The English are known for their propensity to collect eccentric things—tea cozies, snuffboxes, colonies. So it didn’t surprise me to learn that a British writer, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, was responsible for The Cloud Collector’s Handbook, a bewitching little book that has become the latest quirky hit. Catching sight of it by the register at my local bookstore, I seized it as the perfect beach reading, or so I imagined, for a seven-year-old intent on investigating the whys of the universe and his dreamier little sister, whose interest in clouds had thus far taken only the form of pointing vaguely skyward and announcing, “I see an octopus riding a bicycle.” Not to mention myself: Though I somehow retained the names cumulus, nimbus, and stratus from a long-ago science class, I would have been hard-pressed to pick them out of a lineup. I envisioned us, guidebook in hand, gazing at the horizon from our deck chairs. “What do you think that is?” I would ask lazily. “Cirrostratus fibratus, obviously,” my son would sigh in his best Mom-don’t-you-know-anything voice.
The cloud photographs are mesmerizing, but the real fun of The Cloud Collector’s Handbook is the witty commentary alongside them. “If you’ve never spotted a Cumulus cloud, then you ought to get out more,” Pretor-Pinney writes of the “cotton-wool puffs” with “bright, crisp cauliflower mounds” that are a fixture of most sunny days. Nimbostratus is a “thick, grey, featureless rain cloud that gives all the other ones a bad name.” Lenticularis are “contenders for the Weirdest-Looking-Clouds-in-the-Sky awards”—named after a lentil, presumably, because “no one could think of the Latin word for ‘shaped like a UFO.’” In keeping with this jovial spirit, Pretor-Pinney has assigned each cloud a number of points based on its scarcity—so that spotting the common Stratocumulus earns its collector only 10 points, while rare phenomena such as the shimmery Nacreous (“polar stratospheric clouds” that look like northern lights) and eerie-looking Noctilucent (higher-up “polar mesopheric clouds”) count for 45 points apiece.
As it turned out, though the children were happy to page through the cloud book, oohing and ahhing at the pictures, they were more interested in counting the varieties of crabs scurrying in the sand. But you don’t have to be interested in clouds for clouds to be interested in you. By the end of our week at the beach, a mandatory evacuation had been ordered for the entire area. Hurricane Irene, bearing a heavy load of Nimbostratus, was headed our way. In New York, at least, the hurricane wouldn’t hit as fiercely as predicted. But we didn’t know that the day before the storm, when the city shut down, the mayor urged us not to leave our homes, and the weather alternated between gentle rain and periods of almost-sun that felt as mocking as weather could possibly be.
That thought brings me back to the grad school seminar room, in which students raised on a sophisticated diet of postmodernism rather than the Romantic pabulum I had been consuming would mutter scornfully about the “pathetic fallacy.” This term was coined by Victorian literary critic John Ruskin for the literary trope in which emotions are ascribed to inanimate things—often the weather. Prevalent among the Romantic poets in particular—for whom every sea can seem to roil with rage, every sunbeam to dance—Ruskin considered this tendency a fatal weakness, since it results from an aesthetic confusion in which the poet, “over-dazzled with emotion,” is unable to describe his subject accurately. (My colleague Rochelle Gurstein has pointed out that Ruskin, in his late lectures, succumbed to the tendency himself, writing of “blighting winds” and “plague clouds.”)
Part of Ruskin’s objection to the pathetic fallacy, I think, is that it’s obviously counter-rational to suggest that human moods influence the weather: The sun does not actually smile upon a happy couple conducting outdoor nuptials any more than rain clouds glower at them. But the weather, no less obviously, powerfully influences human moods. The couple whose beach wedding is rained out might retain a gloomy memory of their erstwhile happy day that somehow shades the future of their partnership. It feels as natural to be cheerful on a sunny day as it does to be melancholy under the clouds. (Indeed, a person suffering from depression often describes his or her brain as being “in a fog.”) On the evening Hurricane Irene hit, my Twitter feed was full of people quoting the storm scene from King Lear: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” Lear welcomes the ravaging storm because he has already been ravaged by his ungrateful daughters; he finds it fitting that nature should rage as he rages.
And that’s why, of all the details from September 11, it’s the weather that stands out in our collective memory: the exquisiteness of that sunny morning, suspended between summer and fall. When the towers fell, the sense that our world had come loose from its moorings was compounded by the cognitive dissonance between the events of the day and the perfect weather, which seemed to demonstrate once and for all the inaptness of the pathetic fallacy. Here was proof again of the insensibility of nature—a feeling familiar to anyone who has emerged from a funeral, wiping tears, under a brilliant sky.
Our distress couldn’t matter less to the weather. Yet when the Earth itself is uneasy, we might wonder if it somehow reflects—in addition, of course, to the increasingly frightening impact of global warming on our environment—a deeper unease in us. The frequency of extreme weather is all too appropriate for the extremities of modern life, especially the neurotically frenetic news cycle that urges us always to be the first to know, the last to log off. Alternating anxiously between CNN, the Weather Channel, and the all-consuming stream of tweets from strangers, I mused that one doesn’t have to be Michele Bachmann to feel a little bit of dread at the onslaught of weird terrestrial events lately to come our way. But less than 24 hours later, when the hurricane had passed and we emerged to find our city still intact, the evening sky was a thing of breathtaking beauty, the sun just bright enough to remind us that it was, in spite of everything, still there, illuminating ever-shifting layers of clouds at once dense and filmy, dark and light. What kind were they, how many points were they worth? I have no idea.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter at @ruth_franklin.