I am 74 years old and it is fall again. Again. There are a countable number of them left for me, a fact of which I am daily aware. It will soon be winter.
It is the middle of October and the leaves in Rockingham County, N.C., are falling like snow all day and clotting the ground; the woods around the house are turning brilliant colors. It is something I’ve seen 74 times and each cycle around it seems more beautiful and more precious.
Fall color can be reduced to mere postcard cliche. We drive the highway and look for the yellows of oak and the reds of maple and see them gleam in sunlight and think, Oh how pretty.
That is the view from the car window; it is too far away to see the leaves clearly — just broad patches of attractive color. I am not saying that view is a lie. It is beautiful and we should enjoy it if we take a weekend drive into the mountains to see the hues. We enjoy what it is given to our age and awareness to see.
But at 74, I walk out into the grounds behind the house and pick up one of those expired chlorophyll factories, wet and matted from under my feet and what I see is very different. Not less beautiful, but much less pretty.
The dead leaf is ribbed and spotted, with holes eaten through, worn at the edges. Patches of dun yellow, raw red and sometimes so dark in maroon as to be almost black. Few leaves fall in a perfect and whole shape. Most have been damaged, mostly by time, bit by bugs. They are curled and sere.
The highway view of the fall is a generalized one, the close up is individual, almost personal. The highway view is the short story; the individual is the novel — a great Tolstoyian or Dostoevskian epic. It is a constellation of detail. Like a great abstract painting, you can gaze at it and see a palimpsest of accretion, of time having its way, of decay not as the loss, but rather as a build-up of detail, each on top of the other. A Pollock able to reward the look at any detail pulled from the whole.
We are all sitting on the patio in the back yard, with woods acres deep behind and the sweetgum tree has covered the deck. While we talk, I pick up one and feel its roughened surface, its crisp desiccation, but mostly its bruised and patterned color.
And I recognize myself in them, now that I am old. My skin is also sere and crisped. It has its mottling and discoloration. The sheen of youth is rasped away. This is not a lament, but a recognition. Surely there are recompenses for the years’ brutality.
Primary among them is an equanimity. Motes that seemed essential are washed away; acceptance promotes forgiveness; the need to advance in the world vanishes.
And, perhaps most important, I find beauty in things that, when I was younger, I could not recognize, or found ugly. After such long experience on earth, I look for different things — very different from when I was young and ignorant. Now I am aged and ignorant, but have learned to see things with a wider eye.
So those failing leaves speak to me of a profound beauty. A beauty of mortality. Of multiplicity, of profuse accretion — of time as a building up of one thing on top of another, a layering of meaning. A depth.
I don’t know if this will be my last fall season. I could live another 20 years, although no reasonable actuary would advise placing a bet. I do know that it forces me to appreciate the worn leaf and see its innate glory.
Many years ago, my late wife bought me a copy of A Book of Clouds, published in 1925 by author William A. Quayle. It is a hefty clothbound volume, primarily of old black-and-white photographs of clouds, layered with Quayle’s particular garish encomia and reminiscence about the glories of skywatching.
Clouds seem to bring out the gooey and poeticizing cliches in a writer. “I was kinsman of the clouds,” Quayle writes. “And as I grew, the clouds still sailed their crafts of snowy sail across the blue sea of my heart. Clouds, so to say, were indigenous to my soul. I did not begin to notice them: I always noticed them. I did not learn to love them: I always loved them.”
The book is fervid with such expostulations: “When clouds give reports of portentous skies, of prepending tempests, when they are black as pools of midnight water, their eminences wrinkled as if zigzag lightnings had been the shears which cut their patterns, then as the sun lurches behind their darkness, the fine fire that rims them and seizes all their peaks gives a touch of delirium to the soul.”
I love this book, for all its gushy writing, because Carole gave it to me, and because, in an era of irony and unbelief, there is something utterly sincere under the purple prose.
A few years later, she gave me another book, The Cloud Collector’s Handbook by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, a small volume and kind of a field guide to cloud identification — almost a Peterson guide. In it, Pretor-Pinney gives genus and species names of various formations, implying that a taxonomy of anything as gaseous and impermanent as a cloud might be spoken of almost as if it were a wildflower or a bunting.
And so, there are is a list of Latinate names, not just the familiar “cumulus” and “cirrus,” but also “lenticularis,” “castellanus,” “radiatus,” and “undulatus.” Carl von Linné would have been proud. Each page is devoted to another cloud form, or cloud-related or -adjacent subjects: “pileus,” “virga,” “nacreous,” “noctilucent,” etc. It’s lots of fun.
