Every once in a while you read a story that feels so authentic and true, you wish you’d written it. That’s how I felt reading Jon Mooallem’s New York Times Magazine piece about a self-professed “idler” named Gavin Pretor-Pinney and the Cloud Appreciation Society he founded.
It’s an unlikely topic—what could possibly be so important about a tribe of intellectual wanderers obsessed with clouds? But Mooallem’s tale reveals what happens when ordinary people follow the little things that inexplicably pique their interest and give them joy. In Pretor-Pinney’s case, he pursued a random interest and, as a result, started a scientific movement in its own right.
What struck me while reading this piece is that the characters embody the emotional and temperamental traits we’ve assigned to clouds over thousands of years of human history. They’re aimless, ambiguous, edgeless—and yet they have purpose. For Pretor-Pinney and his tribe, the enjoyment of clouds isn’t antithetical to understanding them scientifically (and vice versa).
I think that’s what makes this story spectacular: It celebrates one of those fleeting moments in which science ennobles people and they become better humans. In exchange, those humans have a serendipitous impact on the course of science.
I talked to Mooallem over the course of a few phone calls and email exchanges. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
How did this story come about?
In 2009, in the first round of asperatus media attention, I read a news article about the cloud—with a big, spectacular photo of it by Jane Wiggins—and it wasn’t about Gavin and the cloud society, but it certainly mentioned him somewhere in the story. I remember sending it to the writer Jack Hitt, a sort of mentor to me, because he was working on a book about amateurs. He basically dissuaded me from writing about it, saying it would pop up in the Times section or something. But I think I did reach out to Gavin shortly after that, and it was a very brief conversation where he said that nothing’s really happening, conceding that press attention was a little out of scale for the actual event. And then I would check in with him every now and again.
I loved the idea of dozens of people looking up into the sky and seeing the same, inexplicable thing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I was thinking about science fiction movies consciously. But, if I have to go back and analyze that impulse, I don’t think it was about creating spookiness but a kind of disjointed togetherness: that Spielbergian trope of everyone’s face independently turning toward the sky. All of these people are absolutely alone, but having the same collective experience.
After it was exposed to me as sort of a non-story, then I got a little annoyed because every so often I would see, out of nowhere, there’d be a post on Slate about it, or wherever. The Internet would sort of burble up with “news” about the new cloud. And then something actually happened in the real world, which was the W.M.O. [World Meteorological Organization] announcing it had expanded its atlas, and there were a lot of similar posts about that. There was a really good one on The Verge that got picked up a lot. Then I reached out to Gavin after all this happened and said, “Is it finally time to do this story?” And so then I pitched the story—this was in November of 2014. I pitched the story because he was going to have the anniversary event, and he was going to do it sometime early the following year. In the end, he didn’t do the event until fall of 2015, so I basically got the assignment but did nothing for a full year until I waited for some things to happen.
Were you ever concerned that you didn’t have a legitimate enough reason to report on this?
When I first pitched it, I can’t say I was too worried about it, because the W.M.O. had just started this incredibly long process. In the end, though, they accepted the cloud—but it wasn’t in any way dramatic. I didn’t feel like that gave me enough of a reason to do all this.
For a long time, I thought the story was about the Internet. In other words, to me, the weakness of the story was actually what I found most compelling. We’re constantly served up these novelties every day; you can open Twitter and there’s this traffic of exciting new discovery. But Gavin has found a way to both benefit from that and also critique it. His association itself was one of these novelties of the Internet; every time it stumbled upon it, it couldn’t help getting excited about it—and then it would forget about it, and get excited again. Somehow that coalesced into scientific leverage: that enough people had been fascinated with him enough times that they could now have influence over the scientific naming of clouds. So I spent a few days interviewing Internet people like Robin Sloan and Alexis Madrigal—people who I thought were Internet-fluent in a way that I’m not. But that ended up not making it in at all.
The story includes a lot of themes like appreciation vs. analysis, and wandering vs. work. Did your relationship to these themes change in the course of reporting this story?
Yeah. In all honesty, that’s one regret that I have about this story is that in the end, I think it came out a little bit more black and white than I actually feel. At least one guy in the W.M.O. who I talked to is a member of the cloud appreciation society, and I mentioned that in an earlier draft. Some of those gray areas got whittled down when it was edited, and that happens. So I don’t think I have any personal convictions about this, but in this particular case, one mindset was getting in the way of the other.
One of the things I loved about the piece was its very unique voice. You sort of took on Gavin’s thoughts, in a way. It almost read at times like Gavin was a fictional character you were describing. What was he like in person?
Well, first, he’s an incredibly thoughtful person. He considers everything very deeply, and I think he resists easy opposition. Even as he’s been portrayed as a challenger of scientific authority, he also really appreciates scientific authority. And he has a fun outlook on life in that he likes to just see where things go.
Was there anything you learned from this experience, as a writer?
