Silver Linings: Sometimes It’s Good to Have Your Head in the Clouds

Talking conspiracy theories and weather obsessions with the Cloud Appreciation Society's chief cloudspotter
Wivenhoe Park, 1816 by John Constable

Wivenhoe Park, 1816 by John Constable

One typical Monday morning in September, Londoners narrowly avoided collision with each other in their rush-hour dance through Paddington Station. Navigating the crowd, I slipped on the slick marble floor as I headed for my train to Somerset. A drop of water splashed against my face and I looked up. It was raining inside the station. These were not the tear-shaped raindrops teachers taught us to draw as children but flat cushions of water that had pooled on the platform. In fact, it had been the wettest summer on record; spring faded imperceptibly to autumn with only a handful of sunny days.

Today was not sunny. The charcoal nimbostratus cloud that shrouded the city for days stretched all the way to Reading. But as the train arrived in the town of Castle Cary, ninety minutes southwest of London, white clouds fringed with grey hung in a faint blue sky. These, surely, were stratocumulus clouds, I thought, or perhaps altostratus. I consulted my pocket-sized Cloud Collector’s Handbook.

I was on my way to meet the book’s author, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, who has become something of an expert on clouds. His recently published picture book, Clouds That Look Like Things, compiles photos by the thirty-one-thousand members of the Cloud Appreciation Society, a group he founded in 2004. I read his bestselling debut, The Cloudspotter’s Guide, as I lay in a park near my flat under layers of clouds that occasionally shifted like tectonic plates to reveal the sun. Looking up, I noticed the upturned arc of what I assumed was a rainbow, but decided it must be what Pretor-Pinney describes in his guidebook as the “Mona Lisa of the vapours”—a circumzenithal arc, or a halo effect created when sunlight travels through the hexagonal ice crystals in a cirrostratus cloud. (Other optical phenomena, he explains, includecoronae, rainbows, cloud bows, and, my favourite, fogbows, ethereal circles that appear “when sunlight shines through a gap in the fog, from behind the cloudspotter.”)

So for the past week or so my head had been in the clouds, an activity I suspect Pretor-Pinney would heartily endorse. The Cloud Appreciation Society’s manifesto proclaims that clouds are “unjustly maligned” and they “pledge to fight ‘blue-sky thinking.’…Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.” Clouds are, Pretor-Pinney elaborates in The Cloud Collector’s Handbook, “magicked into being by the inscrutable laws of the atmosphere…One moment, they’re joining and spreading into undulating layers. The next, they’re breaking into torn shreds. One moment, they’re building upwards in enormous, weighty towers with dark, brooding bases. The next, they’re cascading back down in delicate, translucent streaks. And then they’re gone—shedding their moisture as rain or just evaporating into the blue.” They are an occasion for idle contemplation, a pastime Pretor-Pinney and his fellow cloud aficionados believe is sorely lacking in modern times.

I picked up a taxi at the station in Castle Cary. Stopping for directions from a man on a tractor, the taxi driver asked, “How deep is that puddle?” The puddle in question looked to have the beginnings of a pond and covered the road in front of us, but the man on the tractor assured him it was shallow. We cruised through at a snail’s pace and a hundred metres beyond found our destination—a low stone barn with a courtyard. The street had no sign and the house had no number, but a sticker on the back of a Vauxhall Zafira minivan in the driveway showed a cheerful blue cumulus cloud bearing the words “The Cloud Appreciation Society.”

Pretor-Pinney met me in his office, a square room at one end of the barn. It had a bank of floor-to-ceiling bookcases and two ukuleles on the floor. (In 2013, Bloomsbury will publish The Ukulele Handbook, which Pretor-Pinney is co-writing with childhood friend Tom Hogkinson. It’s no surprise that this same pair founded The Idler magazine in 1993.) Boxes of t-shirts were stacked near a woodstove and a box of freshly printed stickers sat near the door. A few days earlier, Pretor-Pinney sent out the society’s very occasional newsletter, and orders for merchandise were flooding in, mostly from Britain and the States. An assistant stuffed large Cloudspotting 2013 wall calendars into envelopes.

Waiting for the wind … Gavin Pretor-Pinney

Waiting for the wind … Gavin Pretor-Pinney

“There’s a danger,” Pretor-Pinney said as he made tea in the kitchen, “of becoming known as the Cloud Man. But clouds are not the only thing I think about.” His surroundings did not alleviate this concern. On the counter was a delicate blue mug decorated with clouds. On the ironing board nearby, a toddler’s dress with cloud-shaped appliqué waited to be pressed. One section of wall showcased his daughters’ artwork, including a drawing of a sky full of cumulus clouds with “The Cloud Appreciation Society” carefully written in a child’s hand. An aneroid barometer on the wall predicted rain.

Occasionally, he is invited to speak at weekend events with fellow cloudspotters, and over breakfast someone will inevitably point to his bowl of Weetabix and say, “You chose that because it’s shaped like a cloud, didn’t you?” He stops short of rolling his eyes, which are the blue of a summer sky.

The sky that particular day was a milky grey and wind blew a light rain across the courtyard. We settled on a sofa near a bank of windows to talk about the weather. Framed illustrations of the ten cloud genera—from cumulus to altocumulus to cirrostratus—hung behind him. The illustrations are featured at the beginning of each chapter in Pretor-Pinney’s guidebook.

