The Ripple: Rivers in the Sky

Clouds are Rivers

The next time the western wind blows strongly, hurtling great grey masses of clouds over our towns—long cirrus strips with ribbons of blue between them—imagine you are a fish looking up at the river’s surface. Because, in the wider scheme, you are!

Rains become rivers, so—if we think of the whole instead of the parts—clouds are rivers.

How very unscientific is such a thought! If everybody thought clouds are rivers, how would we distinguish between them? Wouldn’t reality become an un-focus-able blur?

Maybe! That could be a very healthy development, if it allowed us to reboot our way of categorizing, and comprehending, the parts that make up the whole of our biosphere.

All too often we are forced by training and circumstances to have a tunnel-vision view of things; we are so driven to achieve personal goals, for example, that we block out anything that is beside-the-point. All we see or care about is that carrot dangling in front of us, and so we lose the wider perspective, which (also) provides the place for our performance, the stage where we display our role not as a soliloquy-er, but as a high-kicking member of a chorus line. Even when we have the spotlight upon us, we perform in a wider scheme. I have nothing against achieving personal goals or ignoring extraneous information, as long as I have, from time to time, the space—a wider scheme—within which to place my activities.

We live and act not as isolated island universes, but in a biotic mandala (that is itself part of other mandalas), and to the extent that we join things together and perceive reality holistically, the more we assume in thought and deed the design of our mandala: and there is soft power and beauty aplenty in such magnification.

So, clouds are rivers.

You saw it a few weeks ago when dense fog exhaled out of the snow and blanketed both our white hills and heavy dark waters. Science explains that, because the air was listless and warmer than the frozen ground, water molecules condensed (like tears on the side of an ice-water glass) in the atmosphere—giving us fog: an un-focus-able blur. Science explains, too, that the water molecules are essentially the same, whether they float in the sky or flow over the earth. What science doesn’t explain is how fog feels.

We feel fog. It’s clammy on our skin. It occludes our vision, and because sight is our primary sense, it frustrates us. Drivers—and downhill skiers—don’t like fog, and people walking on the side of the road worry more when they walk in it. It makes us turn our lights on in the middle of the day. In some psychosomatic way, the day never begins when it starts in the fog, and—yawn some more coffee please—the night never ends. When you walk in the woods in a dense fog, a subtle rain falls—each crooked finger of branch-tip collecting H2O atoms until the drip is formed and drops on your head. If you aren’t prepared, and walk long enough, you get soaked.

When the sun breaks through again, blue and gold and making us squint, we feel relief, as if a burden and gloom has lifted off our thoughts and shoulders. Our eyes resume command over things, feeding our brains the information of parts, distinguishing between this and that, and giving us the power and freedom to choose what we will focus on. We like that; it is the realm we have been trained to operate in, where everything has its place and is in position where it is supposed to be. 

But—and this is what I’ve been leading you to in my Hound-of-Baskervilles way—what if our perception and feeling of order is less an order that actually exists, and more an order that we have been trained, for purely economic reasons, to project like a movie upon a screen? Imagine the shock of Mayor Bloomberg, for example, when the clouds of Sandy flooded the basements and tunnels of Wall Street. The mandala that Wall Street actually wiggles in, like a sea anemone in a tidal pool, suddenly appeared (though it was always there), and Wall Street’s part of Manhattan was re-categorized as, not terra firma, but as flood plain. Mayor Bloomberg deserves credit for understanding that his city, and the rest of the nation, has been viewing reality with tunnel-vision; Sandy turned his focus from the carrot-dangling to the wider scheme. No longer is Manhattan simply the pinnacle of American cities; for Bloomberg, it is a habitation perilously nested in a continuum of time and climate and ceaseless unpredictable change—a leaf floating on a no-banks river.

My exercise-assignment for you this month—while leaves are down, land is naked and sky so apparent—is: imagine how clouds are rivers. It sounds a little crazy, I admit, but science says as much, so worry not. At the very least, we have the precedence, and good humor, of Thoreau to bolster our confidence: “I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.”*

The next time the western wind blows strongly, hurtling great grey masses of clouds over our towns—long cirrus strips with ribbons of blue between them—imagine you are a fish looking up at the river’s surface. Because, in the wider scheme, you are!

And next time you see a fish in the river looking up at you, look upon that creature not as something to be categorized and indexed and forgotten like every book that hasn’t been checked out of the library in over a decade—next time you see a fish in the river looking up at you, know it is looking upon you as you look upon clouds and the sun and stars beyond them.

For, once upon a time, our ancestors—whose DNA structures the cells that let us read this—looked up and, seeing another mandala swirling above, left the waters and walked this earth so we would become what we are becoming.*

NOTE: I’ll be heading up to Turner’s Falls on Thurs., Jan. 31st from 6-9pm, to attend the scoping meeting for relicensing the hydrodam there. It’s a great learning opportunity, and will prepare us to comment intelligently during the review. Would love for you join us, and have room in the car to bring you—send a note if you’d like to come.


Kurt Heidinger, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Biocitizen, non-profit school of field environmental philosophy, based in the Western MA Hilltown of Westhampton, MA where he lives with his family.  Biocitizen gives participants an opportunity to “think outside” and cultivate a joyous and empowering biocultural awareness of where we live and who we are. Check out Kurt’s monthly column, The Ripple, here on Hilltown Families on the 4th Monday of every month to hear his stories about rivers in our region. Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!

[Photo credit: (ccl) NOAA Photo Library]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: