Altocumulus clouds stained in a spectrum of pinks, violets and blues in Upper St. Clair, PA. (Jack Giba)
Altocumulus clouds stained in a spectrum of pinks, violets and blues in Upper St. Clair, PA.

Jack Giba

Giba’s Claim: You should go cloudspotting

October 15, 2021

I am constantly fascinated by clouds, and I think everyone should be. The sky itself is the most universal aspect of nature, if you think about it. Every day there is a new, completely unique sky. Looking up can be a gift—one of a massive canvas full of colors, light and folds right above us. We inhabit the same atmosphere as clouds, living in an “ocean of air,” as Gavin Pretor-Pinney, the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, says—and I think we can learn a lot from our friends in the sky.

A single cumulus over a blurbird sky in New Mexico. (Jack Giba)

Over the past few years, my love and attention towards clouds has grown exponentially. I have thousands of pictures of clouds saved in my camera roll, and recently got the app Cloud-a-Day (made by the Cloud Appreciation Society) to begin learning their names and identities. I make it a priority at some point each day to just take a moment (or a few minutes, depending) and get to stare at the sky. Even if it’s an overcast day or a storm (incredibly common here in Cleveland, of course), I still get to gaze. There is something indescribably peaceful in those moments that I spend cloudspotting, just watching them go by, breathing along with them. Words from the Cloud Appreciation Society’s Manifesto help elucidate these feelings: clouds “are Nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.”

A 7:47 sunset shines its colors on a cumulus above Edgewater Beach in Lakewood, OH. (Jack Giba)

In many ways, I find the practice of cloudspotting similar to meditation. I may sit in the grass, stop at a bench, stand on the sidewalk or just stare out a window. In this process, for a while, my mind becomes part of the sky, just aimlessly drifting along. I find that during these moments, it is almost like the overstimulated and oversaturated parts of my mind empty a bit, and storage for new ideas or emotions or realizations begin to trickle through. I have come to see this time as a necessary opportunity for rejuvenation and for important idleness that I’ve come to cherish.

Over two thousand years ago, in his play “The Clouds,” the Greek playwright Aristophanes described clouds as the patron goddesses of idlers and thinkers. Even then, Aristophanes shared the sentiment that engaging with the sky’s clouds is synonymous with idle thought and imagination.

Clouds then can be teachers for us, especially in this digital age where often what we spend the most time looking at is our screens, rather than our natural environment. If we choose to engage with them, to stare up at the sky, I believe clouds reveal their most important lessons to us, inviting us to be curious, imaginative and full of wonder.

Remember when you were a kid, and you’d pick out clouds in the sky? Perhaps you’d find shapes, or animals within the clouds and make up stories about them.

Bird-like cirrus soars over the Lake Erie Sunset in Cleveland, Ohio.
Bird-like cirrus soars over the Lake Erie Sunset in Cleveland, Ohio. (Jack Giba)

For example, just this past summer on Lake Erie I found a cloud that looked exactly like a bird spreading its wings mid-flight in the sky, which is exactly what a bird does mind you. It made my day to see a cirrus cloud–a sort of glitch in the Matrix, if you will–form in this way. I simply stared, felt grateful and watched it eventually drift and dissipate while the sun set.

Regardless of our attention towards them, clouds move along on their course to faraway lands or eventual evaporation, perhaps unloading a storm beneath them in the process. They drift with infinite variability of color, shape and form. Each set of clouds in the sky is an array of beauty and stupor that morphs; as tomorrow is a new day, tomorrow’s sky is as well.
The beauty of clouds, however, can often be missed by us. Their omnipresence in our lives means that we may often gloss over them, being too caught up in our day, our next task or our next commitment to stop and idle. Maybe we are walking along, racking our brain for inspiration to solve a problem we’re facing. Maybe we’re starting to become jaded, or fed up with the mundanity of life. Maybe we’re looking for something to mix things up.
As Pretor-Pinney propones, though, “the exotic can be found in the everyday. Nothing is more nourishing, more stimulating to an active, inquiring mind than being surprised, being amazed. You don’t need to rush off, away from the familiar, across the world to be surprised. You just need to step outside, pay attention to what’s so commonplace, so everyday, so mundane that everybody else misses it.”
I think there is incredible wisdom in this notion, one so simply packaged in the practice of cloudspotting. As the Manifesto says, our lives are deeply intertwined with the atmosphere, in that “clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance.” By engaging with clouds, perhaps once thought too mundane or gray to you, maybe our lives can be refreshed or creatively sparked through the simple practice of gratitude toward a gigantic cumulus. Maybe we can stop and just be at peace with the mood of the sky. Maybe it is an opportunity to practice empathy, to recognize the mood of the environment around you.

A cumulus floats before a wave of stratocumuli over the Atlantic in Kiawah Island, South Carolina. (Jack Giba)

In a way, cloudspotting is an antidote for the bored, jaded mind. Clouds are infinite, like Mandelbrot sets. There is always a new shape to be found, a new story that is unfolding in the clouds.

I encourage you to take the time after reading this column to look up at the sky today, and just let your mind wander. Let it wander just as slow as the clouds do. Perhaps some nostalgia will spark in you, or a familiar feeling of childhood will return. I believe that we all need to remember the child that dreams inside of us, the one of infinite imagination. Cloudspotting, staring to the heavens, to the beauty above, I believe, is one way to that infinity.

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    Cheryl ZenkoOct 16, 2021 at 9:26 am The Carroll News Pick

    I thought this was an incredibly thought provoking article. It is a reminder to us all to savor the simple pleasures in life and to tap into our inner-child. I loved it!

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