Pretor-Pinney, it turns out, is a veritable cheerleader for cloud watching. His full name is Gavin Edmund Pretor-Pinney, son of Anthony Robert Edmund Pretor-Pinney and Laura Uppercu, daughter of George Winthrop Haight — in other words, he’s British and has the “twitcher’s” enthusiasm, but for clouds rather than finches. And in 2004, he founded the Cloud Appreciation Society and two years later, wrote both The Cloud Collector’s Handbook and The Cloudspotter’s Guide. In 2019, he wrote A Cloud A Day, which features 365 cloud images accompanied with a short piece of cloud science, an inspiring sky quotation or a detail of the sky depicted in a classic painting.
The Society has its website (link here) and features galleries of cloud art by painter-members, collections of cloud poetry, and many, many photographs. The paintings are especially entertaining, and hugely varied in approach.
Artists L-R — Top: Peter Nisbet; Carol McCumber; Elizabeth Busey. Bottom: Judy Friesem; Jethro Buck; Barbara Miller.
And there is a Cloud Appreciation Manifesto (of course, there is):
“We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them. We think that clouds are Nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.
“We pledge to fight ‘blue-sky thinking’ wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day. We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance. We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save money on psychoanalysis bills.
“And so we say to all who’ll listen: Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and always remember to live life with your head in the clouds!”
Of course, Pretor-Pinney isn’t alone.
There are loads of books, including a raft of children’s books, all about clouds.
The sky is a slate upon which we can project our sense of beauty, our sense of meaning, the expanse of creation, and the progress of time. We look up and always, it is new. Always it is moving. To rephrase Heraclitus, you can never look at the same sky twice.
And the sky has been there in painting for centuries, but usually as a background for more important goings-on in the foreground. Then, in the late 18th- and early 19th-centuries several artists began studying the clouds and the sky for its own sake.
Most famously, a series of cloud studies by John Constable and sketches by Alexander Cozens.
“Clouds, for Constable, were a source of feeling and perception, an ‘Organ of sentiment’ (heart or lungs) as much as meteorological phenomena,” writes author Mary Jacobus in the book Romantic Things: A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud. “If painting is another name for feeling, and the sky an organ of sentiment, then his cloud sketches are less a notation of changing weather effects than a series of Romantic lyrics: exhalations and exclamations, meditations and reflections, attached to a specific location and moment in time.”
In other words, the clouds, either painted or merely watched, become a subject for contemplation, even meditation. Beginning in the 20th century, paintings became increasingly abstract and the point being not subject matter but the substance of paint — color, shape, line, form, design. To look at a Jackson Pollock painting, or one by Mark Rothko, you are asked not to name a subject matter, but to relate the canvas to human affect, i.e., what does the painting make you feel?
A number of artists and photographers have turned to clouds to make images that are both abstract and descriptive. The clouds themselves provide the abstraction.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Modernist photographer Alfred Stieglitz made a tremendous series of images of clouds, which he titled, “Equivalents,” meaning that the visual was an equivalent of the emotion.
He made more than 200 such images, with the intent that they could express emotions, much as music can, purely by abstraction. They are images of actual clouds, but they are also shapes on a piece of photographic paper. You can see them as photographs of the sky, or as pure abstractions. Either way, for Stieglitz, the important part was that an emotion be evoked.
Another photographer, Edward Weston made pictures of clouds through his lifetime, less consciously manipulated than Stieglitz’s, but cloud abstractions nonetheless.
The German painter Gerhard Richter made a series of cloud paintings in the 1970s. A Sotheby’s catalog said, “the clouds are caught in a moment of confrontation between the painterly and the photographic, the representative and the abstract, the natural and the supernatural.” Much of Richter’s art is political or otherwise Postmodern tricks about the nature of art itself. As for the clouds, Richter himself said, “I felt like painting something beautiful.”
He kept a notebook of images, which he called “Atlas,” in which he kept many sketches, photos and paintings of everyday items, and a whole section on nothing but clouds.
I have made countless photographs of clouds. I step out of the house pretty much every day, just to look up and watch clouds. They keep my eyes fresh and my mind invigorated. I have two books I have made: one of images of landforms and clouds seen from my airplane window; and a second of clouds pictures made all on a single afternoon in Arizona during the rising and waning of a monsoon storm. They can be viewed online here and here.
When we spend as much time indoors as most people have these past two pandemic years, it is a relief to refocus our eyes outward (and upward) to a distance beyond the four walls. The clouds are far enough that our stereoscopic vision interprets the distance as indistinguishable from infinity. That refocus is necessary to keep us in touch with the greater things. Too often our eyes are focused on electronic screens held less than arms distant. Stretch your eyes back out. Look up. Keep watching the skies.
There are two great crossing shadows that have darkened the lives of those of us born near the end of the Second World War.
The first was cast by the mushroom cloud. I was one of those elementary-school boys who was herded down to the basement of my school to lean against the wall over the poor crouching girls huddled underneath to protect them from a potential nuclear blast. We had a siren in our town that went off to alert volunteer firemen they were needed, but the siren was also supposed to let us know that an air raid was immanent. Every time the siren went off, kids my age all feared it would be “the big one.”
