Clouds, those giant Rorschach tests in the sky, inspiration to dreamers and songwriters like Joni Mitchell, who looked up and saw "Rows and flows of angel's hair . . . And feathered canyons ev'rywhere," haven to poets such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who, when not counting the ways in which she loved thee, yearned to "build a cloudy House / for my thoughts to live in."
Me, I just wanted to eat them.
It was my father's fault that I developed a visceral relationship to clouds, the most ethereal of elements. The Air Force had just landed my family in Japan, though not the Japan of oxygen tanks on gridlocked corners and white-gloved "pushers" cramming riders into bullet trains. This was the fairy-tale Japan of geishas and cherry blossoms that still existed at the tail end of the Occupation.
We were stationed at Yokota Air Base for three years, though it would be decades before I learned the dangerous truth about the Cold War reconnaissance missions my navigator father flew over Russia, over Red China, while we were there. All I knew as a small child was that a crackling static of anxiety accompanied those departures whose destination and duration we were never allowed to inquire into, any more than we were allowed to ask about the daddies who never came home.
Then, one day, as my father packed for another mission—balling up socks, tossing in the Gillette Blue Blades, the bottle of Aqua Velva—I asked where he was going. Perhaps I got away with breaking the rule because of my "high-strung" temperament. My father answered that he was going "up there," into the clouds. More than a decade away from my own first plane ride, I wondered what they were like, the clouds.
"They're made of marshmallow cream," my father told his jittery daughter. Already well acquainted with my sugar obsession, he added the one thing guaranteed to ensure that I'd be delighted for him to leave: "And I'm going to bring some home for you. I'll throw a bucket on a rope out the window and scoop up a great big mound."
A bucket of marshmallow cream? I couldn't fling the socks in fast enough.
Though I had already signed on to the concept that rain, not marshmallow cream, came from clouds, I assumed that this meteorological detail applied only in "The States," the "Big PX," the great and wondrous mother ship we had left behind. Here, in this magical country where walls were made of paper and shoes of wood, where candy was wrapped in paper you could eat and gods answered prayer notes tied to trees, apparently different cloud rules were in force.
The sky came alive for me as I inventoried each day's stock of marshmallow cream and found that new delights had appeared on the menu: mountains of ice cream, tundras of nougat, drifts of meringue, rippled waves of whipped cream. Those weeks of waiting for the bucket to be delivered were delectable ones in my increasingly candy-centric view of the universe. The field behind our house, tended by a farmer in a conical hat and rubber shoes with a pocket for his big toe, came to resemble an Andes Mint, the chocolate-dark soil topped by a furze of minty green shoots. Rising above those acres of after-dinner mint was a miraculously unimpeded view of Mount Fuji. For some, a holy national symbol. For me, an upended coconut sno-cone. Of greater interest were the clouds that wreathed the perfect cone. The setting sun turned the halo to a pinkish rose likened in haiku to a crown of cherry blossoms. I knew better. Those clouds were cotton candy and I hoped my father would toss the bucket out above the sacred mount.
The summer afternoon several weeks later when we, my ravenous brothers and sisters and I, waited at the Flight Line for our father's return was hot enough to turn the landing planes into shimmering wobbles of silver. The heat didn't bother me. All I was concerned about was how I was going to neutralize the competition. I was considering some equitable split with my siblings along the lines of "you get to lick the empty bucket," when my father emerged in his olive green flight suit with its magician's array of zippered pockets. I searched for a bucket on a rope dripping billows of sugary fluff, but all he carried was a white box containing the leftovers from that day's flight lunch. Even on a day hot enough to liquefy airplanes, the tiny packets of mayonnaise, the cue-ball-hard apple, the half of a Snickers bar were wondrously cold. I had no heart, though, to be amazed by or even compete for these offerings from a frigid world high above our heads. Who cared about a fraction of a frozen Snickers bar when you'd just lost a bucket of marshmallow cream?
The awful truth about clouds came clear in second grade as a steamy terrarium dripping beads of moisture demonstrated their extraordinary ordinariness. Just like American clouds, Japanese clouds were nothing but water. We'd even walked through them. Fog? Nothing but a cloud too lazy to stay up high. Disappointing though this revelation was, the little terrarium held its own sweet dollop of mystery. Through spelling-list words like "condensation" and "precipitation," I discovered that not a single drop of water was ever lost. Every trickle sprinkled across the Slip'n Slide, every drop in the pitcher transformed into cherry Kool-Aid, every bath that cycloned down the drain, all were reclaimed by the clouds, purified, and returned to us as rain.
