Nature’s Best Poetry of 2019: Clouds


Every day, members of the Cloud Appreciation Society post photos of the sky from around the world. This is why they stop to look up.

“It’s always a good year for clouds,” said Melyssa Wright, a meteorologist living in York, England, and member 23,652 of the Cloud Appreciation Society.

The group’s mission is to “fight ‘blue-sky thinking’ wherever we find it.”

Clouds, their manifesto says, are not signs of negativity and gloom, but rather “nature’s poetry” and “the most egalitarian of her displays.”

The Cloud Appreciation Society was founded by Gavin Pretor-Pinney in 2005. Its tens of thousands of members around the world communicate online via a “Cloud Forum,” and they regularly convene at “Sky Gatherings,” which feature group expeditions, lectures on cloud-related art and science and even performances of cloud-themed music. They also submit photographs to the Cloudspotter app to earn stars and badges for properly identifying the clouds they spot.

This year, the society collected nearly 50,000 submissions. All the photographs included here were taken this year and submitted to either the app or the online gallery.

Credit…Matt Goodie
Credit…Rod Jones
Credit…Indra Joshi
Credit…Ian Robertson
Credit…Michael Warren

Melyssa Wright is a meteorologist for Britain’s national weather service: “I actually get paid to go out and look at the sky.” Wright recalled some formations that struck her recently. “I saw a good halo this year” — a bright, rainbow-colored circle that appears around the sun under certain conditions. “If you aren’t a cloud-spotter, you probably don’t think they exist,” she said.

Kym Druitt, a public-relations consultant in Australia, particularly loves the view from an airplane. “You really sense — well my sense is — you’re really part of something,” she said. “You’re in the sky! How extraordinary we’re in this time.”

“What a lucky time we’re in to be able to be in the atmosphere in that way,

to be up there in the sky, flying around,

seeing extraordinary things.”

Hans Stocker, a retired I.T. project manager, lives in the Netherlands where “sometimes it can be gray and a bit dull,” he said. “You don’t have those spectacular skies that you can sometimes observe in America: thunderstorms with storm-chasers and really spectacular cumulonimbi,” dense clouds that can sometimes be tens of thousands of feet tall and are capable of generating lightning.

But when you learn to look up, he said, “you see more than you ever saw before.”

“It’s clear in front of you,

but when you don’t know it might be there,

you don’t see it.”

Elise Bloustein, a divorce lawyer in New York, tries to post a cloud every day. She has submitted over 8,000 photos to the app since she signed up in June 2016. “There are boring days like today,” she said, “and then there are ecstatic days where I post a lot, and I must just drive them crazy, I assume, because I’m just falling in love with so many clouds.”

Credit…Jeanette Brown
Credit…Reg Hewitt
Credit…Ismatbey Kerimov
Credit…Elizabeth Buchen

Shooting in Midtown Manhattan, crowded with skyscrapers, can be especially eye-opening, Bloustein said. “It makes you realize that there’s something bigger than the buildings. It makes you aware that we are inside of a much bigger context.”

“You start to look around

and notice that a lot of people

never look up.”

“Of course everybody aspires for a cloudless day,

but not us cloud watchers.”

Cloud-spotting, she said, imparts an important lesson: “Clouds really teach you about transience: They come, they go. Like thoughts, like feelings, like so many things.”

Credit…Elise Bloustein
Credit…Tom Bean
Credit…Peter Emrys-Roberts
Credit…Elizabeth Allred

For Bloustein, learning the categories of clouds helped her to spot them. “You see them more accurately,” she said, “you see more.”

For other spotters, technical identification is less important. One of the most memorable clouds of the year for Geoff Thornton, a retired systems analyst, was one that resembled a baby deer. And on a trip to Las Vegas, Thornton was able to capture a cloud that looked like a cocktail glass, complete with stirrer.

“It’s amazing

what you can spot in the clouds,

when you’re looking for shapes.”

“Mostly it’s the cumulus clouds that make shapes and things you can identify, that look like animals or something else,” he said. The more variation in the landscape, the more variety in the cloudscape. Being in Britain, with its relatively even terrain, means Thornton has to travel for better odds of glimpsing them. “If you live in a country where you’ve got a lot of mountains,” he said wistfully, “you’ve got more chance at getting one than in the middle of flatland.”

Credit…Richard Poole
Credit…Patrick Lecoq
Credit…Geoff Thornton
Credit…Richard Spellenberg

Suzanne Winckler, a retired journalist who splits her time between Minnesota and Mexico, described the thrill of finding a shelf cloud ahead of a thunderstorm in southern Minnesota. “That’s like a big bumper on a car, and it comes out in front of the cumulonimbus,” she said. “We were standing right by it as it passed over us.”

“We thought the Sheriff was following us because my husband had not put on his blinker to turn left off the highway,” she continued, “but turned out he was as jazzed as we were about the shelf cloud.”

Winckler tries to submit a cloud a day to the Cloudspotter app, where she is also one of roughly 100 moderators. She likes the sense of a shared world the posts create. “There are people from Spain and Saudi Arabia, the Emirates,” she said. “There is a guy who’s just started posting from Namibia.”

“It makes me feel good

that there’s so many people

out looking at clouds

and sharing them with one another.”

“We’ll never meet each other,

but we’re just going about our day

in a way

that encompasses

what’s happening

in the sky.”

Surfacing is a weekly column that explores the intersection of art and life, produced by Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben and Josephine Sedgwick.