I don’t mean this in a self-effacing way, but I didn’t anticipate that the story would do so well online. My sense of the story was completely off—I just thought it was kind of fine. What I learned was not to trust my gauge of this kind of stuff as much, and I also learned the perils of not letting a story sit around for so long. It starts to feel less real and less connected to the people you’re actually talking about. So I was really surprised that it got as good of a response as it did.
My questions are in red, his responses in blue. To read the story without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button.
By Jon Mooallem
Originally published in the New York Times Magazine on May 4, 2016
Gavin Pretor-Pinney decided to take a sabbatical. Tell me about this lede. Why start with the sabbatical? I wanted to talk about the way Gavin operates, and the way he is rewarded for being open to interesting things in life—and pursuing them with a weird seriousness. It’s almost a little lesson on how to live—to kind of bounce along in your interests and see where they take you. I didn’t want to start with the society; I wanted to start with why the society’s there… and it was sort of natural to do that through his eyes. It shows that this approach kept paying off for him, in an almost unbelievable way. That seemed really important to set at the beginning. The whole time I was writing toward the last bit at the conference, which was the ultimate indication that he was doing something right—because he had created this moment of beauty, and he’d done it by not being too self-critical and throwing himself in what seemed to be the most interesting direction. It was the summer of 2003, and for the last 10 years, as a sideline to his graphic-design business in London, he and a friend had been running a magazine called The Idler. The Idler was devoted to the “literature for loafers.” From Storyboard editor Kari Howard: I had the Idler’s Manifesto on my wall at work for years, and then kind of took the manifesto plunge and moved to the country. So your lede has resonated deeply with me. Did you hear from readers about how the story connected with them? It could just be a quirky story, but it seems much more existential than that. I was very surprised by the volume and intensity of reactions I got. There were a lot of people who seemed bent on noticing the sky more, or who seemed to feel like appreciating clouds could be part of unlocking a different way of being in the world. It argued against busyness and careerism and for the ineffable value of aimlessness, of letting the imagination quietly coast. Pretor-Pinney anticipated all the jokes: that he’d burned out running a magazine devoted to doing nothing, and so on. But it was true. Getting the magazine out was taxing, and after a decade, it seemed appropriate to stop for a while and live without a plan — to be an idler himself and shake free space for fresh ideas. So he swapped his flat in London for one in Rome, where everything would be new and anything could happen.
Pretor-Pinney is 47, towering and warm, with a sandy beard and pale blue eyes. His face is often totally lit up, as if he’s being told a story and can feel some terrific surprise coming. This description of his face being lit up is really vivid, and at the same time very simple. Did you have to work on that? I am insecure about my ability to describe people physically. It’s so hard, and I end up falling back on the same pallet of bland adjectives and Mr. Potato Head parts. Like, if you’ve got a beard, you better believe I’m going to say you have a beard, because what the fuck else is hanging all over your face for me to talk about. The problem starts with the fact that physical appearance is not something I’m often thinking about or making an effort to notice when I’m reporting face-to-face with a person—if I’m lucky, I’ll remind myself to jot a few notes down during an interview. That’s an obvious and enormous disadvantage; I often have to go find pictures of the person, after the fact, just to remember basics, like if he/she is tall, hair color, etc. But on the other hand, when you close your eyes weeks later, when you’re writing, and try to picture the person, what you see is often something more specific, more holistically characterizing. Like this line about his face being totally lit up: to me, that’s the most salient detail about Gavin’s physical appearance, but I don’t think it’s something I would have put my finger on over coffee with him; it’s an aspect of his appearance that I remembered about him, much later. To me, that staying power suggests its power. He stayed in Rome for seven months and loved it, especially all the religious art. One thing he noticed: The paintings and frescoes he encountered were crowded with clouds. They were everywhere, he told me recently, “these voluptuous clouds, like the sofas of the saints.” But outside, when Pretor-Pinney looked up, the real Roman sky was usually devoid of clouds. He wasn’t accustomed to such endless, blue emptiness. He was an Englishman; he was accustomed to clouds. He remembered, as a child, being enchanted by them and deciding that people must climb long ladders to harvest cotton from them. Now, in Rome, he couldn’t stop thinking about clouds. “I found myself missing them,” he told me.
Clouds. It was a bizarre preoccupation, perhaps even a frivolous one, but he didn’t resist it. He went with it, as he often does, despite not having a specific goal or even a general direction in mind; he likes to see where things go. When Pretor-Pinney returned to London, he talked about clouds constantly. He walked around admiring them, learned their scientific names and the meteorological conditions that shape them and argued with friends who complained they were oppressive or drab. He was realizing, as he later put it, that “clouds are not something to moan about. They are, in fact, the most dynamic, evocative and poetic aspect of nature.”
Slowing down to appreciate clouds enriched his life and sharpened his ability to appreciate other pockets of beauty hiding in plain sight. At the same time, Pretor-Pinney couldn’t help noting, we were entering an era in which miraculousness was losing its meaning. Novel, purportedly amazing things ricocheted around the Internet so quickly that, as he put it, we can now all walk around with an attitude like, “Well, I’ve just seen a panda doing something unusual online, what’s going to amaze me now?” His fascination with clouds was teaching him that “it’s much better for our souls to realize we can be amazed and delighted by what’s around us.”
