“A scientist who has lost a sense of wonder, or scientists who try to teach facts without feeling, will not find their work transformed into the wisdom and knowledge that the times so urgently require.”

– Kathleen Dean Moore, The Truth of the Barnacles

Sometimes I worry that we are forgetting how to watch the clouds. The irony of these words rises to the edge of laughter in my chest as I write, that – after a long day of juggling academic readings, discussions of socio-ecological resilience through land-human relations, backcountry river travel logistics, group communication and self care – this is the concern that is keeping me up at night. Yet I can’t seem to shake this thought that, at perhaps this very moment, a certain cloud may be displaying its most urgent message in full and transparent pride, and not an eye is turned. Imagine the loss, if not for the clouds’ sake then for our own, when the starring actress of childhood dreams debuts only to the downturned heads of grown-up children on their phones – when the quintessential symbol of tranquility and spaciousness is seen only in boxy advertisements for new-age mattresses and luxury vacations – when the bearers of skywater and sculptors of sunlight are met only by high fences, drawn curtains, and turned backs. I share a goodnight hug with my co-instructor and accomplice, Eva, and make my way to my tent.

“We can’t keep track of everything. We can’t find a proper, sustainable relationship to nature, each other, or the institutions we create if we try to do it from the role of the omniscient conqueror.”

– Donella Meadows, Dancing with Systems

These students have been working hard and thinking critically, less altered by the semi-social stimuli of digital media and more focused on swimming through silty and refreshing readings, raising and wrestling with challenging questions inspired by our place-based journey through the Colorado Plateau. Josie, just yesterday: “How might our world be different if we collectively treated other species with the same respect, humility, and curiosity we try to show other humans when immersing ourselves in a different culture?” Our discussions, once stagnant, flowed freely again. Or Elijah, giving voice to a conflict of values within our own group: “What ethics inform the human decision to intervene by pulling a struggling bird (or elk or bison calf) from a strong current?” These questions and the conversations they inspire swirl fractally around moving themes of resilience and revolution, the collective weaving of sustaining peace, and the essential work of sitting with difference in nested communities bursting with diverse colors, cultures, and cosmovisions. These questions are a big part of what gives me hope in this work. But this evening I am caught up in another question: Did they also see the sky?

“As we have enhanced our power to determine nature, we have rendered it less able to converse with us.”

– Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks

Let it be known, I am no common globemallow either. I also frequently turn my eyes away from the clouds – if not always literally from beneath the bill of my hat then certainly mentally – on days when my preoccupations hold my focus and my to-do’s keep it nearsighted. Perhaps we can accept that we all have days like these. But what worries me is that, collectively, as a society, we are no longer seeing the clouds. We no longer pause between tasks – after changing a diaper, sending an email, or collecting water – to admire, breathe, sigh, soak, witness, daydream, or swoon. That, collectively, the balance of global inner peace is shifting, silently, day by day, moment by moment, cloud by cloud – shifting toward stress, distress, anxiety, perfectionism, fear, threat, and resignation. I worry that as a culture we are losing an ancient language of inspiration, humility, patience, and gratitude – not solely to our own detriment but also at the expense of the resilience of our nieces and nephews, and their grandchildren. This is the language which has – since before our ancestors first spoke – mediated conflict, inserted space, offered solidarity. And that, without a cultural practice of receiving and reflecting on these messages sent down from on high, our youth of the fading present are left with little to wonder beyond “What is the point of it all?” Unable to shake my concerns, I set out from our camp on foot to try to clear my head.

“Real communities foster dignity, competence, participation, and opportunity for good work. And good communities provide places in which children’s imagination and earthly sensibilities grow.”

– David W. Orr, Love It or Lose it

This particular cloud catches my eye just as the sun tucks in the steadfast Wingate cliffs towering over Labyrinth Canyon. Cool-blue streamers trailing below draw stark contrast with the crisp yellow-orange hummocks above, dancing one after another, each bursting with distinction in diminishing succession. Moment by moment they stride down the illuminated sandstone runway, translating through space and time in glorious sweeps which tease the edge of my perception of motion. Detached from human time I allow myself to be guided to where the last rays of sunlight braid the cloud’s uppermost curls before bed, until amber gives way to nonbinary pink, gives way to a cool, unwavering calm.

“Acknowledging the gifts that surround us creates a sense of satisfaction, a feeling of enough-ness which is an antidote to the societal messages that drill into our spirits telling us we must have more. Practicing contentment is a radical act in a consumption-driven society.”

– Robin Wall Kimmerer, Returning the Gift

I take a few moments to reoccupy my body and take store of who and where I am, before beginning to retrace my footsteps – back down the red sand wash to the dry cascada, and along the rocky mesa rim to where it gives way to dry grasses, cactus, sagebrush, and finally the willow and tamarisk hosts of our transient camp. “There is time yet,” I breathe. Time to learn to weave what I had witnessed into empowering reflection, discussion, action, and celebration. And then I see our students – Kate, perched on a high boulder tucked beneath the mesa rim, soaking silently in the lessons of the canyon twilight – and Sam, winding his way intentionally back from the river’s edge, camera in tow. We each make eye contact, exchange knowing grins, wonderful wordless wisdom flowing along ancient river beds. Peace will be woven tonight.

One Reply to “A Case for Cloud Watching by Cob Staines”

  • Years ago, I made a picture book for my wife. Photographs of clouds in which I saw various images, and imagined someone putting the clouds together to that effect. Haven’t looked that closely at clouds in some time. I’m going to do that again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.