It's difficult to pull away from the windows at the Bent, particularly when the sun is low and there are clouds in the sky. The winter light and the forms it reveals are almost beyond description. I constantly grab my camera in an effort to frame, capture and share mutable compositions which will never, ever, occur again.
On August 18th, 1783, overlooking the Windrush River in Oxfordshire, England, eleven-year-old Luke Howard stared into the evening sky. He was captivated by the dramatic palette of colors created by volcanic dust spewed into the atmosphere over much of the northern hemisphere by violent volcanic eruptions in Iceland and Japan, and the fiery flight of a meteor across the western European sky. His observations of this "constant fog" inspired a lifelong avocation of studying the skies, especially the constantly changing and little understood clouds.
Howard went on, as an amateur meteorologist, to be the first to study smog, the first to observer the "urban heat island" effect, and one of the first to understand the concept of weather fronts. But, on the subject of clouds, not much had changed since 1600, when Shakespeare described them as creatures, morphing from one to another in the course of conversation.
Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.
- Hamlet, Act iii Scene 2.
Two hundred years later, most people still thought of clouds as "essences", short-lived, misunderstood, and difficult to describe. But Luke Howard was preparing to change that. In 1803, in a paper he presented to his fellow Askesian Society members in London, Luke introduced a lasting solution to the problem of naming these transformational mysteries. In a stroke of brilliance Luke followed the lead of Swedish taxonomist Carl von Linné, better known as Linnæus. Yes, Luke applied a simple, structured nomenclature to confidently describe these constantly changing forms, and he chose Latin to do it, simply because, "the reasons for having recourse to a dead language for terms to be adopted by the learned of different nations are obvious". (I must refer you to the fascinating essay(s) by Hank Heatly, Linnæus, Son of No Man! or, this one. They both helped me understand.)
Ever since, all over the world, clouds have been named by Luke. Cumulus (Latin for 'heap'), Stratus ('layer'), Cirrus ('curl') and Nimbus ('rain'), or some combination, like cirro-cumulus, cirro-stratus, cumulo-stratus, have served us all well. But here at the Bent, despite his lasting contribution to describing the indescribable, going to the window with camera in hand will continue to be the best I can do.