An astonishing extrapolation followed: Cleopatra might very well have bathed in one of the molecules I used to brush my teeth. There could be—probably was!—a dinosaur tear in the ice cube in my Shirley Temple. As befits a country brought forth by the two divine beings, Izanagi and Izanami, from a "sea of filmy fog floating to and fro in the air," clouds hugged Japan tightly in a misty embrace. These foggy days gave me, new devotee to the meteorological sciences, ample opportunity to stroll through what I now knew to be a distillate of history.
I could have remained on this fog-feathered island forever. The United States Air Force decreed otherwise. Our new assignment was someplace called Harlingen, Texas. Joy met this news. We were, in GI parlance, "short"; we were going back to "The World." Three years of garrison life had turned me into a superpatriot, citizen of an idealized America. I had no state identity. I wasn't a Michigander—I'd been born in the state but spent only one fairly unformative month there. Arizona, Texas, Idaho, California, all places we had lived, had left equally negligible impressions. To a child formed overseas, states were arbitrary outlines on a map. States were fifty fingers of a hand that had clenched into a fist to smite undeniable evil in war, then opened in victory as, possibly, the most magnanimous conquerors the world had ever seen. I was an American and I was going home.
Decades later, I would write about a troop of macaque monkeys that had overrun their home in the piney forests outside of Kyoto, where they were regarded as sacred animals, beloved of the imperial family, and enshrined as the resourceful trickster stars of many fairy tales. They were demoted to public nuisance status when they took to raiding farmers' crops, menacing housewives, and defecating in the temples. An international effort saved the half of the troop marked for extermination, and the monkeys with the watermelon-colored faces and behinds were shipped from their snowy, mist-shrouded sanctuary to the sun-stricken mesquite and prickly pear plains of South Texas. I recognized in the shell-shocked faces of those transplants my own stunned and panting initial reaction to Texas.
Via the same steamship line that had delivered my family and me to Japan, the Air Force returned us to the other side of the earth. We docked in San Francisco and the seven-soon-to-be-eight of us packed into an exceptionally snazzy, two-tone Bel Air station wagon, with a circus troupe's supply of suitcases strapped to the roof. And we drove. And we drove. Through a hole cut in a giant sequoia we traveled south from redwood country to grapefruit country. Unfortunately, all those suitcases rattling against the roof of the car were filled with the woolly jackets, earmuffs, gloves, and boots that had kept us warm and dry in Japan. Even though we stripped off as many layers as decency would allow, we still arrived in Texas gasping from the heat.
Other shocks followed. The food. The food? Apparently, it was not going to be enough to torture Bird children with temperatures we hadn't experienced since our last trip to the furo, the communal bath. No, internal searing would be added. Chips? With hot sauce? What hellish world was this where pieces of cardboard dunked in a caustic, burning solution were considered a treat?
But the major problem was that this country was simply too big. I desperately missed the claustrophobic embrace of a small island, populated by small people, who had created a small world perfectly scaled for children. Someone had taken the dome off of this Texas terrarium, exposing it to an enormity of sky that was frighteningly beyond my comprehension. Someone had let the clouds that cuddled the earth into hospitality escape. Fog? Not a chance. Clouds here were not friendly visitors brushing your cheek with molecules of Cleopatra's bathwater and ringing small mountains in pink cotton candy—here they were Titans. They were hectic monsters churned up from the Gulf of Mexico that flayed the earth with hurricanes. Or they were bullies called Blue Northers that muscled their way down from Siberia and forced the temperature to drop more in a few hours than it would have during an entire year back in Japan.
The other cloud creatures who entered my life around this time were nuns, since my parents had enrolled their children in St. Anthony's Catholic School so as to avoid the eternal damnation the Church guaranteed any parent who failed to do so. Clad in cumulus-white habits originally issued by the Mother House for nursing African pagans with leprosy and repurposed for teaching American ignorami with ringworm, the nuns floated among us with a dangerous unpredictability. Like the cruel clouds outside, my teacher, Sister Immaculata, was just as apt to strike with a ruler whack of lightning across the palm as to rain down gentle learning.
Given that Latin was the official team language, it was natural that in our unit on weather Sister Immaculata should teach us what the Latinate names of the clouds meant. They all derived from three shapes. Anything wispy was a cirrus, a curl of hair. Stratus meant "layer" and was for those lazy, blanketing fog clouds without enough energy to get airborne though they could cover vast swaths of sky. The ice cream clouds, scoops, balls, puffs, were cumulus, meaning "heap." Like Mr. Potato Head, just a few additions here and there could completely change the designations of these configurations. Compound clouds were cobbled together by adding nimbus, "rain," humilis, "small," and incus, "anvil." The prefixes cirro and alto made any of the basics into either high- or middle-altitude models. Latin suffixes as lovely as the clouds they described trailed after, explaining themselves as they went: undulatus, fibratus, radiatus, translucidus, opacus, congestus.
