Cloud Convergences

A month ago I was handed a photocopy of  page from this book (above). I had never heard of the book but immediately tracked down a copy at my local public library because the pages I was given were about clouds (below). This type of cloud is quite common around here and are most often seen hovering above Mount Rainier. They are called altocumulus lenticularis--the flying saucer cloud, the "lennie."  
   This type of cloud is not, however, common in Los Angeles where one particularly shapely "lennie" appeared one November day in 1976. According the Lawrence Weschler, "Anybody who was in town that day and happened to look up remembers that cloud," one he describes as a "great-dreamy-somnambulant blimp of a cloud...floating, pink, langorous, bulbous and surreal..."
   Weschler, a long-time staff writer for The New Yorker and prize-winner author of many works of non-fiction and creative non-fiction, was obviously quite taken with this cloud. But not because it was a rare meteorological event, but because it bore an uncanny resemblance to a 1933 painting by Marc Chagall (below) that Weschler had seen in a catalogue of the artist's work.

This is "Nu au-dessus de Vitebsk" which may or may not remind you of a lennie. Certainly the nude is reposing on a cloud-like sheet, she is floating in a cloud-like manner, and her curvilinear "bulbous" shape is more like an altocumulus than a cirrostratus or, heaven forbid, a cumulus congestus. Weschler doesn't think Chagall's composition is happenstance, but that this artist is expressing some universal form that arises from the common human experience of nature or art. Chagall may have thought he was being original, but Weschler purports that he was likely influenced--perhaps subliminally--by another artist, Man Ray. 
   This is A l'Heure de l'Observation: les Amoureux. Because of their size, the lips are meant to represent not a mouth, but two joined bodies floating above the earth against a sky dotted with altocumulus perlucidis clouds.
    Weschler considers these images--rising subliminally or intentionally from our conscience--convergences. Some of the images grouped together in his book undoubtedly share common sources of influence, but I am not convinced that the convergences are not simply the result the Weschler's clever ability to recognize "similar" images from what must be the enormous stock of images he holds in his memory or encounters in his daily life. In a slightly oddball lecture posted on YouTube, Weschler matches images of a partically prostrate body of woman just recovering from swimming the English Channel, St. Theresa in Ecstacy, and Christ being taken down from the cross. It's hard to believe there is any mimickry going on here (life imitating art, or art imitating art), but you've got to wonder--do human bodies in extreme states take on a particular posture or form?  Or are we just looking for similarities, the way the defunct Spy magazine did so brilliantly in their "Separated at Birth?" feature back in the Eighties.
    I do not need to be convinced that Weschler's convergences are meaningful to be amused and fascinated by his book and the way his mind works. This book is good for the synapses and great for people interested in learning new ways of looking at the world around them.   

Lenticular Clouds in My Inbox

   Every week or two, over the past several months, cloud-spotting friends have kindly sent me e-mails with attachments of some very beautiful clouds hovering over Mount Rainier. The clouds are known as altocumulus lenticularis, lens- shaped clouds also known as "lennies" or "flying saucer clouds."
   Each e-mail includes the same set of photographs--taken from around Tacoma. Each e-mail, forwarded to me, has been forwarded to my friends--from a colleague, a friend, or in one recent case, a "cousin in Greece via my father in Colorado." The source of the photographs is unclear. I would love to know who initiated the e-mailing of this batch of photos. I would love to thank them for starting this wave of e-clouds, for moving these phenomenal clouds around the globe in a way the Jet Stream cannot. And I would like to thank my friends for sending them along to me.
  Here is the phenomenon:  These clouds form when stable, moist air moving on a moderate wind is forced to rise upward over a mountain. The air condenses as it rises up the windward flank, forms a visible cloud, and then begins to dissipate as it sinks on the leeward flank. These clouds form over mountain peaks, notably in Washington State, over Mount Rainier. If you are visiting Mount Rainier National Park on a day when these clouds are out, watch them with your binoculars; it may look like the cloud is hovering over the peak, but you can see the edges where the cloud actually forms and dissipates to create this illusion.
   Speaking of illusions, in 1947, a business man named Kenneth Arnold, started the UFO craze by reporting to the Associated Press that he had seen "saucer-like" objects from his small plane as he flew over Mount Rainier. The rest is "history."
   So, for your enjoyment, here are is the set of well-traveled altocumulus lenticularis. All photos are of Mount Rainier except the last one,which is a stunning Lennie over Mount St. Helens before the 1980 eruption. 

NEXT BLOG:  Mount St. Helens and the Cloud of 1980

Friends in High Places

I've just returned from a trip to the East Coast to see for myself what the clouds had done to my home landscape of Northern Virginia this winter: plenty. Though I missed the brunt of the "Snowmageddon" storms, I was still able to walk in knee-deep snow left by armies of icy clouds and enjoy one snowball fight. On my flight home, my plane flew over the Shenandoah River Valley. On clear days, this feature is easy to recognize from the air as two mostly parallel mountain ridges form what looks like an enormous bathtub with a river running down the middle. But last Saturday, the skies were cloudy and obnubilated (see below) the ground. 

What I saw instead were clouds--altocumulus lenticularis (pictured below). These are the "flying saucer" clouds that may form in the lee of a mountain or ridge.

Mount Rainier is famous for these clouds, which some say are responsible for generating the national UFO craze in the 1940s. They are a familiar sight here in Washington State and even have a nickname--Lennies.
(I love being on a first-name basis with the clouds.) Until Saturday, I had never see Lennies in Virginia, where I spent most of my life.  Having learned recently how these clouds form made it possible for me to deduce that my westbound plane was over the Shenadoah Mountains--that the clouds were forming as moist air rose up the western flanks of the mountains (not visible, but at the right edge of the photo). In a break in the clouds I could see that the clouds were hovering over the meandering Shenandoah River. Quite a sight!

The night after I returned home, I got a Cloudspotter Alert call from a friend urging me to go outside to look at what the full moon and clouds had done to the night sky. It was beautiful and surreal. With my dinky digital camera ISO set on 1600, I captured the image below. It's pretty pixely, but the camera actually picked up more detail that my eye.
I love hearing from friends and neighbors about what's going on in the skies. Many call with "weird" cloud sightings that send me running, biking, or driving out with my camera to enjoy the fleeting phenomenon. As I spend more time inside writing my cloud book these days, it's great to know there are cloudspotters with cell phones out there. Thanks Bonnie for "obnubilate" and Sarah for the Full Moon Clouds. Keep those calls and text messages coming!