At the end of 2004, a friend invited Pretor-Pinney to give a talk about clouds at a small literary festival in Cornwall. The previous year, there were more speakers than attendees, so Pretor-Pinney wanted an alluring title for his talk, to draw a crowd. “Wouldn’t it be funny,” he thought, “to have a society that defends clouds against the bad rap they get — that stands up for clouds?” So he called it “The Inaugural Lecture of the Cloud Appreciation Society.” And it worked. Standing room only! Afterward, people came up to him and asked for more information about the Cloud Appreciation Society. They wanted to join the society. “And I had to tell them, well, I haven’t really got a society,” Pretor-Pinney said.
He set up a website. It was simple. There was a gallery for posting photographs of clouds, a membership form and a florid manifesto. (“We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them,” it began.) Pretor-Pinney wasn’t offering members of his new Cloud Appreciation Society any perks or activities, but to keep it all from feeling ephemeral or imaginary, as many things on the Internet do, he eventually decided that membership should cost $15 and that members would receive a badge and certificate in the mail. He recognized that joining an online Cloud Appreciation Society that only nominally existed might appear ridiculous, but it was important to him that it not feel meaningless.
Within a couple of months, the society had 2,000 paying members. Pretor-Pinney was surprised and ecstatic. Then, Yahoo placed the Cloud Appreciation Society first on its 2005 list of Britain’s “Weird and Wonderful websites.” People kept clicking on that clickbait, which wasn’t necessarily surprising, but thousands of them also clicked through to Pretor-Pinney’s own website, then paid for memberships. Other news sites noticed. They did their own articles about the Cloud Appreciation Society, and people followed the links in those articles too. Previously, Pretor-Pinney proposed writing a book about clouds and was rejected by 28 editors. Now he was a viral sensation with a vibrant online constituency; he got a deal to write a book about clouds.
The writing process was agonizing. On top of not actually being a writer, he was a brutal perfectionist. But “The Cloudspotter’s Guide,” published in 2006, was full of glee and wonder. Pretor-Pinney relays, for example, the story of the United States Marine pilot who, in 1959, ejected from his fighter jet over Virginia and during the 40 minutes it took him to reach the ground was blown up and down through a cumulonimbus cloud about as high as Mount Everest. He surveys clouds in art history and Romantic poetry and compares one exceptionally majestic formation in Australia to “Cher in the brass armor bikini and gold Viking helmet outfit she wore on the sleeve of her 1979 album ‘Take Me Home.’ ” In the middle of the book, there’s a cloud quiz. Question No. 5 asks of a particular photograph, “What is it that’s so pleasing about this layer of stratocumulus?” The answer Pretor-Pinney supplies is “It is pleasing for whatever reason you find it to be.”
The book became a best seller. There were more write-ups, more clicks, more Cloud Appreciation Society members. And that cycle would keep repeating, sporadically, for years, whenever an editor or blogger happened to discover the society and set it off again. (There are now more than 40,000 paid members.) The media tended to present it as one more amusing curiosity, worth delighting over and sharing before moving on. That is, Pretor-Pinney’s organization was being tossed like a pebble, again and again, into the same bottomless pool of interchangeable online content that he was trying to coax people away from by lifting their gaze skyward. But that was O.K. with him; he understood that it’s just how the Internet works. He wasn’t cynical about it, and he didn’t feel his message was being cheapened either. It felt as if he were observing the whole thing from afar, and he tried to appreciate it.
Then Pretor-Pinney noticed something odd.
“The way I felt when I first saw it was: Armageddon,” Jane Wiggins said. Wiggins was a paralegal, working in downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in June 2006, when she looked out her office window and saw an impenetrable shroud of dark clouds looming over town. Everyone in the office stood up, Wiggins told me, and some drifted to the window. The cloud was so enormous, so terrible and strange, that it made the evening news. Wiggins, who had recently taken up photography, took out her camera.
Soon after that, Wiggins discovered the Cloud Appreciation Society website and posted one of her pictures in its gallery. But the anomaly Wiggins thought she had captured wasn’t actually anomalous. Similar photos turned up in the Cloud Appreciation Society’s gallery from Texas, Norway, Ontario, Scotland, France and Massachusetts. This has the feeling of a spooky moment in a sci-fi movie—like the clouds are UFOs or something. Intentional? Yes, totally. I loved the idea of dozens of people looking up into the sky and seeing the same, inexplicable thing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I was thinking about science fiction movies consciously. But, if I have to go back and analyze that impulse, I don’t think it was about creating spookiness but a kind of disjointed togetherness: that Spielbergian trope of everyone’s face independently turning toward the sky. All of these people are absolutely alone, but having the same collective experience: And, just now, I realized that’s exactly the feeling at the end of the piece. So maybe I am only retroactively loading this line with artsiness and meaning. Strange things happen when you’re made to think about what you wrote this much! Pretor-Pinney assumed that this phenomenon was so rare that, until now, no one had recognized it as a repeating form and given it a name. “As the hub of this network, a network of people who are sky-aware,” he said, “it’s easier to spot patterns that, perhaps, weren’t so easy to spot in the past.”
