We humans live at the bottom of an ocean of air. And one of the fascinating displays this ocean creates can be found just overhead, visible for anyone, everywhere to see: the ever-changing cinemascope of clouds.
After childhood, most people tend to lose interest in the shape-shifting billows and wisps, and largely stop paying attention.
But that’s a mistake, according to Gavin Pretor-Pinney.
A warm, witty, articulate Englishman and former magazine publisher, Pretor-Pinney is author of the best-selling “Cloudspotter’s Guide” (Tarcher Perigee, 2007) and “Cloud Collector’s Handbook” (Chronicle Books, 2011).
A TED Global speaker, Pretor-Pinney has presented TV documentaries for the BBC. He’s also founder and now full-time head of an unusual organization, the international Cloud Appreciation Society.
He didn’t set out to start it –– he half-jokingly attached the title to a lecture he was asked to give in 2003. Not only was the talk well-attended, but people approached him to join, and he was forced to admit it didn’t actually exist. Now it does, with members in 94 countries. Recently, he says, the U.S. has had the fastest growing membership.
Everyone knows clouds, but understanding clouds is an ongoing challenge. Scientists are still trying to figure out why they behave the way they do, and what mechanisms drive them.
They’re deceptively complicated, and unraveling their mysteries is serious business, considering the powerful influence they have on life everywhere on Earth.
They transport and deliver essential water over vast distances, reflect intense solar heat back into space like a sunshade, and move tremendous amounts of energy around the atmosphere.
But they’re also the stuff of poets, songwriters and dreamers, a freely available source of delight, inspiration, beauty and perspective.
Pretor-Pinney manages to capture both sides, the whimsy and the natural wonder.
The Society’s website posts daily samples of sinister wall clouds, shimmering sunsets and a stunning array of the many other formations clouds adopt, captured and sent in by members from around the world.
In his TED talk and presentations, one of which is coming to Santa Rosa on April 11 at the invitation of Cloud Society members here in California, sponsored by the Sonoma Land Trust, Pretor-Pinney also rolls out images of dancing cats in sombreros, pistol-packing snowmen, and the other fun things people see in clouds overhead. He also offers tips and guides.
Growing up in urban England, Pretor-Pinney remembers being 4 or 5 years old and seeing bright white clouds against the blue, wondering if he could walk on them and what they were made of.
Most people, he’s found, have similar childhood memories. In spite of other differences, watching clouds is one of the few personal experiences common to all people.
They’re seen and appreciated by humans everywhere, and probably always have been, going back into the dim recesses of time. For mariners or farmers, reading and understanding them was once a critical survival skill.
And life, in the words of the Cloud Society’s Manifesto, would be immeasurably poorer without them.
“If we’re prepared to stop and look up,” Gavin says, “they’re actually quite humbling. And it’s an entirely free way to short-circuit some day-to-day stresses and concerns.”