Friday, April 3, 2015

Cloud Nomads

The word "cloud" is a poem, just like the clouds themselves are. I think they may be nearly impossible to gaze upon without resorting to metaphor, and metaphor is shapeshifting, and all of this the root and cause and point of poetry, at least in my mind. (A cloud is a herd of horses, a gathering of ice crystals. The act of relating one thing to others is the essential shape shifting that undergirds art.)

In Old English, cloud, or clud, meant a mass of rock or a hill. The original word for cloud was actually weolcan, while clud/cloud literally meant a lump of earth or clay, a mass of stone, also connected to the word clot, as in blood and cream. This metaphoric usage of clud to describe the great masses of nomadic air mountains in the sky (skie also originally meant cloud in Old Norse and Saxon) was so persuasive, it seems, that by the year 1300 it had travelled through Middle English and had become the official English word used to refer to those great mountains of air in the sky.

Wheat Field Behind Saint-Paul, Vincent Van Gogh 1889

I've been contemplating the clouds a lot recently--from where I sit every morning at the base of the apricot tree in the garden, observing the garden wake up (sun, bewick's wren, crows, squirrels, the pattern and direction of clouds and winds), and from the attic windows. I had one of those ding dong moments recently, wherein the clouds suddenly became alive, and real, when before they'd only been, well, clouds. I suddenly felt in my body, instead of just knowing with my mind, that the clouds are great behemoth nomads come from across oceans and mountains, made of water vapor and ice crystal, each form an almanac of winds, of weathers to come, of temperatures and times. That they are miraculous, almost too beautiful to bear.  

Leonardo Da Vinci cloud sketches
The clouds are such an obvious source of mystical and religious devotion that it's easy to forget about them, cluttered up as they can be in the collective imagination with pearly gates and Zeus with his thunderbolts, etc. And yet, if you pause to look, and reflect on what they are made of, and how, and why, the water cycle you may have learned about accompanied by a silly song as a child, as I did, will suddenly become a prayer, a hymn, a song to the nature of life and how we have never been separate from any of it, not for a moment. Even the minute beads of condensation in our breath when we exhale might one day become part of the clouds. They exemplify that old physics adage-- how energy is neither created nor destroyed, but only changes form. 

I wonder now if some of the earliest human storytelling and daydreaming came from cloud gazing, this act of looking up at the moving sky and using the imagination and metaphor to describe what was seen. For the clouds can seem to contain everything--people and cows and roosters and flowers and goats and whale spumes too.

Red Cow in the Yellow Sky, Marc Chagall

Above the Clouds, Georgia O'Keeffe, 1962-3

But above all things, clouds have been on my mind because of the drought. Day after day, week after week, our California sky is blue blue blue. Some people see this as cause for rejoicing-- an endless summer of 70 degrees! I find it quietly terrifying, even as I know there is nothing to do but surrender like the flowers are doing, and bloom early.  The big storms of my childhood, coming one after another week by week all through December to March, with spots of sun between, are no longer. Instead, when a cloud comes through the sky, I stop, I tip my head up, I adore it with my eyes. I think about how many more need to follow it to bring us rain. I am sad when it disappears.

The Navajo knew the clouds to be their ancestors. Polynesian sailors had names for every last wisp-shape, and divinations to go along with them. As with many of the most sacred things, we leave cloud-storying and its requisite woolgathering to children. Perhaps it has remained safe there, as the fairytales have, with them.

But I think we have to start looking up again, collectively, and dreaming new dreams. I think we have to look up together and face clearly that we are changing the very weather systems of our holy atmosphere, this sheath around our earth that allows us to live and breath at all. I think we have to dream together another way into the future, another path... because the way we're headed; it's not going to work. And the clouds know all about movement, all about changing, all about the great caravan routes of the sky.

All of this is the subject of April's Tinderbundle, CLOUD. I am collaborating again with the inimitable Catherine Sieck, whose paper cut artwork will accompany my tale. The bundle will include as well an herbal cloud-dreaming salve and a hand-felted & embroidered weather talisman.

Cloud, by Catherine Sieck 2015

As Catherine eloquently described this month's theme— "In the midst of this time of crisis for California-- parched by drought, fraught by a broken immigration system-- this month's Tinderbundle collaboration -CLOUD- has Sylvia and I looking to those ancient, nomadic water-carriers for inspiration. We believe in the power of storytelling to create space for imagining alternatives and opening dialogue."

The weather of the world is changing, whether it be by drought or flood, and sometimes the sorrow and anger this brings are too big to hold. The clouds carry all of this, and the old stories too, which told that great imbalances in weather meant that human beings had done something to offend the deities of earth and sky. Oh yes, indeed.

Danae and Her Son Perseus, Arthur Rackham 1903 
I don't know what to do in the face of forces as big as this, nor in the face of the sorrows that rise up, except to write, and share my stories. To dream up visions with others, as Catherine and I have been doing these past months, and see where that dreaming takes our minds, and souls, and where it might take the minds and souls of others. 

Wheat Field With Cypresses, Vincent Van Gogh, 1889
So if you'd like to come dream with us, there are Tinderbundles still left in the shop, but they are going quickly! They will arrive near the new moon of April, the 18th.

In the meanwhile, keep your eye to the clouds. There are always stories there, the kind that heal. 


  1. I dreamt about clouds last night, then woke up to see your lovely blog

  2. I was so unhappy to think we would no longer be sharing space in Facebook Land, but, as it turns out, it only makes hearing from you via email all the more magical! I recently wrote about clouds, as well, which is telling me that they are in our collective conscious, and of course they would be. You are right, they are storytellers...and ones with an important message. Beautiful post, m'dear.

  3. Exquisite writing and thinking as always, Sylvia. We were just talking about the California drought yesterday-- did you know that the Incan empire fell, in part, because of drought? And the Incans laid the heavy burden of mass agriculture on the landscape as we have, too--in my thoughts, this is a large part of the problem. It pains me that our lands are so abused they no longer retain water, but that it sheds right into the ocean. I watched a documentary called The Symphony of Soil recently, you might enjoy it. Take care x

  4. The clouds are starting to mass above where I live, preparing for weekend showers. I'll whisper to them for you, and ask if a few might head down your way and share their bounty. <3

  5. Come to the tropical greenery, you will see more clouds than you can imagine, but the summer is warm and winter is cozy, the monsoons are an endearing old friend who whispers in your ears and laughs with you...