In fact, many aspects of meteorology already rely on a global network of individual weather observers to identify cloud types with the naked eye, filing them into a long-established scientific framework: not just as cumulus, cirrus, stratus or cumulonimbus clouds, as schoolchildren learn, but within a recondite system for describing variations. Atypical clouds are either fitted into that existing map of the sky or set aside as irrelevant. Pretor-Pinney liked classifying clouds using these names; he was thankful to have that structure in place. And yet, it seemed a shame to repress the glaring, deviant beauty recorded in Wiggins’s photograph by assigning it a name that didn’t sufficiently describe it. He supposed, if you had to, you could call this thing an undulatus — the standard classification for a broad, wavy cloud. But that seemed to be selling the cloud tragically short, stubbornly ignoring what made it so sublime. This was “undulatus turned up to 11,” he said. So he came up with his own name for the cloud: asperatus. (The word “asperatus” came from a passage in Virgil describing a roughened sea; Pretor-Pinney had asked his cousin, a high-school Latin teacher, for help.) He wondered how to go about making such a name official.
In 2008, while shooting a documentary for the BBC about clouds, Pretor-Pinney pitched his new cloud to a panel of four meteorologists at the Royal Meteorological Society. The scientists sat in a line behind a table; Pretor-Pinney stood, holding blown-up photos of asperatus for them to consider. “It was a lot like ‘The X Factor,’ ” he said, referring to the TV talent show. The scientists were encouraging but diplomatic. A new cloud name, they explained, could be designated only by the World Meteorological Organization, an agency within the United Nations, based in Geneva, which has published scientific names and descriptions of all known cloud types in its International Cloud Atlas since 1896. The W.M.O. is exceptionally discerning; for starters, Pretor-Pinney was told, he would need more carefully cataloged incidences of these clouds, as well as a scientific understanding of their surrounding “synoptic situation.” The process would take years. And even then, the chances of inclusion in the atlas were slim. The W.M.O. hadn’t added a new cloud type to the International Cloud Atlas since 1953. “We don’t expect to see new cloud types popping up every week,” a W.M.O. official named Roger Atkinson told me. When I asked why, Atkinson said, “Because 50 or 60 years ago, we got it right.”
A cloud is only water, but arranged like no other water on earth. Billions of minuscule droplets are packed into every cubic foot of cloud, throwing reflected light off their disordered surfaces in all directions, collectively making the cloud opaque. In a way, each cloud is an illusion, a conspiracy of liquid masquerading as a floating, solid object.
But for most of human history, what a cloud was, physically, hardly mattered; instead, we understood clouds as psychic refuges from the mundane, grist for our imaginations, feelings fodder. Clouds both influenced our emotions and hung above us like washed-out mirrors, reflecting them. The English painter John Constable called the sky the “chief organ of sentiment” in his landscapes. And our instinct, as children, to recognize shapes in the clouds is arguably one early spark of all the higher forms of creative thinking that make us human and make us fun. Frankly, a person too dull to look up at the sky and see a parade of tortoises or a huge pair of mittens or a ghost holding a samurai sword is not a person worth lying in a meadow with. This is one of those moments that made me smile. Did you aim for a whimsical tone, or is the slight sense of humor that’s evident in this piece just a natural part of your writing process? This whole section about clouds came late in the process. It was sort of a direct reaction to my editors’ reminder that the story was actually about clouds… so I think I was trying to adopt the perspective of someone who is much more fascinated in clouds than I am. In “Hamlet,” Polonius’s despicable spinelessness is never clearer than when Hamlet gets him to enthusiastically agree that a particular cloud looks like a camel, then not a camel at all, but a weasel. Then, not a weasel but a whale. Polonius will see whatever Hamlet wants him to; he is a man completely without his own vision.
We look for meaning — portents — in the clouds as well, the more grown-up version of picking out puffy animals. “There’s a long history of people finding signs in the sky,” Pretor-Pinney told me, from Constantine seeing the cross over the Milvian Bridge to the often-belligerent protesters outside Pretor-Pinney’s talks, who are convinced that the contrails behind commercial airplanes are evidence of a toxic, secret government scheme and are outraged that Pretor-Pinney — the righteous Lorax of clouds — refuses to expose it. In short, clouds exist in a realm where the physical and metaphysical touch. “We look up for answers,” Pretor-Pinney says. And yet, we often don’t want empirical answers. There has always been a romantic impulse to protect clouds from our own stubbornly rational intellects, to keep knowledge from trampling their magic. Thoreau preferred to understand clouds as something that “stirs my blood, makes my thought flow” and not as a mass of water. “What sort of science,” he wrote, “is that which enriches the understanding but robs the imagination.” Tell me about your decision to include some of these lines from various philosophers and historical figures. History is always my favorite part to write, and typically to read, too. It tends to feel so crisp, with a clear momentum that the sloppy narrative you’re cobbling together from your shaggy real-time interviews and contemporary reality never does. What a relief when everyone’s long dead! It renders them somewhat less three-dimensional, which is a relief because the most excruciating part about writing about reality, for me, is how damn complicated and slippery and contradictory everyone is, and you’re expected to squeeze all that into some kind of intelligible, linear narrative. The fun of telling the history or backstory in a piece of journalism is framing it as a story that has led, with a great feeling of inevitability, to one specific place: whatever present predicament you are writing about. I suspect that approach would make me a terrible and irresponsible historian, and apologies to all historians everywhere for saying that.
