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IN THE CLOUDS

Asperitas © Gaetan Bally

IN THE CLOUDS

Ruth Bailey from Switzerland, member 37436, was recently interviewed by Carole Koch for GEO magazine and you can see the article in German on Carole’s website.

For our non-German readers, Ruth has kindly translated the article for us:

IN THE CLOUDS
Out and about with Ruth Bailey, a Swiss Cloudspotter

With the discovery of a new cloud formation the amateur organisation “Cloud Appreciation Society” startled the scientific world. The society’s manifesto says “look up, admire the ephemeral beauty and don’t forget to live with your head in the clouds”.

In the 19th century Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American philosopher, described Nature as a changeable cloud, that is always and yet never the same. Here, and now, over the town of Jona on the shore of the lake of Zurich (Zurichsee) in eastern Switzerland lies a heavy and threatening storm cloud, a cumulonimbus to give its proper name. It can become higher than Mount Everest and bring rain, thunder and lightening. Hailstones are sometimes as big as tennis balls, falling at speeds of up to 200 km an hour. The winds can throw planes off course or flip them over like pancakes. The cumulonimbus is “the big one”, the Darth Vader among clouds, the King of the skies. “A rather ferocious King” says 56 year old Ruth Bailey, with her dark curls and pale skin, Bailey seems almost ethereal. She stands beside her sitting room window and looks out, as always, when she arrives home from work in the afternoons. Later, when the outside temperature is more bearable, she wants to go to the lakeside to see what clouds there are in the sky. For too long, on these very hot days, the sky has been endlessly blue. But now this cumulonimbus seen from her window could produce a storm, the likes of which the country hasn’t seen for some time. “At last” says Bailey.

The administrator moved to Zurich from London 25 years ago, from cloud paradise England to the land of the Alps. But still cloud formations belong to this English born woman like the fluffy sheep clouds belong to fair weather. Today she is a member of the Cloud Appreciation Society, the amateur fan club of clouds which even discovered a cloud that had never been classified before. Asperitas – a sensation.

In essence clouds are collections of water droplets that are driven through the sky by the wind and reflect light in various degrees. They gather evaporated water from rivers, lakes or oceans to distribute it as rain to the Earth. For Ruth Bailey they are, however, much more, the most dynamic and poetical face of nature, the extraordinary in everyday life, an egalitarian pleasure in an unjust world. Too often, she thinks, clouds are unfairly criticised. In the Manifesto of the Cloud Appreciation Society there’s a protest against ‘blue-sky thinking’. ‘Look up,’ it reads, ‘admire the ephemeral beauty and don’t forget to live with your head in the clouds’. And Bailey does. She lives in the clouds. She prefers to live on the top floor so that she can look out from her attic flat, where everything is white and blue, as though the sofa or the dining-table were part of the sky outside the windows. The view outside stretches over the Bachtel peak in Zurich Oberland, the Zurich Obersee and the Glarner Alps. On one side a storm cloud is hovering and on the other fleecy shaped clouds are drifting past. “They’re called cumulus congestus” says Ruth Bailey, with reading glasses perched on her nose and ‘The Cloud Collector’s Handbook’ in her hand. It’s the Bible of her “Look-in-the-air” club, a handbook for the art of sky-gazing. In it all the types of clouds are explained and all the numerous species and unique forms are categorised. Clouds such as cumulus congestus arise from cumulus clouds and can develop into storm clouds (cumulonimbus).

For most of her life Bailey has been interested in the pictures in the sky which are so difficult to capture. One can pin up butterflies or hang hunting trophies on the wall, but clouds are constantly changing and can only be captured in photographs. Or in points: whoever spots a storm cloud, according to the handbook, gets 40 points. If the King of clouds comes along with thunder, lightening or a beret, you get extra points. It must be said that a beret in this case means a cloud which sits on another cloud like a hood on a head. In other words an accessory cloud called pileus. Bailey compares its form with Donald Trump’s hairstyle. The handbook was written by the Briton, Gavin Pretor-Pinney. He is the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, which now has more than 43,000 members worldwide. The majority come from Britain, 322 from Switzerland, and there are also members in Zimbabwe and Iran. The Society was originally meant as a joke. In 2004 Pretor-Pinney was invited to give a talk at a literature festival in Cornwall. The graphic artist and graduate of Central Saint Martins in London, one of the most renowned art schools in the world, had completed a sabbatical in Rome where, on seeing frescoes and Renaissance works of art, his childhood hobby was reawakened, namely observing the clouds and imagining they were pictures of Jesus or Elvis. Pretor-Pinney called his talk “The Inaugural Lecture of the Cloud Appreciation Society”. And because some of the people attending the festival wanted to join this imaginary club Pretor-Pinney decided to create a website. Within a few months, 2000 people had joined and the cloudappreciationsociety.org was listed as one of England’s Weird and Wonderful websites. What began as a joke became a viral sensation. The ‘Sunday Times’ declared cloud spotting as a new religion. And Pretor-Pinney could finally write the book (which previously had been rejected by 28 publishers) ‘The Cloudspotter’s Guide’.

It was then that Ruth Bailey first heard about the Society. Living in Tuscany at the time and running a Bed & Breakfast with her husband, she was missing the clouds, as well as the smell of rain. “There’s an expression for this in English”, she says – “petrichor”. And it sounds like a declaration of love for the sky, which, over Jona at the moment, looks as wild as the romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes. The cumulonimbus is growing in all directions and its edges are becoming frayed. ‘It could develop into something good’ says Bailey and her words sound like a promise. It’s almost 5 o’clock and she is eager to leave, to go to Rapperswil, down to the lakeshore.

