Paul Andersen: Fair Game
September 8, 2008
One of the most frightening forces I’ve ever experienced in the mountains came from a dark, foreboding, electrically charged cloud. It swept over a ridge in the San Juan Mountains flashing strobes of white-hot barbs.
I was backpacking over a high pass and nearly met my maker in a simultaneous flash and ear-splitting concussion. I crawled trembling into a small enclave of Krummholz trees, thickly matted on all sides. The cloud bombarded me with lightning and salvos of hail. I have respected storm clouds ever since.
Years ago, on a trip across the plains, I drove out toward sunrise. In an otherwise clear sky, I watched a puffball cloud grow into a towering cumulus that billowed white with a bruised underside. By the time I was ready to camp, I was directly beneath that dark, swollen underbelly. It unleashed its pent-up rage that night, driving me from my tent and rocking my car with tornado winds.
Clouds are made of water vapor attached to condensation nuclei. They are pushed skyward by thermal currents where moisture condenses in cool layers of the upper atmosphere. Clouds are composed of ephemeral airborne mist that gives them form and substance. They produce gray overcast, cool shade or violent storms, depending on their meteorological origins.
Unforgettable was a cloud on the plains of South Dakota where I stood at a remote crossroads in the Sand Hills. It was dusk and a silhouetted thunderhead pummeled the earth like the fist of God … smiting the meek, the awestruck, the humble … a punitive deity lording over all. There was nothing ephemeral about that gates-of-hell cloud.
As I write this morning, bands of cloud festoon the draws and canyons of the Fryingpan Valley, tatters from the storm that blew through last night. Gauzy and diaphanous, these cloud fragments seep through the conifers and pool in the creases of the ridges, silky garments, gentle cloaks, soft woolen mantles.
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Clouds bring the blessing of rain to parched land, nurturing food crops, filling rivers and lakes, dampening fires. They bring cursed downpours and spawn terrifying floods for city, swamp and desert; man and animal; rich and poor; white, black and yellow. Clouds are indiscriminate sunset filters, airborne Rorschach tests, brutally dispassionate killers.
Paul Simon wrote: “Cloudy/My thoughts are scattered and they’re cloudy/They have no borders, no boundaries … These clouds stick to the sky/Like a floating question why?/And they linger there to die/They don’t know where they’re going and my friend neither do I.”
I watch clouds carefully in the mountains. I track them with wonder as they grow mushroom-like into monstrous godheads with the power of Jehovah, Zeus, Allah, Thor, Gaia, Prometheus. After Aug. 6, 1945, no mushroom cloud can be dismissed as mere vapor, no thunder boom ignored as insignificant, no lightning flash seen as benign.
Watching a thunderhead from afar, with lightning flashes zigzagging to earth and thunder rolling, I marvel at the mighty power of that dark-bellied man-o-war and who or what is enduring its wrath. How many suffer beneath metaphoric clouds of war, clouds of doubt, clouds of confusion, depression, loneliness, hopelessness?
Clouds cast shadows over distant places and distant peoples. We fear them as hurricanes and mark the slow advance of their satellite image whirls. We identify them as nature’s malignancy and give them names. Katrina, Andrew, Hugo, Gustav, Bette, Bob. Clouds bring snow, the soft eider down that we romanticize when it drifts from a holiday sky and blankets our ski mountains in white purity. The same snow can blind the eyes, sting the skin like needles, swirl with suffocating iciness, avalanche with the dread rumble of winter thunder.
Joni Mitchell made an album, “Clouds.” She sang: “Rows and floes of angel hair/And ice cream castles in the air/And feather canyons everywhere/I’ve looked at clouds that way … But now they only block the sun/They rain and snow on everyone/So many things I would have done/But clouds got in my way … I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now/From up and down, and still somehow/It’s cloud illusions I recall/I really don’t know clouds … at all.”
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