On a Cloud by Jamie Kirkpatrick


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The last line of Norman MacLean’s elegiac autobiographical novella “A River Runs Through It” is “I am haunted by waters.” As I fly-fisherman, I get this, but my last line would end with a different phantom. Me? I am haunted by clouds.

Joni Mitchell called them “flows and bows of angel hair, ice cream castles in the air, and feathered canyons everywhere.” I call them skyscrapers. Clouds are the playthings of light and wind, tricks of the eye and mind, portals to dreams. But Ms. Mitchell knew the other side, too: clouds can indeed “block the sun; they rain and snow on everyone; so many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way.” That’s the thing about clouds: there is a yin and yang to them. They can bring momentary relief on one of our recent scorching days or they can spell disaster better than a spelling bee champion. Maybe that’s why they haunt me: depending on my mood or point of view, they are either rational phenomena formed by tiny drops of atmospheric water or even ice crystals—or they are the fanciful projections of my irrational mind-of-the-moment. Glorious paintings by a master of light like John Constable or a nightmare from the mind of that old fiend, Hieronymus Bosch.

Wordsworth was wandering “lonely as a cloud” when he came upon a hillside of dazzling daffodils in the spring. With all due respect to WW, I don’t think of clouds as lonely beings. Like daffodils, they usually come in bunches and while they don’t necessarily portend spring, they can well be the harbingers of change.

As a child, I watched clouds and gave them names I could readily understand: that one is a duck, that one a horse or maybe a flying dog. When I went to school, I learned that clouds had a more scientific nomenclature and that they are formed by phenomena like surface heating or atmospheric convergence, or (heaven forbid) turbulence. In the early 19th Century—at the same time as Constable was producing his marvelous land-and-skyscapes—an amateur British scientist by the name of Like Howard published “On the Nomenclature of Clouds” in which he gave clouds all kinds of fancy classifications: stratus, cumulus, nimbus, and even fancier names like noctilucent, castellanus, and my freudian favorite, mammatus. That terminology is fine for scientists and meteorologists but now, in the odd mathematics of aging, I find myself reverting to the more childlike descriptors of long ago. Just yesterday, for example, I saw a stratocumulus cloud that started out as a camel, then turned into a swan, and finally, according to my grandson, became Pete’s dragon. “Who’s Pete?” I asked. “I don’t know but he has a dragon.” Made sense to me.

Another great poet, Mike Tyson, once said, “I am a dreamer. I have to dream and reach for the stars, but if I miss a star, I grab a handful of clouds.” (Maybe he said “earful” but I’m going to give him the benefit of doubt; wouldn’t you?) I never thought of Mr. Tyson as a very poetic person, but if clouds inspired him to such poesy, then I’m all the more in favor of them!

No less a wag than G.K. Chesterton knew that “there are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not one to obligingly follow the rules, or dismiss science, or claim that climate change is all a bunch of daffodil hooey. I have a stake in this rational world. But sometimes, on a lazy summer day, I let myself go to once again be haunted by clouds.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”

Letters to Editor

  1. Michael Brunner says:

    Sounds like Steve has been smoking something other than cigars.

  2. Barbara Chase says:

    I so look forward to Jamie’s musings in the SPY and this one is a keeper for sure!

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