I’ve been spending a lot of time this summer studying the clouds. It’s a good year for them, hot and windy, with just enough moisture to build billows of vapor into recognizable, seemingly tangible shapes. I can lose myself anywhere there’s a big sky, watching idly as the one that looks like a dragon slowly changes into a flying swan and then a dog’s head and then — wait — a tea kettle? An open hand?
I love how clouds shift with the air currents, sometimes sending their shadows racing across the land, sometimes floating gently in and out, as if the sky is breathing. Pearl, silver, dove, lily, eggshell, iron, granite — who knew there could be so many shades of white and gray?
Most of us can recognize a few of the seemingly endless varieties of cloud: cumulus, stratus, nimbus. But it turns out there are scores of named varieties, all more or less descended from the nomenclature invented by London pharmacist Luke Howard in 1802. Divided by shape, and by the elevation where they most often form, they include subtle varieties like lacunosus, lenticularis, and the newest one, asperitas, a series of pewter-colored undulating waves, certified by the World Meteorological Organization in 2015.
I wish clouds had more evocative common names to accompany all that Latin, like the ones we have for flowers. Both as an aid to memory and for their sheer poetry, few things beat Dicentra “Bleeding Heart,” or Gypsophila “Baby’s breath.” Sure, we’ve got cirrus “mare’s tails” for those high wispy clouds, but how about some new ones: cumulonimbus “cauliflower tops,” cirrus vertebratus “fishbone,” altocumulus “Puff Daddy,” or nimbostratus “rain.”
Because they’re so ephemeral, clouds are more difficult to identify than flowers or birds. But like everything else, there’s an app for that. The Cloud Appreciation Society, founded in 2005, has members in 120 countries, united in their love of all things nebus. Volunteer cloud-spotter groups, including one in Massachusetts, share identification tips and photos, even music and poetry. International Cloud Appreciation Day is Sept. 16. Get out your shades.
There’s something about watching clouds that gives rise to thinking Big Thoughts. Beyond the childlike wonder at their shape-shifting ways, clouds remind us of the impermanence of all things. Clouds come and go, just like our thoughts and emotions. It’s impossible to grasp them or to push them away. Whether friendly or threatening, clouds tell us to accept our circumstances with curiosity and calm. They too shall pass.
Clouds teach us the importance of gaining distance on our problems. When you’re in the middle of a cloud — passing through one in an airplane, maybe, or hiking on a high mountain ridge — it’s just an amorphous fog of vapor. You can’t understand its true shape or dimensions. To get some perspective on things, step back. Why, it’s a map of Europe! I mean, it’s that old insecurity or grudge, and now the solution is as clear as day.
Clouds are powerful metaphors. They are free and accessible to everyone, and — because they can bring life-sustaining rain — there’s a little bit of cloud in us all. When “they only block the sun,” as Joni Mitchell sang so indelibly, it’s useful to remember that the bright blue sky is still there, a few thousand feet up. The sun is always shining somewhere.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.