Ch'i of Clouds

 I wrote last month about cloud painting and party ideas from the Mustard Seed Garden Catalogue of Painting—the 17th-Century manual of Chinese brush painting.

I was so intrigued by the lessons on painting and life, that I felt compelled to get a copy of the book myself. My local public library did not have this book in their holdings, so I requested a copy through their Interlibrary Loan Service. Less than a week later, a pristine copy of the book arrived from The Community College of Rhode Island in Warwick.

I scanned the Table of Contents for the chapter on clouds, but found no such chapter. The two-page index listed only the names of Chinese master painters and calligraphers. I looked at the photocopied pages on cloud painting that my mother-in-law had mailed me in December. And then I found these two pages in my book at the end of a section called the "Book of Rocks." I found it odd that clouds were considered rocks and even more odd that the two pages my mother-in-law sent me were the only two pages on clouds in the book.

To me, clouds and rocks were nothing alike. One is earthbound, mostly permanent, solid, hard-edged, dark, often linear, jagged, made of minerals and covered with trees; the other is skybound, transient, vaporous, soft-edged, rounded, sometimes linear or stratified, made a water or ice, and were unfettered, untouched, and unadorned by anything but sunlight. But there were the clouds, both the “small-hook” and “large-hook” style of clouds, in the middle of Rocks.

To my Western eyes, the small- and large-hook style clouds look nothing like clouds. They are composed of short wriggling lines that look like, well, worms crawling across the surface of a rippling stream. There was nothing puffy or vertical or cloudy about them. What did look like clouds, however, were the rocks. The first page of the Book of Rocks features five rocks that are the spitting image of five perfect cumulus clouds (left). Five perfect little cumulus humilis floating in space on the white page. There is nothing to ground them—no tuffs of grass, layer of duff, or suggestion of earth. All five of these rock-shaped clouds are darkly shaded on one side to give them depth and dimension. I am pretty sure they are clouds. I look to the text for an explanation.

"In estimating people…” it begins (a beginning that tells me I am not going to get an answer about my cloud-rock debate)… “their quality of spirit (ch’i) is as basic as the way they are formed; and so it is with rocks, which are the framework of the heavens and of earth and also have ch’i. That is the reason rocks are sometimes spoken of as yun ken (roots of the clouds).”

I stop there. Roots of the clouds. I love this idea! What does it even mean? I cannot even picture roots of clouds. Well, actually I can: a flat and treeless landscape scattered with evenly placed boulders as far as the eye can see, scattered cumulus clouds above, lots of very long, slimy tree roots connecting each boulder to a cloud. It is a surreal and hideous image, a literal and very Western scene. Something Frida Kahlo, Hieronymous Bosch, or Salvador Dali might have painted after seeing a kelp forest. I read on.

“Rocks with ch’i are dead rocks, just as bones with the same vivifying spirit are dry, bare bones. How could a cultivated person paint a lifeless rock?”

The “cultivated” persons I know have done some pretty offensive things in their lives, but painting lifeless rocks has not been one of them. Imagine a time when, to be considered cultivated, you had to paint rocks with ch’i. Imagine a time when you would even ask such a question—How could a cultivated person paint a lifeless rock?—and not get ushered into a psychiatrist’s office.

The next passage, written about rocks, applies equally to clouds—despite their very obvious differences.

“One should certainly never paint rocks without ch’i . To depict rocks without ch'i, it must be sought beyond the material and in the intangible. Nothing is more difficult. If the form of the rock is not clear in ones’ heart (-mind) and therefore at one’s finger tips…the picture can never be completely realized. I have, however, at long last learned that this is not so difficult to achieve.”

I make a note to use this in my next inspirational speech to my sons: It is not difficult to achieve something that can never be completely realized. Now for the E-Z method.

“There are not many secret methods in the painting of rocks. If I may sum it up in a phrase: rocks must be alive.”

My skin tingles and I remember a poem by Mary Oliver, about rocks sleeping in her hand. I have a recording of this poem on a CD in my car. I close The Mustard Seed Garden Catalogue of Painting, pack my laptop and some cloud-painting books in my briefcase, and drive downtown. Mary reads to me from the back seat:

Some Things Say the Wise Ones

Some things, say the wise ones, who know everything,
are not living. I say,
You live your life your way and leave me alone.

I have talked with the faint clouds in the sky when they
are afraid of being left behind; I have said Hurry, hurry!
And they have said, Thank you,we are hurrying.

About cows, and starfish, and roses there is no
argument. They die, after all.

But water is a question, so many living things in it,
bt what is it itself, living or not? Oh gleaming
generosity, how can they write you out?

As I think this I am sitting in the sand beside
the harbor. I am holding in my hand
small pieces of granite, pyrite, schist.
Each one, just now, so thoroughly asleep.

I listen to this poem four times on my way to my writing spot overlooking the water, the gleaming generosity. I listen to this poem and wonder who Mary Oliver’s ‘wise ones’ are. Certainly not the authors of the “Book of Rocks.”

I spend the afternoon looking at the water, the rain, the ripples on the puddles, and a book by American artist and illustrator Eric Sloane (1905-1985). Sloane wrote and illustrated some thirty-eight books in his lifetime. Skies and the Artist: How to Draw Clouds and Sunsets (1950) is one his first. As a non-artist, non-meteorologist, it is one of my favorites. He begins this primer for art students with a discussion of cloud anatomy. Except for the line about ice cream, I could have been reading out of the Mustard Seed Catalogue:

“Although clouds appear motionless, they are really slow explosions. Whether single (cumulus puffs) or solid flat layers (stratoform) they puff and boil continually…..therefore don’t make cloud-masses look like melting mounds of ice cream but like living shapes in graceful action. Do think of cloud action first, then think of cloud shape and outline because shape depends on movement.”

“To put grace into a cloud you must realize that it is a living thing, either in the process of building up or of disintegration.”

Sloane, a self-taught painter and illustrator, has not only expressed the ch’i of clouds, but also something of their yin and yang.

What a day! What a good day. What an enlightening cloudy gray day. Thank you painters and poets, cultivated persons, truly wise ones, keepers of life, seekers of ch’i, stewards of grace.

And the next day, in the pouring rain, I went hiking with my husband along a tributary of the Skokomish River in Olympic National Forest. The nimbostratus clouds were thick overhead, but the forest was drenched in the bright greens of moss, fern, hemlock, and cedar. We took a sidetrail, marked "Confluence" and here is what we saw--living things: