I stood near the mouth of the river this morning and watched the clouds across the bay to the east, and back to the west I noticed new ones forming, accumulating and darkening. Most of them will run north of here, but some will drift down the Rappahannock. I’ve been watching them; I’ve noted their movement and habits.
In fact, I’ve been taking pictures of clouds for better than twenty years. I like their brevity, their inability to replicate, their absolute uniqueness and the blending of colors, their playful nature and imposing threat. All of it. I’ve taken pictures of clouds that looked like cauldrons, like billowing snowbanks, like an old woman’s hair. I’ll avoid obvious cultural references like Joni Mitchell and instead refer to artists like Thomas Cole, or the painting “Difficult Cloud” by my friend, the late artist James Cole Young. The sunset (and rise) paintings of another friend, artist Mikel Wintermantel, are so realistic he does what art is supposed to do: he makes me think of his paintings when I’m looking at the clouds.
My son has joined me all these years, and we’ve learned together how to tell when the sky will be “blank” at sunset and when the smallest of nuances in the wind means it’s worth the wait at the water to watch the colors emerge out of nowhere, streaks of purple and gold and a dark orange that doesn’t register on most color schemes. At first we captured these fleeting examples of absolute present—since from second to second the shape and color and shading will never be the same, ever—with a wide lens, taking in the river and the farm to the south, the Norris Bridge to the west and out across the reach, but as time drifted by, we focused more on the horizon alone, or a detail of one cloud which let a sunbeam get through. But then my son and I went in opposite directions: I let go of the land, moving the lens into the sky, focusing only on the cloud, and the inner rings of a storm, or the ruffled shoulders of a passing wisp caught in the jetstream. Michael also let go of the land, but he went into the water. I watched him focus on the water and the clouds reflected there, and then I saw him stare at just pieces of the clouds, and then I noticed he noticed just the color on the surface of the water, and that’s when I watched him become an artist.
On most nights he’ll wander up toward the duck pond or along the sand to the west, and I’ll just stare, looking off into the depths of some formation I can’t make even slightly realistic by finding figures in their shapes. It isn’t even impressionistic to me anymore as I look deeper into the abstract. I get lost in there, looking back as far as I can sometimes. When I still saw shapes, a common formation occurred when the wind pushed a cloud from the west into an elongated fork like puff, and I used to see a lobster in the sky, but once I saw Long Island reaching out to both Orient and Montauk separated by sky, and I remembered so many childhood afternoons in Hecksher State Park where my friend Eddie and I would wander for hours, days on end, for months, and sometimes I’d stay behind and lie in the grass and stare at the clouds. Once I saw a face. I don’t mean a shape like a face; I mean once I saw a face.
Now though even the recognizable shapes are abstract; and I suppose that has more to do with me than the atmosphere. Still I stare, trying to make sense of what’s out there, and I think about jobs I’ve had and places I’ve been. I stare off into space and think of people I’ve known and wish I still did, and sometimes there on the sand they all seem so connected that I think they must be thinking of me at the same time, they have to be, but it’s just my eyes and mind tricking me into something pretty.
So I’ll shake my head into now and take note of the time and check out the sun’s position above the horizon up river, and if there is time I’ll let my mind wander just a bit more, past the storm clouds, the thunderheads, and remember the time I sat on the edge of a lake in Pennsylvania looking at the clouds with a friend of mine and she and I talked about what the weather was going to do. I’m sure I’m the only one of the two of us who remember. I can look as far back sometimes as Mt. Wachusett in Massachusetts and those times I hiked to the summit and watched kettles of hawks above and clouds, such beautiful clouds out toward Boston and they stretched clear down to the Cape and up past Gloucester. Those stayed with me.
I remember clouds, I really do.
I’m terrified of lightning, though. I don’t mean fearful; I mean terror, paralleling, deeply disturbing, scared out of my mind kind of terror. But I’ll tolerate it for a good long look into the sky on a stormy day when the yellows and reds give way to dark purple and navy blue, and then just black, black like a dark room kind of black. Then what I’m looking at isn’t a cloud anymore but a decree, a shot across the bow. Get inside it says.
It is raining now, which means the clouds have moved beyond being the kind worth watching. For that they need to be approaching or receding, not present altogether, certainly not above. Clouds are at their best when they are going or coming, not here already.
They are honest yet somehow deceiving. And when it is late in the day or early in the morning I get lost in their engulfing truths, swallowed. And there I can forget what ails me, both in the world and in my mind.
When I am lost in the clouds, I can see everything so much more clearly.