Clouds as Cultural Ambassadors

My mother in law, a talented landscape painter, recently mailed me photocopied pages from The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Planting. This sounds like something from Burpee Seed Company, but it’s a classic 18th-century reference book on Chinese brush painting. The pages she sent describe the “large hook” (ta kou) and “small hook” (kou) style of brush painting. But the text really isn’t about clouds. I thought to paraphrase the text here, but it is so perfect that I’m decided to excerpt.

“Clouds are the ornaments of the sky and earth, the embroidery of mountains and streams. They may move as swiftly as horses. They may seem to strike a mountain with such force that one almost hears the sound of the impact. Such is the nature (ch’i shih, spirit and structural integration) of clouds. Among the ancients, there were two key methods in painting clouds. First, in vast landscapes of numerous cliffs and valleys, clouds were used to divide (and to hide) parts of the scene. Richly verdant peaks soared into the sky and white scarves of clouds stretching horizontally separated and imprisoned them. Where the clouds parted, green summits rose. As the literati say: ‘In the midst of hustling activity steal moments of quietness.’
Second, in a landscape where mountains and valleys extend into the distance, clouds were used as a means of uniting them. The clouds sometimes filled spaces where there were no mountains or water, billowing like great waves of the ocean and soaring like mountain peaks. As the literati say: ‘Invite guests, recite poems, and improve your style.”
I love these ideas—clouds as “hustling activity” and mountain summits as “ moments of quietness.” I’ve been writing about stillness and dynamism in my book on clouds, which I am calling Still Life with Clouds. I plan to write about painting clouds—my deeply amateurish experience with watercolors, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Celebration, N.C. Wyeth’s luminous cumulus pictures in Scribner’s Illustrated Classics series, the works of local cloud muralists, and now, Chinese brush painters.

“Invite guests, recite poems, and improve your style.” I have never thought of clouds as unifiers or as a metaphor for “style.” A footnote offers a more literal translation of style as “air of culture.” This is different from putting on airs of culture. I am struggling with the metaphor. I try to make it work.

I imagine a landscape without mountains or water. I imagine a space, a life, a capital city without culture. I imagine the clouds compensating by billowing like ocean waves and soaring like mountain peaks. I think of myself (the cloud?) in a frilly apron and holding a silver tray of hors d’ouevres as I welcome guests into my living room. My husband dons a beret and plays Stan Getz on his saxophone. People read poems by Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, and Maya Angelou. Everyone applauds. The room is getting warm. Culture is billowing up. We are filling the empty space. The wine flows, guests read rough drafts of works in progress, a soprano belts out an aria from La Boheme. The atmosphere is changing. Clouds become mountains, our party becomes Times Square.

As a cultural landscape, this has the potential to be a masterpiece. Or at least fun.