Taking the time to look at clouds

June 10, 2008 | By | 23 Replies More

I’ll admit that I’ve become obsessed with clouds lately.

We’ve had an incredibly intense season of thunderstorms in the Midwest. An hour of sunshine has become simply a chance for nature to take a breather before erupting with yet another thunderstorm.cloud-creatures

Then again, take a look at the detailed things you can find among the clouds. Not just shapes, but all kinds of animals and people and ghosts. I can’t deny it, because I saw them.

We are living in a giant kaleidoscope, it seems. I know that I’ve already foisted cloud photos on you. Perhaps you’ve had enough of “my” clouds. I was ready to move on too, but then I found these new cloud menageries outside my window as the small jet in which I was flying traveled around a massive storm rather than through it. We were returning from Minneapolis after an intense weekend at the National Conference for Media Reform. After a weekend of intellectual endeavors, it was time for a spiritual experience. This is a different kind of memorable experience than I had on the trip to Minneapolis.cloud-panorama

A fellow passenger and I were stunned by what we saw outside of the plane. We were 30,000 feet in the air and I started taking these photos through my tiny scratched airplane window.

As I looked, mesmerized, I started seeing all kinds of animals in the clouds, including my deceased dog “Puccini” in the scene below (or is that your deceased dog?). You can click on any of these photos to bring out the details. I can assure you that this will be worth your while, unless you are the unusual kind of person who already takes the time to stare at the clouds. Even if you do like clouds, these were special clouds, even for those of you who like to look at clouds while flying. These photos are not PhotoShopped; this is exactly how these scenes looked to my eyes during my flight.

There were dozens of animals to be seen, and people too. For the modest ticket price of a few hundred dollars, the plane was functioning as a time machine, transporting us back to our childhoods, to a time when we were allowed to look for things in the clouds for long periods, without being made self-conscious that we were “wasting” time.cloud-fairyland

Amazing as it is, trillions of tiny water molecules, each one the same as each other, can assume dramatic macroscopic shapes when gently stirred by heat and wind. How is it that large intricate patterns emerge? Why not just a big smear of misty air across the window? Order for free, Stuart Kauffman might say. Kauffman might remind us that we were witnessing a rather simple application of the subject matter of complexity. He would point out that it is actually common for billions of identical parts to self-organize, almost magically, into shapes and functions that are intensely surprising and compelling.

Finding a collection of ghosts living in the sky, or any other unpredictable scene, is thus quite predictable.

cloud-ghostsThese particular ghosts seemed to be calling out to the passengers on the plane. Maybe they were trying to say that we needed to take the time to slow down our lives enough to appreciate the complex adaptive systems that humans are too. You see, humans are also self-assembled bits of common materials, just like these cloud people. The human miracle is in the exquisite manner in which trillions of relatively simple molecules are assembled. But who could have predicted that lots of water and some phosphorus, calcium, iron could turn into beings like us?

Carl Sagan wrote that we are made of “star stuff.” True enough, and this is a thought that is deep enough and powerful enough that that this single thought should be enough to compel us to stop long enough and ponder deeply enough to stop killing each other and to start honoring each others’ existence and sentience. But somehow, Sagan’s realization isn’t enough for to bring us peace.  cloud-landscape

We’re not only stardust, we are also water beings (we’re mostly water), so we have a lot more in common with these cloud creatures than we might realize. This is my anti-war idea, then: all of us need to look at the clouds more often.

As the plane finished moving around the storm, we spotted this vast fluffy flat landscape leading up to distant “mountain range,” all of it made entirely of tiny water drops 30,000 feet in the air.

That was it for cloud photography. Time to move on to other things, right? Not so fast . . .

Today, I continued to be mesmerized by the skyscapes. They were following me everywhere. This is a scene I noticed outside my window at work today. Is it really possible that water drops self-assembled themselves into something this dramatic? Yes, it’s possible, because it was happening all day long.federal-courthouse-sky

I put the camera away until a couple hours ago, when I was shopping at a Home Depot with my two daughters (they are 8 and 9 years old). When we exited the store, my youngest daughter (Charlotte) told the rest of us to look up to see how beautifully blue the sky was. As we stood there staring, other shoppers looked up too, with great delight. Even the Home Depot employee who was supposed to be gathering shopping carts stopped and stared at the deep blue-ness.

Truly, you’ll never seen anything more beautiful in the sky, even on the Fourth of July. Yet you’ll rarely hear anyone beckon to look at the sky because we’re all too busy and because skycapes are free–there’s no financial profit to be made by reminding people to look up.blue-evening-sky

Why am I finding clouds to be so compelling these days? It’s not just that I’m taking time to notice them. We’ve had an extraordinary season of cloud watching in St. Louis. I don’t remember anything like this before, ever.