The scientific study of clouds grew out of a collection of madly appreciating amateurs who struggled with this same tension. The field’s foundational treatise was first presented to a small scientific debating society in London one evening in 1802 by a shy Quaker pharmacist named Luke Howard. Howard, then 30, was not a professional meteorologist but a devoted cloud-spotter with a perceptive, if wandering, mind. His interest in clouds started early. His biographer, Richard Hamblyn, explains that as a young student in Oxfordshire, Howard seems to have found school magnificently boring. He couldn’t bring himself to pay attention, except to his Latin teacher, who punished daydreaming with beatings. Today Howard might covertly pull out his phone and read a link a friend shared about, say, an eccentric society in England that appreciates clouds. But poor Howard’s boredom was analog: all he could do was look out the classroom window at the actual clouds rolling by.
Howard’s intention that night in London was to bring clouds down to earth without depleting their loftiness. After years of closely observing clouds, his appreciation of them had hardened into analysis. He now insisted that, though clouds may appear to be blown around in random, ever-changing shapes, they actually take consistent forms, forms that can be distinguished from one another and whose changes correspond to changes in the atmosphere. Clouds can be used to read what Howard called “the countenance of the sky”; they are an expression of its moods, not just in a poetic way, as Constable meant, but meteorologically.
Howard’s lecture was eventually published as “On the Modifications of Clouds, and on the Principles of Their Production, Suspension and Destruction.” It stands as the ur-text of nephology, the branch of meteorology devoted to clouds. Howard divided clouds into three major types and many intermittent varieties of each, all similarly affixed with Latin names or compounds. (He had learned his Latin well.) Like Linnaeus, who used Latin to sort the fluidity of life into genera and species, Howard used his new cloud taxonomy to wrest our understanding of the world’s diversity from superstition and religion. His signature assertion that “the sky, too, belongs to the Landscape” can be read as a call for empiricism — a conviction that science can, in fact, measure out the mystical.
Nearly a century later, Howard’s work would be picked up by another energetic amateur, the Honorable Ralph Abercromby. Abercromby was the bookish great- grandson of a celebrated English war hero. He was apparently so meek and frail (“never robust, even as a boy,” one tribute read after his death) that he was forced to drop out of school and was rarely able to hold a job. He served briefly in the military but seemed completely unsuited to soldiering; deployed to Newfoundland in 1864, Abercromby began theorizing about how the fog there was produced. Later, stationed in Montreal, he scrutinized the wind. It would have been tempting for his superiors to label him “absent-minded” or “unfocused” but, in retrospect, it was just another case of a young man intensely focused on something few people considered worthy of attention — another case of a young man in love with clouds. Abercromby is an interesting character, perhaps even more so than Howard. What compelled you to include him? How did you decide these two would be the “main characters” of this section? Well, Luke Howard is without question the founder of the study of clouds. A meteorologist would probably say I overemphasized Abercromby, but he was just a really fun person to write about. I also wanted to get into this guy Harold Humes, who was one of the founders of the Paris Review. He was very eccentric, and he got interested in lenticular clouds—these clouds that don’t move. He had these sort of raving writings about what they meant, that they had something to do with the dawn of Aquarius and U.F.O.s. It was a similar point in that he was humoring clouds into some impulse of the era. So that was the other one I wanted to talked about—he was in the pitch, but I never went there.
In 1885, Abercromby took his first round-the-world voyage. He was a civilian again, and his private physician hoped the sea air would restore his pitiable health. But he worked slavishly the whole time, keeping a meticulous weather diary, photographing the clouds at sea. He published many scientific papers and a book about the clouds and weather that he encountered. And he kept traveling: Scandinavia and Russia, Asia and the United States, compelled, as he wrote, to “continue the observation and photography of cloud forms in different countries.” Looking up, Abercromby came to realize that clouds looked essentially the same everywhere. Colonialism was sending goods, resources and culture around the planet; suddenly, it must have seemed obvious that we also shared the same sky.
Abercromby’s primary interest was in refining the science of weather-tracking and forecasting, and he knew that meteorologists everywhere would need a standard way to discuss and share their observations. Eventually, collaborating with a Swedish cloud scientist named Hugo Hildebrand Hildebrandsson, he convened a Cloud Committee to hammer out Hildebrandsson’s meticulous “Nomenclature of Clouds.” They declared 1896 “the International Year of the Cloud.” By year’s end, the committee produced the first International Cloud Atlas.