Bailey feels something like love for the phenomena of the skies. With certainty but also with passion: her days begin and end with them. She starts each morning by viewing the Cloud Appreciation Society’s website, a mixture of skygazing and meteorological knowledge. Photos from members are uploaded and a “Cloud of the Month” is selected. Poems with titles like “Stratosphere” are posted, or forum discussions such as ‘Wave Clouds” can take place. “Clouds are my meditation” says Bailey calmly. After 25 years of cloud collecting she can concentrate better and take more time to make important decisions. Sometimes she listens to music by Beethoven or Nils Frahm, the neo-classical composer, and gazes at the sky, up to the fluffy creations that sometimes look like saints’ sofas.

In many cultures clouds are regarded as the perfect religious symbol between heaven and earth, between the godly and the mortal. For example, In the book of Genesis, God, in the form of a cloud, leads the people through the desert. And Jesus himself peeps over the edge of cumulus clouds in many paintings. The French novelist Victor Hugo compared clouds with birds that never sleep. They come and go. In their transitoriness they are also a mirror of people who project their innermost feelings onto the Rorschach pictures in the sky. For the English cloud painter John Constable they were Nature’s “organ of sentiment”. Cloud guru Gavin Pretor-Pinney claims that cloud-gazing could be a substitute for psychotherapy. For Ruth Bailey it’s also a small protest against the growth of digitalisation. Nevertheless, without technological achievements neither the exchanges with other cloud spotters nor the photo collection on her laptop, which includes a feather (cirrus vertebratus) over London and an Abraham Lincoln (cirrocumulus) over Zurich would be possible. The fact that one can share these wonders of nature with people from 130 countries, as if the world were one village in which everyone is looking at the same sky, is only possible thanks to digital networking.

As Ruth Bailey climbs on her bike the sky is now just daubed with white on dazzling blue. No cumulonimbus or anvil is in sight – up and disappeared as if the King of clouds has fled from the heat which even in the early evening still seems suffocating. How could this happen? And what about the storm? Bailey shrugs her shoulders. She is a cloud catcher, not a storm hunter. For her it’s not about the great drama but more about the small, subtle wonders. And she knows that clouds seldom do what one expects. On the contrary, they do not obey and the secret is to stop – and enjoy the moment.

Maybe that’s also what Jane Wiggins from Iowa City thought as the view of the city from her office window in June 2006 reminded her of a scene from a film depicting the end of the world. A furious lake of clouds lay above the rooftops, almost as if the heavens had been flooded. Gavin Pretor-Pinney had seen the same type of cloud formations in photos from Norway, France and Scotland, but they weren’t mentioned anywhere, not even in the World Meteorological Organisation’s (WMO) “International Cloud Atlas”. And that’s how the cloud fan club became caught up in the turbulence of the meteorological general weather situation. Pretor-Pinney, with the help of a Latin teacher christened the phantom cloud “Asperatus”after Virgil’s description of a turbulent lake. He then introduced the cloud to the Royal Meteorological Society. It must have been like in one of those TV shows, where the participants are publicly judged.

The experts sat at their table, while the amateur argued the case with the help of enlarged photos of Asperatus formations. Verdict: only the World Meteorological Organisation can classify new clouds, and that hadn’t happened since 1953. In short: the chances were slim. And so began years of struggle about the choice of name and cloud sovereignty. “A thriller” says Ruth Bailey who followed developments, just like TV audiences follow talent shows. David vs Goliath, amateur vs the experts. In cloud science, however, lay people follow a long tradition. Luke Howard, the father of meteorology was not a researcher, instead he was a pharmacist from London. When he first formulated his classification of clouds in 1802 very little meteorological theory existed. Howard was the first to classify clouds in the species of Stratus, Cumulus, Cirrus and Nimbus and by doing so he formulated the original text of cloud knowledge. “We have some biographical parallels” says Bailey. Howard grew up in Tottenham and Bailey grew up nearby. And at school Howard also preferred to look at the sky. “At school I looked out of the window a lot, perhaps too much” she says. It was not just idle day-dreaming; it was an escape from the teasing of other pupils to a simpler world, far away, light and free. She did the same later in Italy, when difficulties arose and the dream of a life in the south turned sour. The evening outings to the shore of the Zurichsee, where people are now swimming and unpacking their picnic baskets, are what remain of a mediterranean way of life. Bailey likes being near water, from there she can see the greatest area of sky which is now just one single picture on a blue and red background: cumulus, cumulus congestus and altocumulus. “But no asperitas – they’re more common in wide and flat areas” she says smiling and removing her camera from her bag. In the spring of 2017 the rare formation was finally admitted into the Cloud Atlas and after 40 years the reference book was updated and made ready for the Internet. An international commission debated the inclusion of the asperitas and following public pressure the Cloud Appreciation Society’s suggestion was incorporated. And that is how a discovery by amateurs was accepted by the scientific world, although not as a species of cloud, but instead as an additional variety of cloud. And because it is designated with a Latin noun instead of an adjective, out of Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s Asperatus, Asperitas was born.

Translation: Ruth Bailey
GEO 11/2017 (Schweiz Split)
Grüner & Jahr

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