the Cloud Appreciation Society." It was a burst of meteorological genius that helped fill the room for the lecture. Not only did people show up, they wanted to join the society -- a society that, oh right, didn't actually exist.
Amazed by the response, Pretor-Pinney wasted little time creating a real Cloud Appreciation Society (www.cloudappreciationsociety.org), where the only requirements for membership are about $6 and a shared desire to "fight the sun fascists and their obsessions with 'blue-sky thinking.' " The online society has made a global village of out-of-the-closet cloud lovers from 40 countries. So far, more than 5,000 members have signed up.
Soon, new members were contacting Pretor-Pinney asking him to recommend books on clouds. Finding only coffee table books or rigorous scientific journals, he decided to write his own. "It just seemed weird to me that there wasn't a book for the general reader about this subject, which, when I talk to people about it, everyone has something to say," he said in an interview last month. "There's that universal relationship with clouds, whether people like them or hate them." After 28 publishers rejected his book proposal (he still has the rejection letters), one finally took the bait.
Pretor-Pinney says his book and burgeoning society are rekindling a fondness for clouds that is cultured in childhood and then gradually tamped down as we grow older.
"There's something established in people, a connection with clouds when they're young, and then it gets buried or goes dormant," he says. "I think one reason why the book has been this surprise hit is that it has reawoken that childhood interest."
Aside from simply appreciating clouds, Pretor-Pinney wants us to understand them. He wants us to know, for instance, that a mature full-size cumulonimbus cloud is estimated to contain the energy equivalent of 10 Hiroshima-size bombs. And that there is growing evidence that jet contrails, "the bastard son of the cloud family," are having a significant warming effect on ground temperatures. And that whether a cloud produces precipitation depends on the size of the water particles (the fair-weather cumulus clouds are comprised of extremely small water droplets, while a soaking nimbostratus has much larger ones).
He also tells us about Zhonghao Shou, a Chinese chemist now living in New York, who believes the appearance of certain cloud types is a useful tool in short-term earthquake prediction. And he recounts the terrifying tale of Lt. Col. William Rankin, a military pilot who in 1959 ejected from his plane and parachuted through the heart of a monstrous cumulonimbus cloud and miraculously survived to tell his story.
Though his lucid descriptions of clouds meet scientific rigor, Pretor-Pinney is not above resorting to more colorful language. As when he describes the puffy stratocumulus as looking "like someone couldn't find the 'off' switch on the cotton candy machine." A nimbostratus, he tells us, "won't be winning any cloud beauty contests." Underneath a child's lovely drawing of a family and clouds, he offers this trenchant observation: "Six-year-olds are generally rubbish at drawing but, being amongst the best cloudspotters in the world, they are actually quite good at drawing Cumulus."
Perhaps the most appealing thing to Pretor-Pinney about clouds, though, is their inherently democratic nature. "The great thing about clouds is that everyone has something to say about them because everyone has a perspective on them, literally," he says. If we choose, we are all cloud witnesses, free to watch as they reimagine themselves, moment by moment, with nothing to restrain them.
So deep down, maybe we really do like clouds -- maybe they're even good for us. A cigar may sometimes be just a cigar, but a cloud is almost never just a cloud. "Clouds are for dreamers," Pretor-Pinney writes, "and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see within them will save on psychoanalysis bills."
Wouldn't you know it, there are even studies showing that face time with the sky and clouds really can make us feel better. "There's actually a lot of work on the effects of nature on physical, emotional and social well-being," says Nancy Etcoff, a psychologist and director of the Program in Aesthetics and Well Being at Harvard University. One study showed that patients recovered faster from gallbladder surgery and took less medication when their hospital beds faced windows rather than a brick wall.
In controlled everyday work environments, "our attention is really stressed," says Etcoff. "We are constantly multitasking and focusing on minute things." Stepping outside, she says, we pay attention in an effortless way, because nature is inherently fascinating and always changing. "The birds, the trees, the sky and clouds are very pleasing to us because they capture our attention without us doing anything. They restore our attention, recharge our batteries."
Nowhere is the feel-good vibe of clouds more evident than on the Cloud Appreciation Society's Web site, where members have submitted thousands of cloud photographs (even a cloud of the month!), paintings and poems ("The Banality of Blue Skies," "Clouds -- A Reverie," and "The Other Side (of God)"). There is also a discussion area that is "open to those with thoughts, questions and opinions about absolutely anything. Anything, that is, so long as it is about clouds."
But let's be perfectly clear about this: Clouds are not suddenly cool, hip, happening or stylish. There is not a cloud movement afoot. There is nothing the least bit "it" about them. A few Weather Channel geeks might be able to rattle off the names of the most prominent types of clouds, but for almost everyone on the planet they remain a little noticed backdrop to the daily sally through life. We all see clouds, yes, but do we see them?
"I was trying with the book to get people to look at something that was so familiar, but to just try and think about it in a slightly different way," says Pretor-Pinney. "And that's a kind of shift that I think can happen. They look up and these clouds have been there the whole time, but they look up and go, 'Wait a minute, they are incredibly beautiful and I never really stopped to think about it