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Interstice: Cloud 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. —Shelley, “The Cloud” They are the celestial Clouds, the patron goddesses of the layabout. From them come our intelligence, our dialectic and our reason. —Aristophanes, The Clouds Oscar Wilde once remarked that until poets and painters first revealed the beauty of fog no one could really see or appreciate it fully.1 The same might be said of clouds, fog’s higher-flying cousins. Clouds were, in effect, “invented” by an amateur meteorologist who was instrumental in creating a new nomenclature for the sky.2 By identifying and cataloging them based on Linnaean notions of classification, Luke Howard was able to momentarily freeze ephemeral entities and bring into existence a new way of perceiving elemental reality. Of the English Quaker and chemist, Goethe wrote, “Howard gives us with his clear mind / The gain of lessons new to all mankind; / That which no hand can reach, no hand can clasp / He first has gained, first held with mental grasp.”3 As phenomena situated broadly between air and water on the elemental scale, clouds mark a transitional zone between the overarching heavens above and the ballasting earth below. They also become instant Rorschach tests formed of moving, if inchoate, pictures whereby we see what we seek. This point is underscored in Shakespeare’s most famous play when Hamlet cries out to Polonius, “Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?” but then decides it looks more like a weasel and changes his mind again to claim it is assuming the outline of a whale.4 Amidst the wide horizons and shifting canvases of prairies or plains, where the activity on the ground is often slow to unfold and evolve, the eye is forever drawn to the drama of the sky. Of a typical day in the desert, Edward Abbey observes: “The clouds multiply and merge, cumuli-nimbi piling up like whipped 173 174 | Elemental Philosophy cream, like mashed potatoes, like sea foam, building upon one another into a second mountain range far greater in magnitude than the terrestrial range below.”5 He details their development when they arrive as “unfurling and smoking billows in malignant violet, dense as wool.” Eventually, the clouds “thicken, then crack and split with a roar like that of cannonballs tumbling down a marble staircase; their bellies open—too late to run now—and the rain comes down.”6 Clouds are most basically condensed water vapor that forms very small ice crystals held in the atmosphere as a visible mass. They are generally created in one of several ways: when air reaches a temperature below its saturation point, when air masses intermingle, or when air absorbs additional water vapor until it reaches its line of saturation. Color is one key to comprehending the cloud’s contents—or grumbling discontent—and it ranges the gamut from white to blue-gray to black. Clouds are usually milky white at the top because they are highly reflective of light, though they become gray or darker farther into their depths as solar radiation diminishes due to density or water absorption. Very thin clouds tend to take on the hues of their surroundings, and they are illuminated and hence colored by non-white light, as happens at sunrise or sunset. Clouds with hints of green come about when the light of the sun is dispersed by ice, whereas rare yellow clouds are generated by smoke from forest fires. Because they are equally so elemental and extraordinary, artists have a hard time resisting the beckoning charms of clouds as subjects. Magritte used them iconically in paintings to create dream-like images, to evoke mystery and surrealist possibility or impossibility, and to investigate the grammar of the sky through false walls or window frames. The English artist John Constable—“the man of the clouds” as he once described himself—devoted much of his work to an exploration of the aerial world, believing clouds in particular to be “the key note, the standard of scale, and the chief organ of sentiment” in the landscape.7 In “Seascape Study with Rain Cloud” of 1824, for example, he shows beautifully the force majeure of a rain shower by exploiting dark slashing brushstrokes to link blackened clouds with the surface of the ocean. In offering advice to other artists of this time...


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MARC Record
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