The atlas is now in its seventh edition, and its meticulous taxonomy provides for 10 genera of clouds, 14 species, nine varieties and dozens of “accessory clouds” and “supplementary features.” The atlas also establishes a grammar with which these terms can be combined to allow for the instability of clouds — the way they morph from one form into another — or to describe their general altitude. A cumulus, for example, might just be a cumulus; or it might be a cumulus fractus, if its edges are tattered; or a cumulus pileus, if a smaller cloud appears over it like a hood. An altocumulus lenticularis, meanwhile, is a vast, tightly bunched flock of clouds stretching across the sky at altitudes from 6,500 to 23,000 feet.
Of course, not everything in the sky needs to be precisely described. As a reference book for meteorologists, the atlas has been concerned only with clouds that have “operational significance” — that reliably reveal something about atmospheric conditions. As far as other clouds go, says Roger Atkinson of the W.M.O., one person might look at a cloud and say: “ ‘It’s wonderful. It looks like an elephant,’ and someone else might think, It’s a camel.” But the W.M.O. doesn’t particularly care. It does not see its mission as settling disagreements about elephants and camels.
Soon after Pretor-Pinney appeared on the BBC, championing his asperatus cloud, the media seized on the possibility, however remote, that the W.M.O. would add asperatus to its atlas. Suddenly, there were stories about the Cloud Appreciation Society all over the place, all over again. This time, Pretor-Pinney — previously cast as a charming English eccentric with a funny website — was presented as the crusading figurehead of a populist meteorological revolt. Pretor-Pinney had initially turned defeatist after shooting the documentary and never bothered reaching out to the W.M.O.; the bureaucracy seemed too formidable. Now he didn’t quite know what to say. When reporters called, he suggested they contact the W.M.O., impishly channeling them as de facto lobbyists.
Then, in 2014, the W.M.O. announced it was preparing the first new edition of the Cloud Atlas in nearly 40 years; the agency felt pressure to finally digitize the book, to reassert its authority over the many reckless cloud-reference materials proliferating online. One of the W.M.O.’s first steps was to convene an international Task Team to consider additions to the atlas. “Most public interest,” a news release noted, “has focused on a proposal by the Cloud Appreciation Society” to recognize the so-called asperatus. The Task Team would report to a so-called Commission for Instruments and Methods of Observation. Last summer, the commission recommended to the World Meteorological Organization’s 17th World Meteorological Congress in Geneva that the cloud be included. Everyone seemed confident that the recommendation would soon be ratified by the W.M.O.’s executive council. Except, the new cloud wasn’t asperatus anymore; it was now asperitas. The Task Team had demoted it from a cloud “variety,” as Pretor-Pinney had proposed, to a “supplementary feature,” and the elaborate naming convention for clouds required supplementary features to be named with Latin nouns, not adjectives. “One of those things that’s so close, but different,” Pretor-Pinney told me, with a tinge of amusement and resentment.
When I spoke to Roger Atkinson, of the W.M.O., he stressed that asperitas would merely be “a fourth-order classification, not a primary genus, not one of the primary cloud types, not one of the Big Nine.” Neither was it the only new classification the Task Team recommended adding; it was just the most famous one. The prominence of the cloud seems to have forced the scientists’ hand. Asperitas didn’t appear to have any operational significance, but the public enthusiasm Pretor-Pinney had gathered around the cloud ultimately made asperitas too prominent to ignore. One task-team member, George Anderson, told me that not giving such a well-known cloud a definitive name would only create more confusion.
Pretor-Pinney conceded all this, happily. “My argument is not that this is some hugely significant thing,” he told me. By now, he was mostly using the cloud to make a point — to needle the “human vanity” inherent in “the Victorian urge to classify things, to put them into pigeonholes and give them scientific names.” Clouds, he added, “are ephemeral, ever-changing, phenomenal. Here you have a discrete, scientific, analytic urge laid onto the embodiment of chaos, onto these formations within these unbounded pockets of our atmosphere where there’s no beginning and no edge.” All he wanted was to encourage people to look at the sky, to elevate our perception of clouds as beautiful “for their own sake.”
Slowly, over the last 200 years, the impulse of cloud lovers like Howard and Abercromby to make the mystical empirical had ossified into something stringent and reductive. Pretor-Pinney wanted to clear a little more space in our collective cloudscape for less distinct feelings of delight and wonder. His championing of asperatus was, in reality, somewhat arbitrary. There were a few other unnamed cloud forms he saw repeating in the society’s photo gallery. He just happened to pick this one.
The cultural history of clouds seemed to be shaped by a procession of amateurs, each of whom projected the ethos of his particular era onto those billowing blank slates in the troposphere. Pretor-Pinney was our era’s, I realized — the Internet era’s. He wasn’t just challenging the cloud authorities with his crowdsourced cloud; he was trolling them. This is fantastic. I love the analogy. What inspired it? In some ways, you’re making the reader the do a little work in understanding what you mean by this. I needed to figure out if there was something especially timely about the way Gavin was operating. And to me, that had everything to do with the fact that he was sort of crowd-sourcing enthusiasm for clouds. The troll bit leapt out at me the more I got to know him. I think troll has such a negative connotation, so maybe he was almost like a court jester—he was impishly disrupting the status quo and seeing what happens. He’s interested in this new cloud, but it could have been lots of other clouds, too; he just happened to pick this one. He’s more interested in needling the system than any one particular victory. And that’s a lot more lovable, too.
