Clouds and Fields, Detlev Foth, 2005, oil on canvas, 70 x 70 cm. © Detlev Foth, foth-malerei.com
Clouds and Fields, Detlev Foth, 2005, oil on canvas, 70 x 70 cm. © Detlev Foth, foth-malerei.com

ALTHOUGH CLOUDSPOTTING is an activity best undertaken with time on your hands, it is something that everyone can enjoy. Clouds are the most egalitarian of nature’s displays, since each one of us has a good view of them, so it really doesn’t matter where you are. A little elevation never goes amiss, of course, but this could as easily be provided by a high-rise as by a mountain range of outstanding natural beauty. More important is the frame of mind you are in while cloudspotting. You are not a trainspotter, so standing on a hill with a notebook and pen poised to tick off the different types will end in disappointment. So will any attempt to write down their serial numbers.

A cloudspotter is not a cataloger—meteorologists are busy indexing the different genera, species and varieties of clouds on your behalf. They call it work. Yours is a far more gentle and reflective pursuit—one that will lead to a deeper understanding of the physical, emotional, and spiritual world. John Constable, perhaps Britain’s best cloud painter, saw the sky as “the keynote” and “the chief organ of sentiment” in his landscape paintings. And his cloudscapes do have a drama and vitality to them that I feel is lacking in the rural idylls below.

Constable believed that “we see nothing truly till we understand it.” I agree. If cloudspotters appreciate the way clouds form, what makes them look the way they do, how they shift from one formation to the next, how they grow and develop, how they decay and dissipate, they will have learned more than mere principles of meteorology. Rene Descartes, the French Jesuit philosopher of the seventeenth century, wrote of clouds:

Since one must turn his eyes toward heaven to look at them, we think of them . . . as the throne of God. . . . That makes me hope that if I can explain their nature . . . one will easily believe that it is possible in some manner to find the causes of everything wonderful about Earth.

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