Post #45: Sfumato

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I fell in love with a book. And through that book, I fell in love with the world.

It was a gentle summer city night. City dark isn’t really dark at all but actually more of a sfumato, mysterious, entrancing, and lit by the soft buzzy glow of streetlamps. The Strand, that warm and inviting forest of books, beckoned and as always I was enraptured and ensnared.

It was in the relative gloom of the subterranean levels that I found it.

The cover, pedestrian. The title, bland. The book, heavy and ponderous.

The Green Treasury

I wanted it.  And so I bought it.


I live in a lovely, idealized checkerboard world, each precision piece in place. No moves without proper consideration.   Squared up, spruced up lawns all mowed to a brush cut precision. Color-coordinated flowers and precise, paint by the number backyards. Double jumping is frowned upon.

What is there wild and wondrous to see here? Nothing, I am certain. So I curl up inside and allow the pages of my book to cleave open a view to magnificent, pulsing worlds, from the rainforests of Peru to the gardens of Japan, from the mountains of the Sierra to the marshes of England.

*John Muir clings to a branch to ride out a windstorm in the forests of California.

*William Henry Hudson dreams of thistle down on the South American Pampas.

*Richard Jeffries wanders the still wild natural world at the doorstep of London.

*Gilbert White listens to the sound of crickets in Hampshire.

*Theodora Stanwell-Fletcher hears the calls of the wolves in remote British Columbia.

I want it. I want it all. I want it desperately. But there is nothing to see here.


On Sunday afternoon I glance out the kitchen window and spot a dense and ponderous sky above. At last! I pry myself out of the house, and wedge myself in a corner of the porch. Glass of wine in hand, I am ready for the show.

The air is moist and anticipatory and the charcoal clouds are thick and wooly, so low I feel as if I could hold them, squeeze them. If I did, would it open a deluge, a spray or spill?

Nothing is moving. Or is it? The wind is coming in gulps and sighs, shaking the branches and the leaves like row after row of beaded curtains, like a hula dancer’s hips, like so many maracas in a mariachi band.

The branches jitter and twitch, anticipating the thrum of the rainfall to come.

But not yet! The clouds bend and curl through the sky, a long twist of old movie film, a wordless soliloquy, coiling above. Suddenly, the wind exults and breaks free like a mass of children released from a day of school, with a power that makes ripples through the grass and re-parts my hair.

It’s time! I am so ready for the rain; eyes squeezed shut, face turned upward. But it doesn’t happen. Instead I feel warmth on my cheeks. Instead, the sun cleaved through he cloud cover. The blast of wind is now a mere breeze.

I catch my breath.

I sit very still, here, in the place I was certain there was nothing of interest to see, nothing to feel, nothing to experience. I am wrong. Here it is. The sky has come to me. Or perhaps I’m just ready to see it.

“There is no need for a faraway fairyland, for the earth is a mystery before us.”

–William T. Davis

But of course.

And at last I too am caught up and embraced by the sfumato of the clouds, right here, right outside my own doorway.


READING THE CLOUDS: The secret to telling time by the sky. Post number 28.


If tales are true, my great-grandmother, Rachel Leah (z”l) could tell time simply by looking at the sky. She knew the time right to the minute just by a glance at the clouds.

What a marvelous, wonderful, amazing thing! What would it be like, I wondered, to be so in tune with the world, so keyed into its rhythms, that you could literally read the sky? There had to be a secret! Of course there was a secret.

I didn’t know how she did it. I never had a chance to ask Grandma Rachel Leah how she learned to tell time by the sky, to read the clouds. But I so wanted to do this. There just had to be a way.

Part 1.

On warm summer days when we were small my sisters and I would lay out on the grass in front of our house and watch the soft, puffy clouds lazily move across the sky.  Of course there was a game: you had to be first to spot a shape in the cloud and point it out before it drifted apart. Did we play for minutes or was it hours? I never knew.

Part 2.

Staring at clouds? What an utter waste of time.   Pretending a cloud was a bunny that morphed into a cowboy that transformed into an ice cream cone was of no use whatsoever. I was too old, too dressed up to lie in the grass anyway. I could get a reasonable weather forecast, and pinch a few jokes, from Sonny Elliot on Channel 4 instead.

Part 3.

If you look carefully you’ll see that my left forearm is deeply tanned. Not so my right. I spend so many hours driving this one and that one from one place to another that the sun has baked my left arm into what’s known in select circles as a true trucker tan. But I am not a trucker—just a mom behind the wheel.

I rarely look up. Why bother? I have my watch. I really love my watch. Besides. I can’t risk misreading the time—I can’t let anyone down by being late.

Part 4.

How odd that I can’t stop looking at the sky. I love the clouds the best. It’s a proud parade, a stunning Shakespearean drama, a breathtaking pageant that is so enthralling I’m afraid to miss even a moment.I sneak glances, and then find myself staring up at the clouds throughout the day. I can almost feel the texture of certain clouds; I love the interplay as they dance across the sky. I love that I can recognize cloud types but the array of clouds across the sky is constantly changing. I’m afraid to stop looking or I’ll miss something once-in-a-lifetime magnificent.

Old habits die hard. I search out and study the names of the clouds, Altostratus, Contrail, Fibratus. I learn what they mean. Some sightings such as Cumulus and Stratus are quite common. Others, like the Kelvin-Helmholtz or Asperatus are so rare that one could live a lifetime and never spot them. I think about the works of Jean-Honore Fragonard and J.M.W. Turner, two of the greatest painters of clouds and know that as beautiful as their works are what they were interpreting was far more astounding. I look up and think about the scores of people who have been swept up by the beauty of clouds since the beginning of time. But really I don’t want to pontificate on the clouds, I want to luxuriate. So I do.

In his book, The Story of My Heart: An Autobiography (1883), English essayist and nature writer Richard Jeffries says, “for artificial purposes time is agreed on, but really there is no such thing.”

If tales are true my Grandma Rachel Leah could tell time just by looking at the sky. I cannot. But then maybe her secret was that with an appreciation of clouds, of nature, of the world itself, time has no real meaning.

Look up and see the sky. Beauty suffuses—it lingers – it lasts.