I was one of the many reporters who contacted Pretor-Pinney when the first photos of asperatus made the rounds in 2009. I had seen an Associated Press article, with Jane Wiggins’s photo of the cloud in Iowa, and a reference to Pretor-Pinney and his Cloud Appreciation Society and felt a kind of instant and exhilarated envy: Apparently, some people cultivated a meaningful connection to what I’d only ever regarded as vaporous arrangements of nothingness. I wanted in. It’s interesting that you switched to first person here. Why did you do that? Because Jake Silverstein [editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine] told me to! And when he told me to, I realized right away that he was correct: His point was, if the piece is going to end so deep inside my own perspective, I needed to ease people into my experience at the beginning of that section: who was this guy (me) tripping out at the cloud conference anyway? Otherwise, it would feel jarring. Also, I was impressed that these enthusiasts seemed to be rattling the self-serious strictures of the scientific establishment. And so it was disappointing to realize, in those early days and as I checked back with him periodically, that nothing was really happening yet and that no one seemed particularly rattled. Pretor-Pinney even sounded slightly exhausted by asperitas. “It’s the zombie news story that will never die!” he said.
He was, by then, closing in on his 10th year as head of the Cloud Appreciation Society and, as he’d done after 10 years with The Idler magazine, he was questioning his commitment to it. Somehow, being a cloud impresario had swallowed an enormous amount of time. He was lecturing about clouds around the world, sharing stages at corporate conferences and ideas festivals with Snoop Dogg and Bill Clinton and appearing monthly on the Weather Channel. Then there was the Cloud Appreciation Society’s online store, a curated collection of society-branded merchandise and cloud-themed home goods, which turned out to be surprisingly demanding, particularly in the frenzied weeks before Christmas. The Cloud Appreciation Society was basically just Pretor-Pinney and his wife, Liz, plus a friend who oversaw the shop part time and a retired steelworker he brought on to moderate the photo gallery. It was all arduous, which Pretor-Pinney seemed to find a little embarrassing. “My argument about why cloud-spotting is a worthwhile activity is that it’s an aimless activity,” he said. “And I’ve turned it into something that is very purposeful, that is work.”
At the same time, he realized that he’d conjured a genuine community of amateur cloud-lovers from all over the world but regretted never doing anything to truly nourish it; it felt so “fluffy,” he said, “with no center to it, like a cloud.” Soon, that spectral society — that cloud of people on the Internet — would be celebrating its 10th anniversary. “I’m thinking that it might be a nice reason to get everyone together,” he said.
One morning last September, Pretor-Pinney was fidgeting and fretting in the auditorium of the Royal Geographical Society building, at the edge of Kensington Gardens in London. Escape to the Clouds, a one-day conference to celebrate the Cloud Appreciation Society’s 10th anniversary, would be underway in 90 minutes, and Pretor-Pinney was impatiently supervising the small team of balloon- installation artists he had commissioned to rig inflatable cloud formations around the stage. This was the first big event that he organized for the Cloud Appreciation Society. Did you always know the story of the conference would come toward the end? In the draft I first turned in, the conference came much earlier. That was a really good edit from my editors (Sheila Glaser and others)—they basically thought it was too much about the conference. So it became less and less about the conference until it was included just at the very end. The evening before the conference, he was expecting 315 attendees. But there was a late surge of ticket-buying, and now he was panicking about running out of artisanal Cloud-Nine Marshmallows for the gift bags. Outside, Pretor-Pinney kept pointing out, the London sky was impeccably blue. Not a single cloud. It was terrible. I don’t think people appreciate how hard it is to be funny in writing. Does it come naturally to you? I think I’m good at noticing funny things that people do and say—funny situations. Then it’s a matter of finding the words and rhythms that bring out how funny those things are.
Bounding onstage to kick off the conference, Pretor-Pinney seemed overwhelmed but cheerful. He reminded the muddle of cloud appreciators from all over the world, now crammed into the theater, that “to tune into the clouds is to slow down. It’s a moment of meteorological meditation.” And he celebrated the transcendence of cloud-spotting: how it connects us to the weather, the atmosphere, to one another. “We are part of the air,” he told everyone. “We don’t live beneath the sky. We live within the sky.”
Who were they all? Why were they there? They were a collection of ordinary people with an interest in clouds. Behind all those user names on the Cloud Society website were schoolteachers, sky divers, meteorologists, retired astronomy teachers, office workers and artists. Many people had come alone, but conversations sparked easily. (“I’ve just seen the best cloud dress I’ve seen in my life,” a woman said on the stairway. A second woman turned and said, “Well, yours is quite lovely, too.”) The atmosphere was comfortable and convivial and amplified by a kind of feedback loop of escalating relief, whereby people who arrived at a cloud conference not knowing what to expect recognized how normal and friendly everyone was and enjoyed themselves even more.