The association between clouds and Catholicism was cemented on our first-ever, full-on, official Good Friday. Unlike the previous carefree annual Fridays before Easter, which we had given over to dyeing eggs purple (for hunting) and coconut green (for decorating bunny cakes) and other such pagan activities, our first Good Friday as Catholic school students was passed in church observing the Stations of the Cross. Hours spent meditating upon Christ's suffering—the crowning with thorns, whipping, crucifixion—left me in a more than usually high-strung, susceptible state of mind. Which is why I took it very personally when I marched out of the church that Good Friday and beheld wildly theatrical clouds performing their own Passion play. Wispy black ones that had to be cirrus feathered high across the dark sky like ink spilled into water. Billowing up in front of these bit players was a brute spectacularly bruised in lurid greens and purples, shaped like (yes!) an anvil. I beheld a magnificent cumulonimbus incus. Sunlight found its way between him and the layer of high cirrus, and golden rays streamed out from behind in an effect hardly seen since Cecil B. DeMille. It was time to make friends with these Texas clouds.
That summer, when the real hammer of Texas heat dropped on our house, where the air was "conditioned" by several fans whose major purpose seemed to be to speed up the time it took the superheated air molecules to reach me, I escaped outside. I climbed the only tree of any size in our yard, a tall hackberry, and took refuge in what breezes passed by. When not occupied spying upon my family (the favorite activity of a certain "sensitive" type of child destined to torture the alphabet for a living), I found myself lost in cloud reveries, finding odd fauna revealed in their puffs and pouches. A bunny licking its paw, a two-headed dog, an elephant in pajamas, Sister Immaculata's beaky profile, but mostly, didn't that sheep's flock of fluffy white cumulus humilis look like sopaipillas? Especially as the sun set, turning the underdone delights into the golden puffs I had recently discovered? Yes, though still homesick in Harlingen, I was beginning to make my peace with Texas. Any state that put doughnuts with honey right up front there on the main menu couldn't be all bad.
That sweet thought was followed by another, an astonishing extrapolation from the lessons of the terrarium about the essential nature of clouds. If clouds were no respecters of history, they were even less likely to be observers of borders. If they contained molecules from every moment in time, they certainly mixed in ones from every point in space as well. The moisture that escaped when we boiled eggs to be dyed for Easter could slip through Customs up in Cloud Land and mingle with droplets from pots bubbling in Idaho or England or, best of all, Japan. These sopaipilla clouds I was staring at could very well contain the chlorinated essence of the swimming pool we'd left behind at Yokota or vapor from the furos or steam from the small brass pot of green tea the farmer boiled every day in the Andes Mint field in front of Mount Fuji. Though the hackberry might be rooted in Texas soil, Texas clouds, vaporous amalgamations of the distilled essences of every country on earth, were international.
I gave up spying and took to watching the sky. Like books, my first, most necessary form of escape, clouds transported me. Though I still yearned for mist-hugged Japan, I noticed how my thoughts soared here in this land with no lid. Forced to reach out to distant clouds, the range of my dreams increased as well, until these Texas clouds became conduits to a world of imagination.
And then we went to the beach. Yes, clouds scudding across a high Texas sky were revelatory, transporting, but stick a palm tree into this picture and, wow, there's the umbrella in your cocktail. A photo from that time, deckled along the edges, curled with age, shows a Padre Island shoreline devoid of anything except well-fed Bird children getting sand into crevices likely to chafe most. There is not a single hotel, condominium, or parasail rental shop. The gas station where we always stopped to rinse the salt off the car isn't even visible. The only things crowding the empty beach, besides us, are clouds.
Beach clouds spoke Latin all day long. The first lesson commenced at dawn when the sun bobbed like a pink jellyfish through the morning haze I knew to be a stratus cloud. Its translucent opalescence suggested Latin modifiers. Translucidus? Opacus? I wondered as I bounced on gentle rose-colored swells, but the sun was already burning the haze away. Later in the day undulant rows of clouds appeared that mirrored in white the rippled footprints waves left in the sand. They all but whispered their name, altocumulus undulatus. I watched for exciting developments among the cumuli. A congestus, perhaps. Or even the titillating mammatus, the pouch-like cloud named for its resemblance to pendent breasts. I even learned I had the power to make clouds appear and come to me. With one Cheeto, I could command a beady-eyed, white and gray cloud of seagulls squawking their fretful cries, orange beaks aimed at orange Cheeto. That evening, as we crossed the long Port Isabel Causeway, droopy-gulleted pelicans cut through a tangerine sunset that reflected on the water below. Above that long link to Padre Island, unnamed clouds floated, golden in the waning light.
