Look at clouds to be transported

Photo submitted to Times Observer High altitude cirrus clouds on a fine day in the Adirondacks. Photo by Katie Finch.

We talk about nature quite a bit at Audubon. But what is included in that broad category? Obviously plants and animals that live on this planet — trees and flowers, insects and birds. It could also include a whole array of non-living materials and systems that support the living flora and fauna. Water, nitrogen, and carbon are not always visible, often overlooked but none-the-less critical to the survival of the living nature.

But some cycles are visible — at least in part. On a warm, blue sky day, I found myself gazing up at condensing water in the sky in the shape of white, puffy clouds. Even among the most nature-deprived places, you can usually get a view of the sky and the clouds. They are what bring the rain and snow, make the shade, and keep in warmth at night. Often, rather than enjoying them, we appreciate their absence. Or we don’t really look at them. They fall into the background of our day like the sound of traffic if you live in the city or crickets in the country. On this particular day, I was drawn to both the science and the art in clouds.

First the science. Clouds are more complicated than the graphic on the daily forecast. Clouds form as miniscule droplets of water, evaporating from the earth, cooling in the atmosphere. These drops join with other drops, sticking to dust particles to form clouds.

Gazing up at a cloud-filled sky is like gazing into a crystal ball. It can tell us the future and the answer to the most common question we have about the natural world. What’s the weather going to be? Will it be rainy? Will it be sunny? If we ever lose the connection to the weather apps or up-to-the-minute forecast on radio or TV, we can look to the clouds.

The trick is reading the crystal ball with all its variables including height, shape, and movement. I often attempt to interpret the language of clouds, it being useful knowledge for outside adventures. While I don’t think I have a future as a meteorologist, here are a few basics I’ve learned that allow me to look at clouds with more focus and meaning.

If there are clouds in the sky but you can see the sun or moon through the clouds, they are high altitude clouds. The thin, wispy brush strokes of cirrus clouds don’t carry rain. They can however, indicate a change in the weather in the next day or two.

Cumulus, meaning “heaps or piles” describe the picturesque, white, cotton balls in the sky. They form in the middle level in the sky and generally do not bring rain. But watch them. If they grow vertically, extending into the anvil shape of cumulonimbus clouds, a storm is on the way.

Stratus clouds lay like a blanket, often lowest in the sky. These clouds can look like elevated fog or continuously flat and gray with little distinction in shape. They often bring rain.

Even without the science, clouds can be a pleasure to look at. An art lens adds a different focus. To paint a cloud, what color would you use? It depends on the day. I look at the sky full of bulging, bubbling, voluptuous, cumulus clouds, which will probably bring rain later. I’d grab the white first — of course. But then I’d reach for gray and mix it in various shades. A little blue. A touch of pink. But also the yellow, where the sun highlights the tops.

Laying down and imagining what images are in the clouds is a classic summer activity. In the last of the hot summer sunshine, I laid down on a picnic table bench and looked up. There was a turtle lying on its back. Poor turtle. A train whose cars have become disconnected. But as the clouds moved across the sky the train morphs into a whale with a very long tail. And a dragon. There’s always a dragon in the clouds.

According to our recreation calendar, summer is officially over. It is a bittersweet time when we say goodbye to the freedom that summer brings. Back to school and seemingly more serious times, where students will probably learn, among other things, the science of clouds. But in the midst of all the busy and the rush there’s time for imagination too. It is always close by. All one has to do is to look at the clouds to be transported, lightened, playful — if only for some moments.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.

Katie Finch is a naturalist at Audubon.