It’s winter again. The days grow short, the light more faint, clouds gather, and darkness comes in like a rising tide. It rains.
We have a special relationship with the rain in the Pacific Northwest. We expect it. We simultaneously appreciate it, take pride in it, and apologize for it. We are a little anxious when it’s not raining. We reassure ourselves: it’s coming, and it will last for a long time. As a relative newcomer, I am frequently counseled about it by more authoritative natives who inform me, soberly and ominously, that in the last three years I haven’t seen what it’s really like here. But I’m learning.
I was driving through Snoqualmie Pass one morning a couple of weeks back, on the way to meetings in Yakima. It was one of those sublime moments when the morning sun’s rays exposed the swirling white vapor that was rising from the ground and descending from the mountain sky, dropping glistening jewels of water on my windshield. The clouds, white, delicate and timid at first, suddenly turned dark, taking over the landscape and blotting out the sun. Then, all at once, the clouds burst, in earnest.
Clouds were invented, they say, by an English scientist of the early 19th century. Or at least he is credited with making them something more than vapor for us, conferring upon them a name, or names. Luke Howard, sometimes called the father of meteorology, gave us the Latin terms we use for classifying clouds—cumulus, stratus, cirrus. A member of the Royal Academy, author of numerous scientific papers, advocate for bringing the Linnean discipline of precise classification to natural phenomena as elusive and ephemeral as clouds, Howard also inspired with his scientific research painters of landscape like Constable, poets of nature like Shelley, and philosophers of the sublime like Goethe.
It’s easy to see why: Howard had a touch of the artist himself. When describing those vaporous appearances as “distinct modifications, produced by the general causes which affect all the variations of the atmosphere,” he also claimed they were “as good visible indicators of the operation of these causes, as is the countenance of the state of a person’s mind or body.” A cloud, in other words, is the face of the atmosphere. In that face, if you are a trained observer, you can recognize the mind of nature and fathom the secret of its operations.
If clouds are nature’s face, rain is its most effusive expression. For us, rain is nature’s winter conversation, its message. This past fall has been a time when our campus has been the recipient of many eloquent messages—E.O. Wilson’s description of the natural order teeming with life and facing catastrophic threats, Lucius Turner Outlaw’s critique of American philosophy and its complicity with racial superiority, Cornel West’s account of the imperialist impulses that sometimes overshadow American democracy, to name a few. Now it is time for winter conversations on campus with another group of distinguished visitors, among them composer Philip Glass in February.
The rain will visit us, too; it will linger and deliver its message. We are all ears.