The Air Force decreed that we should move from Harlingen to San Antonio. Then, a few years later, to Albuquerque. Again the station wagon was packed. Suitcases lashed to the roof. My heart was broken. I had made friends. I loved Texas. The Air Force did not care. My father headed up to Interstate 10, the highway cruise control was invented for, turned left, and punched the pedal to the metal. As we barreled along, I slumped against the window, searching the sky for clouds. The farther west we went, the fewer I spotted. Like trees, grass, and water in liquid form, they had up and blown away from this increasingly flat, increasingly barren country. The vertiginous, exposed feeling I'd had when we'd first moved from Japan returned in full force.
West Texas was a land that truly had no lid. Flat as a gym floor, it rolled out in either direction to horizons too distant to see, although, somehow, the farther west we went the greater distances I was able to see. It was as if I'd gone to the ophthalmologist and updated the prescription on my glasses. I suspected that the novena I'd offered up to ease the world's suffering, stop the Soviets from destroying Holy Mother Church, and be granted super powers was being answered in the form of super vision. Though I would have preferred the ability to fly, super vision was good. Then my father, the navigator, began marveling about "visibility" and "low humidity," and I went back to searching the sky. In this treeless land, clouds were precious, casting what little shade might fall on the parched land.
"Is Alvin Turkey going to be like this?" my youngest brother asked, watching a vulture riding thermals overhead.
"Yeah, only not so green," my father answered. "Maybe a little dryer."
"He's kidding," my mother added.
I was dubious and dismissed an unimpressive stratus formation off in the distance that was trailing a veil of gray shadow across the land. We drove straight into it and, sudden as flipping a switch, we went from dusty, desiccating sunshine into a deluge.
"Just a little shower," my father, who'd ridden out typhoons and enemy fire, said, pressing on.
The "little shower" streamed down in blinding sheets that turned the windshield into a wobbly porthole. Water surged across the highway. When a semi engulfed us in a wave that soaked the suitcases on top and made the station wagon shimmy across the saturated road, my father pulled over. We watched water rise all around us as steadily as a swimming pool filling. And, then, just as suddenly as it had started, the clouds swept past, leaving behind a world renewed, dazzling in its freshness. The endless sky emerged scoured to a cobalt blue so intense and saturated it hurt to look at it. Fragrances unlocked by the rain—moist earth, sage, creosote—filled the car. The cleansed air was even clearer than before. Mountains in the distance sharpened into crisp focus. Momentarily stunned by the tumult of weather and its magic aftermath, all of us squabbling children fell silent as we motored on.
The sunset that evening was so spectacular we couldn't take our eyes from the sky even to look out for the sign we found indispensable during these migrations: "Swimming Pool." The blue intensified to the heart-stopping hue of a Vermeer canvas as the mountains darkened into a saw-toothed silhouette. Streaks of salmon, vermilion, lilac crept higher into the blue, then tinted the underbellies of clouds in blazing slashes of copper. The show that night was a double feature. Behind us, to the east, swirling above the Apache Mountains, was a formation I'd never hoped to see, altocumulus lenticularis. The lentil-shaped cloud pulsed an iridescent violet as it whirled over the ridge, its flying-saucer shape and eerie glow enough to make my two youngest brothers poke each other and demand in robot voices, "Take me to your leader."
Night ended the alien invasion. We fell asleep in the car and woke in Albuquerque beneath a periwinkle sunrise feathered with vermilion cirrus. Four years later, I flew back over those mountains on my first airplane ride. Nineteen hours to Okinawa, where my family had been transferred. Nineteen hours to get over a faithless boyfriend and a broken heart. I spent them chasing a sun that never stopped setting, glued to the window, mesmerized by the sensation of staring down on clouds. I was a spy soaring above empires I'd only guessed at from glimpses of their undersides. There beneath me was the kingdom of the heavens plotted out on a vast crenulated topographical map. I flew over domed cathedrals. Mosques with minarets. Turreted castles. Disneylands of cloud with streams of vapor blowing through the streets. Vast knobbly plains like an endless field of cauliflower rose up to be followed by polar ice caps of snow, mountainous drifts that went on forever. Unlike love. Sniff-sniff. I imagined my tears evaporating in the cabin and being sprinkled by the exhaust system directly onto the clouds, which would pass those molecules around until they fell on Albuquerque. On him. Sigh.
