Santa deposited a little book about clouds in my Christmas stocking this year. It looks like today is going to be a cloudless day in Edinburgh, which is rare. Ordinarily, I would have ample opportunity to put my cloud-spotting book to good use, but not today. Yesterday I saw pink contrails low in the sky and late in the day as I looked up Princes Street, east to west. They are the man-made trails of cloud left from the vapour of aeroplanes and they look so pretty at sunset. But that’s an easy one to identify; I’m less adept at telling my cirrostratus from my cirrus spissatus, or my cumulus congestus from my cumulonimbus calvus. (Is it just me, or do you think that J.K. Rowling used the Met Office’s ‘Pocket Book of Clouds’ when she was penning Harry Potter’s spells?)
Clouds are a lovely distraction to transport you away from life’s humdrum and mundane routines, or from persistent and nagging thoughts. If you have your head in the clouds, you are lost to everyday matters – no bad place to be from time to time. Staring at fast moving clouds might be the daytime equivalent of counting sheep at night. Who hasn’t directed their children’s eyes and attention skywards on a long car journey to ask them what shapes they can make out of the clouds they see? “Look, can you see the elephant?” might be the desperate cry to distract little Algernon from the fact that you have just managed to extricate a box of Pringles from the four year-old’s sticky hands. Clouds have also been an inspiration for so much writing, poetry and music. There is that one line of Wordsworth that surely everyone is able to quote: “I wandered lonely as a cloud / That floats on high o’er vales and hills”. Clouds are a symbol of dreaming; who wouldn’t want to lie on their back on a warm grassy slope starting up at the changing shapes and allowing your mind to drift away to Shangri-la? In ‘You’re So Vain’, Carly Simon sang, “I had some dreams they were clouds in my coffee,” a song recounting a pipe dream about a man who turned out to be a cad rather than a catch – less cloud nine and more rain cloud.
Then there is Joni Mitchell’s beautiful song ‘Both Sides Now’ which has two layers of cloud inspiration. Mitchell said she was reading Saul Bellow’s ‘Henderson the Rain King’ while on a flight, and a character in that book was looking out of a plane in which he was travelling onto clouds. She put down the book looked out of her window and onto clouds, and she said that is when she was inspired to write her song.
“Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
and feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way.
But now they only block the sun,
they rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
but clouds got in my way.”
Joni reminds us of the negative connotations that clouds can carry. They’re not always pretty and fluffy and inspiring. They can be foreboding and threatening, portending a storm, snow, bad weather, an unwanted change. When I see huge, low, black clouds in the sky I believe I can feel them in my body, a human barometer of fearsome awe.
Look up today and enjoy the very few clouds there might be on this clear winter’s day. And when the clouds return, both literally and metaphorically, know that the blue sky is always just behind them.