And I remember watching film on TV of Nevada atomic bomb tests where we would see houses blown away by the shock waves or crumble in flames. It seemed very real and very soon. We all had dreams with mushroom clouds in them and talked about “the A-bomb.”
And there were maps in newspapers and magazines showing circles of destruction if a nuclear bomb hit New York and I looked anxiously to see whether our town was inside the circumference. And it usually was.
It was a background anxiety for most of my childhood and is still there, somewhere at the margins of my psyche.
But the other shadow was the Holocaust. I recently watched all six-and-a-half hours of the Ken Burns documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, and I felt the cheeriness drain from my cheeks. And that second shadow all came back. It was something I knew about way too young to be able to process. Now I am 74 and still can’t adequately grasp it.
I remember, from the age of six or seven, when early television was still struggling to find content, and often filled out Saturday mornings with industrial films or films made by the Army or State Department. Particularly a show called The Big Picture, and on it — at that tender age — I remember seeing film footage of the liberation of the death camps and the piles of skeletonized bodies piled up and the hollow-eyes survivors shaking with cold and hunger, and it is a kind of measuring stick I have, morally, on the depth of human evil. Because of how that footage burned its way into me from childhood, I was sensitized to the horror and outrage. It trips a button in me — this is what humans do to humans.
Such scenes are permanently playing somewhere in the back of my head, never too far submerged, and seeing the Burns documentary brought it all back into the front of my awareness.
It is not merely because of the grim nature of the documentary, but because of its historical ripples, forward and back in time. The series tells two different but parallel stories. The first is about Hitler and Nazism and the results of rabid anti-Semitism; the second is about America’s response to all that.
The first is unsettling because of the many resonant parallels between the National Socialist political plan and the current Republican plan — not merely Trump (or “Moose-a-loony” as I call him) (Or as Stephen Colbert called him, “the Count of Mostly Crisco”) — but the whole of the Republican party, which seems to have cynically chosen transparent lies, xenophobia and racism, not as a belief, so much, but as a strategy. There may be a few true believers, but most of them know what they are doing.
The second, perhaps even more disturbing, is the American public’s willingness to absorb these lies, xenophobia and racism. Before World War II, the isolationist mood of the electorate was quite clear, and the rhetoric used is the same as that used today. “America First” is not a new slogan.
The old news photos of Madison Square Garden “America First” rallies are hard to distinguish from Trump rallies. The same flags, the same slogans. There were Nazi supporters in both crowds. The prefix “Neo-“ doesn’t help. Hitler’s National Socialist party didn’t have more than a third of the vote before he became chancellor — it was a minority party when it took power — and now Republicans (Trump with less than a third of the vote) are figuring out how they can get and keep power without majority support.
I grew up in New Jersey, in a place that has half Protestant, half Catholic and half Jewish, and no distinctions were made, anymore than if someone were Irish, or German, or blond or redheaded — just an interesting bit of fact about your friends. And so, the idea that you would murder a few million people because they were Jewish was not simply horrifying, but made absolutely no sense at all. It was crazy, and perhaps the craziness of it was the scariest part: People don’t act through thoughtfulness or rationality, but are easily led to adopt absolutely insane ideas.
And, of course, we’re seeing it all over again with Trump supporters. And seeing it quite literally, not just a faint echo. Word for word.
So, when I speak of “ripples” both back and forward in time, I remember not just the Holocaust, but also the Holodomor, Babi Yar, Katyn, the Armenian Genocide, the massacres of Native Americans, 250 years of race slavery, the Sichuan Massacres in China in 1645, the 100,000 killed by the Spanish Inquisition, Cambodian genocide, Rwandan genocide, not to mention the pyramids of skulls created by Tamerlane or the biblical command to murder all “the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites,” and to “save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction.” God could sound almost human in his viciousness, as in 1 Samuel 15: “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”
One of the most important books I have read in the past 10 years is Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, about Poland, Ukraine and Belarus and the death and devastation under first Stalin and then Hitler. It seems the book has not ended and we see its sequel in Ukraine right now.
History is an endless tale of woe.
And so, at the end of Burns’ documentary, when he tells, again, the story of Anne Frank, and quotes her famous line, “in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart,” the irony is absolutely unbearable.
I think of the lines by Yeats, written in a much lighter context, but still relevant here:
The thought comes over one that perhaps the planet would be better off without the scab of humans on its surface, that perhaps we should just let it run its course, let Putin set off the back-and-forth of our missiles passing his on the way across the oceans to mutually assured destruction. The earth could get on with being the earth — a new start.
But I have a son and a daughter, and two granddaughters, whose lives are cantilevered into the dark chasm of the future, and I cannot wish that on them. Like every generation before, we have failed them again.