Clouds on the semitropical island of Okinawa were closer to utilities than weather. Like clockwork, every afternoon, the sky would clot with gray rain clouds and release a precisely timed torrent. So reliable was the daily downpour that I took to standing beneath the rain spout that drained our flat roof, bottle of Herbal Essence shampoo in hand, to wash my hair in the unchlorinated runoff. The locks never looked better.
Other parts of the world, other clouds:
A fantastic orange haze blanketing Frankfurt, Germany. "Stratus?" I wondered. "No," a local corrected. "Pollution."
A chairlift strung up the side of the French Alps swaying ominously beneath the unblinking eye of a feeble sun pearlized and haloed by the nacreous haze of a cirrostratus fibratus.
On the White River Apache reservation, a cumulus congestus as brilliantly white and high as Marie Antoinette's wig surges up above a red canyon dotted with yellow asters.
A cartoon sky in Maxfield Parrish pastels over Palo Duro Canyon, rows of blobby clouds, pink and rose against a background of Prussian blue. "That's what we used to call a buttermilk sky," the old rodeo contractor I was visiting informed me. His wife said, "No, it ain't."
A male orangutan hoots from the branches of a magnificent ironwood tree beside a river dark as coffee in Kalimantan, Borneo. Above his head, black squiggles of cirrus brush distress signals into a sky obscured by the smoke from agricultural fires raging out of control.
The turning point in my relationship with clouds occurred long before Borneo. I was in England, once again a small, wet island. This one on intimate enough terms with clouds to call their foggy weather "soft." A few winter months in Leeds, England, and the "softness" had dissolved all my lingering affection for low-lying clouds. I came to feel I was living inside an oyster. The day The Last Picture Show opened, I was at the theater, ready to endure sugar in the popcorn, ice cream bars at the concession stand, and any number of other British oddities. Some might say that Larry and Peter's classic was filmed in black and white, but to me it was pure living color. I took one look at the sky above Anarene, Texas, with the clouds way up high where they belonged, started crying, and stopped only long enough to buy a ticket home. My love affair with clouds that hug was over.
As I write, it is almost Valentine's Day. Outside my window, a high scrim of stratus diffuses the light into an opalescent haze that flatters the greens we are lucky to have at a time when ice and snow cover less fortunate landscapes. The haze makes a perfect rice paper canvas, on which elegant crape myrtle branches, bare and ivory pale in the somber light, fork their frozen lightning and across which banzai kinks of live oak limbs brush their elegant calligraphy.
What else is written there, it appears, is my life in clouds. Having recorded far more of a shared history than I had imagined existed, I glance up from my computer at my son, fifteen, hypnotized in front of his computer, and wonder what cloud memories he will one day look back on. Will they mostly derive from screen savers? I worry. Cloud memories, clearly another area I've failed in as a mother.
We take the dog for a walk. The haze has lifted, revealing high patches of rolled and tucked clouds that remind me of the sky above Palo Duro Canyon that the old-timer had called "buttermilk."
"So," I ask, with the nonchalance that mothers posing fraught questions learn to imitate so well. "Do you have any cloud memories?"
"Like, do I remember clouds?" His tone implies that the total mental collapse he'd long anticipated has occurred.
I explain, fearing his recollections will linger lovingly over the exquisite resolution of his new computer game.
Instead, this: "Remember when you took me on that insane walk during that storm? You were all, 'It's fine. Don't worry. This is great walking weather,' and there were, like, lightning bolts striking. So I ran ahead and got to the top of the hill at the end of the short loop and all of a sudden there's this monster cloud that goes from a couple of feet off the ground to miles into the sky and it's this brown that no cloud has ever been before. Sort of like a giant dust devil, but it didn't touch the ground. The trees on either side of the street made a channel with the cloud and this enormous gust of wind came from the cloud and shot all these leaves at me."
"Pretty vivid memory. Do you ever just look up into the sky and see things in the clouds?"
"No. Most people will look up at the clouds and say, 'That kind of looks like a rabbit. Or a dog smoking a pipe.' When I look in the clouds, I go, 'I think I'll try to find a guy with a monocle. I'll find Mr. Peanut. And he'll be there. If you look the right way, you can find anything you want in the clouds."
"Do they ever look like something good to eat?"
"No, Mom, not really."