The program Pretor-Pinney had pulled together was a little highbrow but fun. A British author recounted the misadventures of the first meteorologist to make a high-altitude balloon ascent. An energetic literary historian surveyed “English Literary Views of the Sky.” Pretor-Pinney and a professor of physics tried to demonstrate a complicated atmospheric freezing process in a plastic bottle, but failed. And between the talks, a musician named Lisa Knapp performed folk songs about wind and weather. She had saved the obvious crowd-pleaser for her final turn onstage: the melancholy Joni Mitchell classic “Both Sides, Now.”
There would be one more talk after Knapp finished, but it didn’t matter. This — the Joni Mitchell moment — was the conference’s transformative conclusion. Knapp had an extraordinary voice, Bjork-like, but gentler, and performed the song alone, accompanying herself with only a delicate, monotonal Indian classical instrument resting in her lap, a kind of bellows, called a shruti box. It let out a mournful, otherworldly drone. After hours of lectures and uncertain socializing with strangers, something about this spare arrangement and the sorrowful lyrics felt so vulnerable that, by the time Knapp finished the first lines — “Rows and flows of angel hair, and ice cream castles in the air, and feather canyons everywhere. I’ve looked at clouds that way” — she was singing into an exquisite silence.
The performance moved me. But it was more than that, and weirder. Maybe, somewhere in this story about clouds and cloud lovers, I’d found a compelling argument for staying open to varieties of beauty that we can’t quite categorize and, by extension, for respecting the human capacity to feel, as much as our ability to scrutinize the sources of those feelings. This is a lovely thought. Did you know in the moment you experienced this that you were going to incorporate this idea into the piece? As far as I was concerned as a human being, and maybe not as a reporter, I was convinced that this was the most important thing that happened during my experience doing the piece. I didn’t necessarily know that it would make it into the story, because it seemed divorced from everything else—but I think that’s because I didn’t quite understand it yet. In point of fact, I don’t think anyone liked the ending of the story when I first turned it in… and I don’t blame them! Sometimes when you have a conviction that something works, and no one else understands it, it’s not because it doesn’t work—it’s because you haven’t done it right. My friend Evan Ratliff used to edit my Pop-Up Magazine stories; we came up with this thing called Ratliff’s Rule. It’s the thing you want to tell people about the story even if it has nothing to do with everything else. [Editor’s note] Here’s an explanation from Ratliff himself: There are sometimes details and scenes uncovered by writers that are so remarkable, fascinating, or memorable that it is worth doing structural or stylistic backflips to make sure that they stay in the story. The reasoning behind it is that it’s very rare to find a moment or detail in a story that you just know will stick in the reader’s mind, that they will not only remember but marvel over, tell other people about. Creating those types of moments is a major reason why you are writing these kinds of stories at all. And if you have one, quite often the story you are writing is the only chance for this amazing moment or detail to ever be experienced by anyone but you, or else be lost to human history. So you should do everything in your power to keep that moment in the story, even if it’s not necessary for the narrative at large.
Whatever the case, as Knapp sang, I started to feel an inexplicable rush of empathy for the people I met that day, the people sitting around me — all these others, living within the same sky. And I let my mind wander, wondering about their lives. What I felt, really, was awe: the awe that comes when you fully internalize that every stranger’s interior life is just as complicated as yours. It seemed very unlikely that a meeting of an online cloud society in a dark, windowless room could produce such a moment of genuine emotion, but there I was, in the middle of it. Just thinking about clouds, I guess, had turned a little transcendent, at least for me.
Then I heard the sniffle. It was very loud. With the room so transfixed, it easily cut through Knapp’s voice from a few rows behind me, and when I turned to look, I saw Pretor-Pinney’s wife fully in tears. Then, the woman right next to me, she was crying, too. And I heard others inhaling loudly, oddly, and got the impression there were more. Immediately afterward, out in the hall, the first person I walked past was bashfully apologizing to two others. It was so strange, she kept saying. She just didn’t know why she’d been crying.
A couple of days later, I tried to describe it in an email to a friend: “Many people spontaneously cried, just releasing their tears like rain, and I realized that we are all human beings — that’s the truth … in all our different forms and sizes, we are expressions of the same basic currents, just like the clouds.” And when I read the email back, I was mortified by how fluffy and stoned it sounded, but still — even now — I can’t pretend it’s not true. I love the way you ended this. I can imagine you were grappling with how to not make it sound overly cheesy, but also authentic. Do you think you struck that balance? I definitely felt like that. It felt a little vulnerable. The last line originally was something like, “I knew it was true, but I knew I’d never be able to explain it in The New York Times.” But that sounded like I was sort of trolling The New York Times, so that got cut. I remember a lot of fretting over that last line. Thankfully, my initial reaction to it was that it was laughably over-the-top, which I guess is good, because I couldn’t possibly be taking myself too seriously.