It seems that we’re being used as an audience. We are being presented with a type of artwork that results when the vast energy of storms takes charge of the skies. That’s how I thought of skyscapes when I was in high school. I even wrote a poem about the sky as God’s canvas. I was already an agnostic back then, but I imagined that if there were a God, then He was an Artist who drew in the sky using a fantastic palate to create mesmerizing shapes and colors highlighted with occasional streaks of lightning. I was so proud of this poem because it captured the possibility of a God who was sensitive and shy, not the Biblical God who goes on rampages. The Catholic nun who taught my high school English class didn’t appreciate my impetuous pantheism, however.

On the parking lot tonight, the fellow who was supposed to be gathering shopping carts stopped for several minutes to look at the sky with us. He said, “Yes, it’s all free. It’s like He’s doing incredible artwork in the sky, if only we’d take the time to pay attention.”


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Category: Cloud photos, nature, photography

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Majestic sunset over South St. Louis : Dangerous Intersection | August 30, 2011
  1. Bill says:

    Ah, fun stuff,

    Well with the kind of storms you guys have been having lately, I'd be surprised if there wasn't a glazed over dog or cat in there somewhere. Here in Tucson, the sky tends to be blue throughout, but monsoon season is around the corner and that's when the fun starts.

  2. These pictures, and your words, push all the right buttons!

    I have a fascination with clouds and light in our skies also. As an aviation artist, I like to set my paintings in the element that flying machines are built for. Thank you for showing these "worlds" that are peaceful, but with awesome natural beauty.

    Best Wishes


  3. Anna. says:

    Omg, I love the pictures! They're something really extraordinary…

    They spread lovely emotions, and they… They're just great, keep up the good work.

  4. John Gunn says:

    They are really great pics. I love the clouds from above but haven't managed to take pics that cool. I would live up there if I could.

  5. Garima says:

    These pics are just fabulous. I love cloud gazing since my childhood and at times thought myself to be crazy. But they make you realise that nothing is constant in this world. Keep writing and posting great stuff.

  6. pixellee says:


  7. Tony Coyle says:

    I hate to be a grinch about this, but growing up in Scotland I had experienced enough clouds before I was ten to last me a lifetime!

    I agree that the occasional cloud enlivens the sky adding depth to an otherwise bland backdrop. It provides the parchment upon which the sun paints the colors of the sunset. It even provides for a pleasing interlude of visual games on picnics, when I spy runs out of physical targets.

    But as for entire skies full of cloud? meh!

  8. Gregory Bosch says:

    These are truly some fantastic photographs! I need to get a camera worthy enough to take such fantastic pictures, my cell phone simply is not cutting it.

    For the past 3 days, we have been having some rather remarkable lightning storms on the peninsula (in Virginia). They haven't been like any other storms I have witnessed recently. No rain, no wind, just lightning lighting up seemingly calm and gentle skys. It was a panorama of beautiful art, and I remember lamenting the fact that I had no camera sufficient enough to capture the gorgeous sight.

    Above me I could see the stars, twinkling in the darkness of the night sky, while directly in front of me, miles away towards the horizon, rolling clouds like indigo castles lit up like magic. It was even better than watching fireworks. What caught me even more by surprise was that this lightning storm stayed where it was, directly east of my house, in the exact same spot for nearly 4 hours. Maybe more. I sat out and watched it almost the entire time.

    It is very true what you say, we need to take time to stop what we are doing and appreciate not only the fantastic canvas that the sky provides us, but also the magnificent menagerie that is our this planet. We must take time to listen to the night sounds, the sounds of the animals and the wind and the water, the sounds of nature, of life. I think if more people stop and realize the complexity of our world and our universe, and our place in it, there will be much less suffering and more peace on this planet.

    Again, beautiful pictures, keep on looking up!

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    Glad you liked the photos. Here's more on the camera I used (it is a consumer-grade camera). http://dangerousintersection.org/2008/03/30/insti

    But see Dan Klarmann's post on the odd pricing of the camera here: http://dangerousintersection.org/2009/06/21/stick

  10. Really nice pictures, will bookmark this.

  11. Raul Fritz says:

    Fantastic cloud photos. Really nice captures. Congrats.
    From Brazil.

  12. Fran says:

    Brilliant photos of clouds. Would you mind if I copied one to use as a picture? Thanks

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Fran: No problem using any of my photos. They are covered by Creative Commons attribution license. Just indicate that they were my photos when you use them and provide a link to that post. Thanks for asking.

  13. Edgar Montrose says:

    My favorite cloud photos are here: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/05/gallery

  14. Erich Vieth says:

    Check out this especially interesting shape of a cloud in England: http://imgur.com/fKw75

  15. Anna says:

    Hi Erich Vieth.

    I really love your photos and I wanted to ask if I could use one of them (the second one) for an artwork of mine. If I publish it I would link it to your website. I also understand if you don’t want me to use it, it’s your work and I respect that.
    Thank you.


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