Pretor-Pinney was amiable and relaxed, if somewhat distracted. “Cloudspotting,” he said, “is supposed to be an aimless, pointless activity.” It is a kind of meteorological meditation, a contemplation of the heavens above. “There are two ways of looking at the sky. One is very scientific and the other is, oh, that cloud looks like King Kong.” With this he made a long, slightly apologetic analogy comparing the male and female characteristics of weather. “It’s important to cultivate both aspects. To do one or the other means you’re not fully engaging in the sky.” His iPhone buzzed several times. One call was from Bruce Woolley, co-writer of the song “Video Killed the Radio Star,” with whom he is developing a documentary about Léon Theremin, a Russian inventor and rumoured spy who created one of the first electronic instruments. Pretor-Pinney then spoke with BBC Radio 4 to arrange an interview by Skype later that afternoon to talk about a new species of cloud, undulatus asperatus. Cloudspotting’s idle pleasure was beginning, he said, to feel like work.

“Sometimes I do catch myself getting serious about it and I start to think, ‘Yes, I’m the cloud expert.’ That’s the kiss of death. When I hear myself saying things like, ‘This clearly isn’t an example of a cumulus humulis,’ I think, ‘Wait a minute, that’s a photo of a cloud that looks like a bunny’.” As president of the Cloud Appreciation Society, he has become, willingly or not, the go-to man when media need a quote about clouds. The week before, a reporter for USA Today followed up on Pretor-Pinney’s three-year campaign to have the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in Geneva recognize undulatus asperatus as a new breed of cloud. He kept telling journalists that the story was premature. While clouds themselves can move incredibly fast, the WMO moves incredibly slowly. It has not updated its International Cloud Atlas since 1975 and hasn’t introduced a new cloud genus since 1951. Still, National Geographic’s News Watch blog picked up the story, write-ups appeared in most of the major British papers, and Pretor-Pinney found himself turning down requests to appear on BBC Radio 4’s Today show and BBC Breakfast.

Fellow enthusiasts see the society as a champion of this most maligned of weather systems. Rumours circulate about the sinister use of cloud seeding—a sort of genetic modification of the weather. In the ninteen-forties, the United States military asked scientists at General Electric to develop smoke screens to protect covert operations, along with techniques to de-ice the wings of airplanes. They also created artificial clouds that produced rain or snow. Three decades later, the American journalist Seymour Hersh reported that the CIA used cloud seeding during the Vietnam War to turn the Ho Chi Minh Trail into a soupy mess. (In The Cloudspotter’s Guide, Pretor-Pinney also details more innocent examples of cloud seeding, such as the practice of Moscow’s former mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who in the ninteen-nineties employed cloud seeding to, in Pretor-Pinney’s words, “stop it raining on his parades.” Luzhkov spent close to a million dollars to control the weather during Moscow’s 850th anniversary festivities. It didn’t only rain, it poured.) Conspiracy theorists claim that governments manipulate condensation trails, or contrails, produced by planes, for sinister ends, and implore the Cloud Appreciation Society to take a stand. “There’s nothing to explain!” Pretor-Pinney said, somewhat bemused. “You’ve got a warmer dry layer of air, then a colder, moister layer, and as a plane changes altitudes it passes through slightly differing air masses, breaking up the contrail. That’s all it is, do you know what I mean? People send me emails saying that I am an agent of misinformation.” Others post messages on chat rooms that criticize the society. “One guy wrote that, ‘Yeah, I’ve looked into the Cloud Appreciation Society and I’m pretty sure they’re government sponsored’.” (They aren’t.)

Pretor-Pinney excused himself to test the Skype connection with the BBC. Not long after he returned, the sky brightened and the rain clouds dispersed. He slid open heavy glass doors on the barn and poked his head outside. The air smelled of wood smoke or peat. The potted lavender was still wet and a child’s red wheelbarrow lay on its side in the grass.

In The Cloudspotter’s Guide, he recounts how, as a child, he believed that men climbed long ladders to harvest cotton-wool from cumulus clouds, those puffy white varieties you see on a sunny day. Now he shares his hobby with his daughters, who are six and three years old. For adults, clouds are harbingers of bad weather, but for children they inspire wonderment. Grown-ups may find philosophizing about clouds to be alarmingly new age. At one point in our conversation, he referred to our “relationship” with the sky. Yet the more I studied the clouds—Britain is not lacking in weather—the more I came around to Pretor-Pinney’s point of view. “If you look at what’s around you everyday, you’ll find what’s fascinating, exotic, surprising, even in the mundane. Otherwise, you’re constantly wanting more, constantly wishing you were somewhere else,” he said. “There’s a philosophy in reminding people of the beauty of clouds, that they’re not just something that blocks us from our beloved sun.”

By now, the sun had reappeared and Pretor-Pinney rose from the sofa and went to the window. “Those broken-up masses are stratocumulus. And the ones above are cirrus, which is Latin for a lock of hair.” He and his wife, Liz, whom he met at the cloud lecture where he launched the society, named their first child Flora Cirrus. Liz had no compunction about naming their first-born after a cloud and cirrus was an obvious choice.

“Cumulonimbus doesn’t have much of a ring to it,” said Pretor-Pinney. “Mama [a type of cloud] could be confusing. And it wouldn’t have been good to name her nimbostratus.”

When my taxi returned to drive me to the station in Castle Cary, Pretor-Pinney was settled in front of his computer waiting for his BBC Radio 4 interview to begin. His youngest daughter, Verity Iris (Iris is, not coincidentally, the Greek goddess of rainbows), arrived home from day-care and bounded toward his office. The driver had the radio on as we pulled away, and I could hear Pretor-Pinney describing the recently discovered cloud undulatus asperatus. The announcer sounded fascinated. “Well, I think we’ll all be looking up at the sky,” she said, before moving on to news about Prime Minister David Cameron and the UK banking system. “And that’s the world at one forty-five.” The driver turned down the volume and I looked out the window. On one side the sky was a murky grey, threatening rain, but I could see the sun shining in fits and starts amid layers of clouds. It was going to be a beautiful afternoon.

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