Watching the Clouds with Lois Nestel
July was a whirlwind, and now that August is here, September feels just around the corner. It’s times like this, especially, when reading an old article from Lois Nestel feels like a deep, calming breath and a much-needed antidote to our modern pace. As the founding Naturalist and Director of the Museum, she brought a special aura of patience, calm, and quiet joy to anyone who stopped by the Museum to ask a question or share excitement about a natural phenomenon.
So today I encourage you—and myself—to pause for a moment and enjoy something summery, stand in awe of nature, or maybe just spend some time looking up at the sky.
Lois wrote: “I wonder – does anyone watch clouds any more, just for the sake of cloud watching? To me, these are some of nature’s most beautiful formations, never twice the same, always amazing, whether puffy fleeces, shredded mare’s tails, or threatening banks jeweled with lightning.
“In the habit formed in childhood I still see in the cumulous clouds a fantasy world; human faces and forms, animals, landscapes, ever-changing and reforming, sometimes in such majesty that it seems that I must glimpse the face of God.
“Sunrise and sunset add a new dimension to cloud formations, adding tints and strengthening contracts. The towering castles and turrets of thunderheads in an evening sky overwhelm one with awe as the high-piled vapors glow with snowy whiteness tipped with crimson, rose and gold and shades too evanescent and fragile to describe. Small wonder that artists have depicted angels sailing along on heavenly cloud ships in a blue, blue sky.
“It is satisfying, I suppose, to name the clouds scientifically – stratus, cumulus, cirrus, cumulonimbus—but to really see the clouds, to know their beauty and their meaning has far greater satisfactions. A mackerel sky at evening means more to me than to identify alto cumulus clouds, and the fat dumpling wind clouds, the slatey snow clouds, the boiling masses of summer storm clouds are familiar friends who need no names.
“Lift up your eyes, not to look for storm and trouble but to see the magnificence that fills the sky. Rejoice that such beauty, such grace is free to all. Look and you, too, may see the face of God.”
Lois also wrote of another type of shimmering cloud, a phenomenon I’ve only read about. Have you been lucky enough to see this, too?
She wrote: “I have been witnessing the flight of the queens, a shimmering, living column rising from the ground, funneling out and dispersing to the four winds.
“One warm evening, in seemingly spontaneous impulse, the ants poured forth from every hill; tiny red workers, the males and the queens, covered the earth for yards around in a seething mass of life. There was no flight then, just incessant, restless movement—a preparation, an anticipation of things to come.
“As darkness came they were forgotten, but with the rising sun the flight began. Gossamer wings flashed jewel tones as they rose—fountain like—high into the morning sky. In unbelievable numbers they rose for an hour or more, not just from one source but several within sight. How many more unseen nests spewed out this shining geyser of life is impossible to imagine.
“Before and all during the flight the little, wingless worker ants scurried about as though preparing the winged males and females for their nuptial journey. Back and forth through the winged throng, still earthbound, they moved, stroking a wing here, an antenna there, doing what duties one can only guess. Almost unseen among the larger royalty they moved swiftly and with seeming purpose. As the flight neared its end the workers appeared to round up the stragglers and send them on their way. Suddenly the winged ones were gone and almost as abruptly the workers vanished underground; the lifeless-looking mounds of sand were all that remained in view.
“Somewhere the matings occurred and the males died. The queens cut off their glistening wings and, having had their one brief interlude in sunlight and sky, now dug into the dark earth to live, to propagate, to die. Duty is instinctive. No longings, no regrets becloud their lives. We reach the heights of joy and the depths of despair. We rage of duty and regimentation. We destroy ourselves. The ants, serene and organized, go on. Who are the civilized?
Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at http://cablemuseum.org/natural-connections-book/. Listen to the podcast at www.cablemusum.org!
For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community” is now open!