Thoughts on Cloud Collecting

    I have been reading a marvelous story of Luke Howard, the man who gave the clouds their names in 1802. The story is told by Richard Hamblyn in The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies.   
    In the second chapter of this book, “A Brief History of Clouds,” Hamblyn discusses the development of  a branch of meteorology called “nephrology”—the study of clouds—which began in Greece in the 6th and 7th century B.C. Back then, scientists were philosophers, mathematicians, and astronomers and were interested in theories on the composition of the universe (earth, water, fire, air in various combinations and proportions), how the earth was held afloat (on an aqueous bed), and what exactly clouds were (vapors of melted snow carried aloft by summer winds). In 340 BC, Aristotle put forth his ideas on clouds in his treatise, Meteorologica, which emphasized the role of the four essential elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and their associated paired qualities (heat and cold, dryness and moisture) in nature. The clouds were simply exhalations of the warm and moist elements of the physical earth; the exhalations mingled into various cloud forms in a layer halfway between the earth and the heavens.
     The Greeks “had not meteorological instruments with which to confirm or refute their observations of nature,” writes Hamblyn, “but in a sense this hardy mattered as their genius lay more in the questions they asked than in any of the answers they hazarded.”
   Aristotle’s theory dominated nephrology for two thousand years, until, ultimately, 17th-century philosopher, Renee Descartes deduced that the clouds were “most likely water droplets or small particles of ice formed by compressed vapours given off my objects on the ground, rather than my Aristotle’s mingled ‘exhalations.’” I have not read enough of Descartes to know how he arrived at this conclusion, but it is amazing that he arrived at it at all given that, even when armed with an extra four centuries of knowledge and technology, most of us would falter when asked to explain (well) what a cloud is.
    Hamblyn puts Descartes theory in historical context:
   “The span of Descarte’s life had see the six instruments introduced which would determine the future direction of all scientific investigation: Following the appearance of the telescope, the microscope, the air pump, the pendulum clock, the thermometer, all in the first half of the seventeenth century, scientific inquiry would never be the same again. Shared methodologies, whether in the field, the laboratory or the private museum, would arise as the mans to apprehend the teeming world of things. Meteorology shared in this gathering sense of advance and, in concert with the rise of other kids of measurers and compilers, the era of the weather collector had begun.”
      I was about to get hung up on Descartes, when I got hung up on the word “collector” instead. I don’t like the word. I’ve never been a collector of things, but lately—thanks to the pocket-size digital camera I have—become a collector of images of clouds. Thousands of them. Every time I leave the house for a walk  or to drive somewhere, I talk my camera “just in case” I see a beautiful, interesting, or unusual cloud. This, by the way, is all of them.
   The photographs are either on a card in my camera, somewhere in Adobe Photoshop, or in various folders labeled Stratus, Cumulus, Cirrus, Mixed, UFO. Most are in the UFO file. I have too many photographs to identify and sort. But I can’t delete them. I need them, all of them, not just the good ones. 
   So what’s the problem? At least I’m not using film, paper, and toxic chemicals to develop them, right?
   Right. The problem is that once I take a photograph—once I hear the shutter click—I stop looking at the cloud. What’s worse is, I also stop seeing it.
   Here’s the typical sequence: 1) While searching the sky for an beautiful/interesting/unusual cloud, I spot one, 2) I pull out my camera and photograph it, 3) I put my camera away and walk on because, 4) I feel I have “acquired” the cloud and the ability to look at it later, identify it, categorize it, post it on my blog.
       “Quickly we stick labels on all that is, labels that stick once and for all. By these labels we recognize everything but no longer see anything.” This from a book called The Zen of Seeing, by Frederick Franck.
 Alaskan writer/photographer Kim Heacox tells a story in The Only Kayak of throwing his very nice camera into Glacier Bay when he realized that it was an impediment to his relationship with the wilderness and to really seeing what was in front of him. As long as he toting a camera and collecting images, he wasn’t purely being in the wilderness, seeing it purely with his own eyes. Kim eventually replaced his camera and has since made himself quite a reputation as a wilderness photographer. I imagine the act of drowning his camera had something to do with developing his keen eye.
   Collecting is funny business. Animals collect and store food as a survival strategy, but we collect as a hobby. Trinkets and things stores want you to buy in multiples are called “collectibles.” (Gee, isn’t pretty much anything collectible?) Yes! I have the official  Cloud Collector’s Handbook—a handy book of photographs of major and minor clouds by type with points assigned to each type based on its rarity. A common stratocumulus earns 10 points, an altocumulus lenticularis (the UFO cloud) 45 points. Published by the Cloud Appreciation Society, the slightly tongue-in-cheek book works the way a Life List does for birders, allowing the use put check marks (but no points) beside the observed bird. Collecting names, lists, and even photographs of birds gained and continues to gain popularity when collecting birds (aka shooting or trapping) was dooming them (the great auk, Carolina parakeet, ivory-billed woodpecker, and passenger pigeon to name a few).  But cloud collecting? 
      The point of the book is to get people to look up, see the clouds, and have some fun trying to learn what type they are. "You don’t have to own something to collect it," writes the book's author, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, "You don’t even have to hold it. You just have to notice it and record it." This is admirable in this age of consumption, though you do need to buy the book to be able to collect the clouds. I just hope the collectors remember to keep looking up after they check off the clouds and tally up their points.
Photo courtesy Saophlkun Ponlu and Creative Commons
     A few Sundays back, I read an article called “Fun Stuff: Why pictures of object collections are popular now” in the New York Times.  Apparently, the American consumer’s attitude toward “stuff” is subtly shifting. People aren’t so interesting in buying stuff, but in seeing online images of stuff—“lovely photographs of carefully arranged groups of objects.” You know, groups of scissors, pine cones, measuring cups, sewing bobbins, baseball bats—all artfully arranged and photographed and posted online. What’s going on here?
  Rob Walker, the author of this article and seven years’ worth of other ones appearing weekly in the “Consumed” column, says these images are merely modern still lifes. What these online virtual collectors are doing with scissors and measuring cups, early painters of still lifes were doing with fruit, flowers, goblets, freshly killed rabbits, fish, and fowl. The various objects were assembled, carefully juxtaposed, and, by the artist’s skillful brush, turned into a still life that promised to be more than a sum of its parts. As museum goers, we stand before the work of a 17th-century Dutch Master, marveling at the detail all the while looking for something else in the painting.  
   The still life, Walker writes, is a “genre whose attraction…has less to do with documentation than with capturing a way of seeing.
    And then he brings in a poet for the clincher. The poet is Mark Doty, author of Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, in which he observes that still lifes capture “A faith that if we look and look we will be surprised and we will be rewarded.”
   And that, I realize, is exactly what I am doing. Except that I am the still one and am looking and looking at the restless clouds for something surprising and rewarding. And if I am still enough for long enough, and if don’t reach for my camera, and because I am not looking to gather information as Aristotle and Descartes were, that something surprising and rewarding is often a message to let go.
   Let go of the stuff, let go of the images of the stuff, let go of the camera, the jpgs, the categorizing, the binomial labels. Just watch the cloud, see the cloud alone with your eyes.