Head in the Clouds

Pig With Six LegsA new picture book reminds us of the beauty of nature and the power of the imagination, writes Drew Turney.

Our culture has a long tradition of that childhood rite of passage of watching the clouds. Many would argue those without memories of lying in the backyard or park in summer watching poodles, knights and spaceships parade across the sky are missing something integral.

It’s an art we seme to lose as we grow up, the rhythms of adulthood a never-ending To Do list of tasks with little time to wile away the day like we once had.

But some of us never forget the fascination with the endless performance over our heads, and an enterprising Englishman has bought them together from across the world to explore their love for all things nephological.

A Pig With Six Legs is an anthology of some of the best images in the collections of the Cloud Appreciation Society, the brainchild of founder Gavin Pretor-Pinney. A beautiful blend of imaginative whimsy and serendipitous weather, A Pig With Six Legs contains photos with names like The Michelin Man Goes to Rob a Bank, Basil Brush From Behind and A Bear Trained in the Cruel Sport of Duck Juggling.

“Twenty seven publishers in the UK turned me down,” the 39-year-old author recalls, “all with comments like ‘we don’t think people are interested in clouds’, or ‘it’s a bit of a downer talking about clouds’. The negative association of clouds is sort of written into language, particularly in the UK. You know, people are thought of as having a cloud hanging over them or there being a cloud on the horizon.”

Not that our negative feelings about clouds affects our fascination for looking at them. A Pig With Six Legs has now sold 200,000 copies worldwide, not bad for a project that started out as something of a joke. “I was giving a talk about clouds at a small literary festival,” Pretor-Pinney explains, “and I thought if I gave the talk a funny name more people would come along. So I called it the Inaugural Lecture of the Cloud Appreciation Society and it seemed to work.”

The joke is now a thriving online community boasting almost 12,000 members worldwide, a library of 2-3,000 images, an online store, discussion forum, artwork and poetry all dedicated to ending what the Society’s cheeky manifesto calls ‘blue sky thinking’. It’s delightfully kitsch and tongue in cheek, and nobody’s more aware of the ‘nerd’ appeal than its good-humoured creator.

“You don’t want to take yourself too seriously,” Pretor-Pinney cautions, “we make fun of a certain nerdiness in talking about clouds and it’s important to see the funny side in what you do. Finding shapes in the clouds is a pointless, aimless activity that has great value in reminding us not to be too adult or clever.”

So is he just one of those lucky few who’s still in touch with his inner child after all these years? “I think it’s just curiosity,” he says. “Children want to know how things work and why they’re there. When we grow up we learn the analytical way of looking at things like cloud classifications, but there’s still an emotional perspective if you look for it. It’s about having a fresh perspective on what surrounds us and not just taking it for granted.”

Because as millions like Pretor-Pinney know, clouds and the weather offer us something we get very little of in today’s world; the powers of chance where happy accidents like interesting or funny cloud formations can appear. “You want the weather to be perfect when you go on holiday,” he explains, “then when you come back you want some rain for the garden. It just doesn’t work like that and that’s part of the beauty.”

Ask some adults with fond memories of lazy summer days, cool grass and animals or characters in the sky and they’ll snort derisively about today’s youth. If it’s not the game console or PC, it’s the culture of fear where modern parents would blanche in terror at the thought of their kids riding bikes across three suburbs or playing in drains like they did. Short of a cloud spotting XBox game, how do we get kids to walk outside and look up at something that’s not on YouTube?

“When we’re stressed as adults and have the weight of the world on our shoulders, we look down at our feet,” Pretor-Pinney says to explain how we should lead by example. “So it’s not about children being stuck in front of computer games, but rather the anxiety in society and reminding people to take a moment every now and then to just look up. The physical act of looking up is a way of lifting yourself above your concerns.”

With nothing indoors to look up at, a healthy outdoor lifestyle might be the first step. It certainly helps Julie Evans, a meteorologist at Sydney’s Central-based Bureau of Meteorology office. She’s not sure if a love affair with clouds as a little girl laid down the course of her life and profession, but a keenness for sailing and bushwalking demands an awareness of the conditions even when she’s not on duty. Some Cloud Appreciation Society members are based in Australia and as Evans explains, local cloud and weather fanciers perform an invaluable community service in a country as wide and sparsely populated as ours.

“There’s huge community involvement,” she says. “Mainly in rainfall measurement, we have a huge army of rainfall observers around the country. The others are our storm spotters, who contact us when they observe extreme thunderstorm activity like large hail, tornados, heavy rain that can lead to flash flooding or high wind gusts.”

By contrast, the Cloud Appreciation Society would seem to have as much to contribute to science as a crochet club. But it comprises over ten thousand eyes and cameras around the world, and meteorology forecasters can’t be everywhere. The photographs in A Pig With Six Legs were taken everywhere from Canada to Antarctica, Europe to Australia and Africa to the US. The society has a huge pool of imagery that could teach science a lot about cloud formations and the weather patterns that produce them.

In fact, it’s in Australia that the Society’s Gavin Pretor-Pinney had his favourite ever nephological experience. “Some years back I became intrigued with this formation called the morning glory cloud, which appears in far north Queensland,” he remembers. “It’s a long tube cloud often hundreds of miles in length, formed in a way so glider pilots can actually surf it. It was quite nerve wracking because I’d gone a long way to see it and had to wait for one to appear. When it did it was truly dramatic and as a cloud spotter it was sight of a lifetime.”

One of those pilots is Rob Thompson, a 49-year-old sound and lighting technician and aerial videographer based in the Blue Mountains. “I first went up there in 1989,” Thompson says, “It was one of the best-kept secrets in Australia. [The cloud] can be so vast but that part of the world is so remote. If it goes through at dawn only a handful of people might notice.”

The morning glory forms because of the unique atmospheric conditions around the ‘spike’ of Queensland’s northern tip in September and October. The biggest Thompson’s ever seen was two kilometres tall, and he reckons you can see 12 in a decent season. Moving at about 60 kilometres an hour, you can actually follow one in a car, but the more picturesque way to see the morning glory is by getting airborne in time as one approaches.

“We had to learn how to do it carefully because they’re immensely powerful,” Thompson says of the method to capture his arresting images and video. “They’re basically a wave in the atmosphere and you ride it like a surfboard rider does on the ocean. The biggest problem is if you get overtaken you’re in the sinking air and turbulence behind it and that’s a one way ride to the salt flats.”

It’s the kind of experience cloud spotters the world over hunger for, but you don’t have to travel to the remote north to appreciate such beauty. When you’ve finished reading this, just walk outside and look up. As the Cloud Appreciation Society itself says; ‘We believe clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save on psychoanalysis bills.’