Mother, the folk who live up in the clouds call out to me –
“We play from the time we wake till the day ends.
We play with the golden dawn, we play with the silver moon.”
I ask, “But how am I to get up to you?”
They answer, “Come to the edge of the earth, lift up your
hands to the sky, and you will be taken up into the clouds.”
– Rabindranath Tagore
The word “cloud” is derived from an old English word that actually means a hill or a mass of rock. I’ve read other beautiful names that have to do with clouds; clouds of different shapes, present at different heights, have different names, like cumulus, stratus, cumulonimbus and cirrus. The study of clouds is nephology. The fog we walk through on some days is a cloud as well. Unfortunately, our names for things hardly explain the nature of things; perhaps if we had more knowledge and/or lived in Earthsea, names could tell us more.
But the word for cloud does not quite capture the nature of a cloud drifting on the wind from place to place. For instance, the word “cumulus” can designate a certain type of cloud, but cannot describe it: white and fluffy, hanging against the deep blue of the sky like a piece of light made solid. It does not express how the underside of such a cloud is a plane of perfection crafted by winds of differing warmth, like the edge of a solid block of butter sliced neatly by a hot knife.
Similarly, “stratus” does not describe the curtains of dull grey and pearl white covering every bit of the sky and somehow leaching color out of the world. It offers no glimmer of the feeling of these curtains letting through only the round shape of the sun, making the day feel gloomier than it really is.
“Cumulonimbus” does not readily reproduce an image of low and heavy clouds, dark like pieces of darkness made tangible, racing on violent winds, covering miles in minutes. The word tells you nothing of how these clouds drive the life-forms below to seek shelter and wait out a storm. Or how they are so full of energy and presence that the whole world seems to stand still, hold its breath, and watch stealthily from hidden places as if to avoid drawing any attention to itself. That is, until the first drop of rain finally falls, and then the whole world draws an undetectable breath under cover of the sounds made by the presence of these clouds. What can “cumulonimbus” describe of the raw power and energy held by these clouds? Or how they race and rage, their pace a hundred times that of a human life; more is born through a thunderstorm than through a hundred years of human life.
Where does this energy, whose effects I can only dream of understanding, much less holding, arise from? The sun? Does the steam from my cup of tea become part of a cloud? Does it rise, race and rage across the earth to fall in some corner where no human has set foot, while a dark-eyed doe looks on?
Clouds travel miles and miles. Where have they come from? Over lonely mountains and brimming cities? Across open oceans, in whose depths unearthly fish live a life so separate from mine as to be closer to that of aliens than of life-forms from the same planet? Over a canopied forest where animals move furtively under the trees? Across open plains where golden light drenches the landscape? What have they seen?
What would it be like for a human to have a taste of the cloud’s life? To rise inexorably with the warm air, from a teacup or an ocean, to glide higher and higher up, like a helium balloon. To turn back to water droplets small enough to remain spheres undistorted by gravity, or crystals of ice that make the tops of clouds seem hazy. To be carried by winds over the earth. To somehow join together with other droplets and become big enough to be pulled back down from the skies by gravity.
How much time does a drop of water spend soaring in the skies? How long does a cloud live? How far does it go? What do the clouds on other planets feel like? If I passed through them, would I choke? Could I walk on them? Could we build a city in them? If there were a city in clouds, would it crash back to the earth like Icarus, or remain afloat long enough to last a small eternity? If we were clouds, would it tickle when airplanes passed through us? And what would it be like to collide into another gigantic cloud, to have lightning pass through us and hear the roar of thunder…and then to feel ourselves falling back to the earth?