Clouds and So Much More

  I cannot explain this except to say it involved ice crystals, the sun, and that fact that I looked up at the right moment. I was out in a dory for my first row of the season-- a quick solo spin before the blue skies of the early morning deteriorated completely. I was wearing a broad-brimmed hat and watching the horizon to keep the boat going straight(ish). When I wasn't looking at the horizon, I was looking at my oar blades and trying not to dig or sky them. And, without anyone on the tiller, I was constantly turning around to look behind me to avoid hitting the pilings, channel markers, mooring buoys. Of all the things to hit, the mooring buoy was the best choice.
  As soon as I cleared the inner inlet, I paused to look up. What I saw was a horizontal "rainbow" covering a ninety-degree swath of the sky. Except it wasn't raining. When I got home, I went immediately to Michael Allaby's Encyclopedia of Weather and Climate (an actual book, not a website) and under "optical phenomenon," found an explanation.
   I had seen my first circumhorizontal arc. Allaby describes it as "brightly colored, horizontal band of light that is seen at an elevation of less than 32 degrees above the horizon when the Sun is a little more than 58 degrees above the horizon. The light is caused by the reflection and refraction  of light from ice crystals with vertical axes. The light enters the crystals through their vertical faces and leaves through their horizontal faces. The band of light displays the colors of the spectrum with red at the top."

 I've been spending more time with Alfred Stieglitz's photographs of clouds--hundreds of them in the 1920s. What is at first striking about his photographs is that they are not in color and do not always include a frame of reference (horizon line, landscape features). He exhibited many of his cloud photographs "sideways" or "up side down" intentionally to increase the abstract, non-representational qualities of his subject. Though a meteorologist or savvy cloudwatcher might argue otherwise, this photograph could have been taken from below (on the ground) or above (from a plane) and could be oriented most any way.
Naturally, I had to try to copy Stieglitz's style (above).Quite amateurish, like someone rotated the photograph clockwise twice then messed with the color settings. After that artistic failure, I decided to keep the color in the photograph and simply change the orientation. Here are two shots of the same cloud (below). I was going to point out to my readers which one was taken with the camera held horizontally and which one was taken after I rotated the camera ninety degrees, but I cropped the trees out of one of the photographs. Now I can't remember which way is up. If I think about this too much I forget what up even is. This is, perhaps, why I am not a photographer or a pilot.

And now something from someone who knows what they are taking about....Anu Garg, founder of the on-line Wordsmith,writes this week about words relating to weather. Garg's work  has been described by the New York Times as "The most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace."  Today's word is "virga." I recommend all linguaphiles, language persons, and word geeks sign up to receive these daily treasures. What is funny about today's entry is the example sentence in the "usage" section below. I used to work for National Geographic Traveler magazine, back in the good old days when we wouldn't let a sentence this awkward get into print. Oh well.

noun: Rain or snow that evaporates before hitting the ground.

From Latin virga (rod, streak).

"Macduff Everton's images are so physical and tactile, you can nearly feel the moisture in the virga."
Len Jenshel; "25 All-Time Best Photo Books" in National Geographic Traveler, Jan/Feb 2005.

Here is Elen Pendleton's painting of virga 
(below), posted on

Here is mine.

And here is a link to a photograph of clouds by Macduff Everton. Wow.

 It's been a busy month of writing (book, not blog) but I did promise a word on the clouds of Mt. Rainier. Thanks to an auction item at the Nisqually Land Trust dinner in March, my husband and I booked two nights at a cabin at the edge of the park. We had the hiking trails to ourselves as it was mid-May, mid-week, and pouring rain. Perfect for clouds and for for lush low-elevation hikes in the forest. You could really feel the moisture in the clouds! The worst part of the trip, rain-wise, was the stretch of driving on I-5 where the spray from trucks, the frantic windshield wipers, and the drumming of rain on the metal roof of the car made its seems as if we were in a major downpour.  Once we set foot on the soft paths of the forest, everything softened as the rain filtered down softly through the branches of the firs, cedars, and hemlocks. The leaves of the sword ferns and salal were shining wet and glowing green. It was quite enchanting. When we were ending a hike one evening around dinner time, the clouds began lifting, leaving us with these images of some stratus clouds. 

 After our lowland hikes, we ventured up to Paradise, rented snowshoes, and made a trek to the see the toe of the Nisqually Glacier. In the center of this photo (below) you can see a dark horizontal "squiggle."
 This opening (about half a mile from where we stood) is where the Nisqually River begins it's above-ground journey through the broad valley it has carved, as ice and water, to the delta in Puget Sound. The "toe" is just above this dark squiggle; the rest of the glacier (not called the "leg") rises up the flanks of Mt. Rainier to its summit. We stood at a viewpoint for quite a while, listening to the landscape. The only sound was a distant gushing--the melt-water flowing over the rocks, nudging them against each other with a muffled, billiard-ball clack. We had difficulty imagining how the flow of so much water could be so constant in the still-freezing temperatures on the mountain. It is tempting to imagine a deep thermal spring as the source for the flow. But no, it's friction that melts the glacier. The incredible weight of the ice moving slowly down the mountain causes enough friction to generate ice-melting, river-making heat. 
   And now, because of my attention surplus disorder, I am tempted to do some research on friction and glaciers and spend the next hour telling you all about how ice melts itself. But my subject is clouds. 

    With which I will conclude this posting by writing a special note to my newest reader. Once you start looking at clouds, you see them everywhere all the time--as physical things and metaphors. They are in the sky and in the landscape as glaciers, snow, rain, rivers, and puddles. Perhaps they are also in our tears. Maybe they even express the terroir of our souls. I read a story in the paper last week about a man who had lost his long-time lover to cancer. He spent the first year " 'reliving every mark on the calendar.' And they he reached an emotional turning point and took a trip abroad to the same places they had last traveled together. When he returned home, he said, 'the clouds had lifted.'
Pour three glasses of Paso Robles zin, and watch this.  Cheers.