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Clouds

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When Howard Hughes ran Republic Pictures, he made a lot of two-bit B Westerns. After screening what my grandmother used to call a “shoot ‘em up,” he told the director who had spent a week or two shooting the movie in Arizona to go back. This time, he told the director, get some clouds in the movie. You cannot shoot a western in Arizona, he said, and come back without cloud shots.

I am tempted to say clouds in this part of the world decorate blue skies like no other. For all I know, they might look the same elsewhere. I’d like to know where. A week ago they were magnificent as they marched in with the last gasp of the monsoon. They were puffed up pretty, spectacular billowy ornaments against mountain backdrops, like a traveling roadshow. I often think that our clouds are not appreciated, but then on second thought I doubt that is true. I think they are taken for granted. They don’t provoke a lot of conversation. That might be because the language of clouds resides with poets.

Like these four lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ 1918 poem, “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection”:

CLOUD-PUFFBALL, torn tufts, tossed pillows ’ flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-

built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs ‘ they throng; they glitter in marches.

Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, ‘ wherever an elm arches,

Shivelights and shadowtackle in long ‘ lashes lace, lance, and pair.

You can find the rest of the poem here.

Hopkins found a lot of God in nature. He was a priest, after all. He studied clouds more than most. Besides poetry, he also wrote a journal, and in 1871 he wrote this:

“— Clouds however solid they may look far off are I think wholly made of film in the sheet or in the tuft. The bright woolpacks that pelt before a gale in a clear sky are in the tuft and you can see the wind unraveling and rending them finer than any sponge till within one easy reach overhead they are morselled to nothing and consumed — it depends of course on their size. Possibly each tuft in forepitch or in origin is quained and a crystal. Rarer and wilder packs have sometimes film in the sheet, which may be caught as it turns on the edge of the cloud like an outlying eyebrow. The one in which I saw this was a north-east wind, solid but not crisp, white like the white of egg, and bloated-looking

“What you look hard at seem to look hard at you … . One day early in March when long streamers were rising from over Kemble End one large flake loop-shaped, not a streamer but belonging to the string, moving too slowly to be seen, seem to cap and fill the zenith with a white shire of cloud. I looked long up at it till the tall height and the beauty of the scaping — regularly curled knots springing if I remember from fine stems, like foliation in wood or stone— had strongly grown on me. It changed beautiful changes, growing more into ribs and one stretch of running into branching like coral.”

It is difficult to express what clouds evoke. It is frustrating, and so it is heartening that poet like Hopkins would write “It changed beautiful changes,” throwing the majesty and beauty of those clouds all back upon clouds because they defy description, define themselves.

 

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