“The sky throughout history has been variously filled by the promptings of the imagination, whether with gods and prophecies and the rhythms of the zodiac,
or with the first faint stirring of scientific thought.”

—Richard Hamblyn, The Invention of Clouds

In January this year we had several good rains in southern Sonora. Precipitation in the winter is much appreciated by all because it provides a buffer against the impending dry season, a parched, sweltering, and dusty period that persists until the onset of the rainy season in mid to late June. When we were talking about the good fortune of these winter rains with Alejandro Sauceda, a friend who grew up and still lives in the campo, he told us about a weather-forecasting system still widely used by country people around here. With our imperfect comprehension of Spanish as spoken in rural Sonora, we picked up on the idea but not the exact details—something about using the times when it rains in January to predict weather patterns, especially rainfall, in the ensuing months.

Not immediately catching the name he used for this practice, I asked, “¿Otra vez, cómo se llama este sistema?” 

Las Cabañuelas,” Alejandro replied, of course repeating the word several times until we thought we had captured all the syllables. Alejandro is very patient.

 We asked another friend Ángel Esquir if he could elaborate on the subject. We figured, rightly, he would know all about it, because he was born and spent the majority of his 80-plus years in the campo, which here in Sonora is more commonly referred to as el monte. We videotaped his explanation of Las Cabañuelas so we could refer to it and translate the details and so we would have this memory of him explaining it. The elders who hold the knowledge of the Sonoran monte—its pastoral culture, norms, economy, and natural landscapes—are fading away.

I was skeptical when Ángel made the claim that Las Cabañuelas is a universal weather-forecasting system. Considering that Ángel’s universe is Hispanic, he is basically right. According to Wikepedia, today’s widespread click-away source of information, the tradition of Las Cabañuelas dates back at least several centuries in Spain, and its use spread around the world with Spanish conquests in the New World and parts of Africa.

Ángel grew up with Las Cabañuelas and can recite its rules like an anthem. Still I don’t know how doggedly he adheres to it as a forecasting tool. He, my husband, and I often discuss the science-driven weather forecasts we follow online and he follows on the blurry television in his home. I think Las Cabañuelas is simply woven into the fabric of his life. Just like Groundhog Day is woven into mine.

On the subject of weather, I just finished reading The Invention of Clouds by Richard Hamblyn. What a wonderful book! It is a biography of Luke Howard, a British chemist, Quaker, and amateur meteorologist who in the early 1800s devised and promoted among the scientific community a classification system for clouds.

I have been reading a lot about clouds and weather since 2016 when I purchased the CloudSpotter app ($2.99) and joined The Cloud Appreciation Society (member #41,844). I am accustomed to looking up. I have been watching birds for fifty years. Now I simply look up more often.

Adapting the Linnean system for ranking living organisms, Luke Howard used Latin names to classify clouds according to such factors as altitude, temperature, and solar radiation that drive their formation. For his continuing efforts to elucidate the clouds and share his knowledge with an enthusiastic public, Howard was greatly admired, indeed a celebrity, in Great Britain and Europe.

As Hamblyn writes, “By the end of the eighteenth century the grip of rational entertainment had firmly secured itself on the public mind, and had done so because it served the equal, if novel, demands of pleasure, instruction and imagination. Science had been on the rise for a century or more, and had now ascended to its height, where it drifted through the cultural atmosphere of the age.”

Across London, many lecturers expounded on biology, geology, meteorology, and new inventions, and their audiences widely embraced scientific discovery. Hamblyn writes, “…people cheered loudly at lectures.” I detect a bit of wistfulness in his tone as he describes this era—or I am projecting. My goodness, from my vantage in 2019, it is hard to imagine the public in the “grip of rational entertainment” or the appreciation of science drifting through the cultural atmosphere of my era.

With some modifications and additions over the years, Howard’s Latin-based nomenclature became the universally accepted system of cloud identification used by meteorologists around the world to help forecast and explain the weather and by cloud enthusiasts, such as myself, who wish to put names on the gorgeous specimens we gaze up at. A truly monumental effort, the International Cloud Atlas, first published in 1896 and still in print (and online), is the official authority and keeper of the cloud classification.

The Invention of Clouds is far more than a biography. Hamblyn uses clouds and the wonderful life of Luke Howard to tell a history of our human quest to understand, codify, explain, forecast, and frequently create dogmas about, the weather. In the chapter “A Brief History of Clouds” Hamblyn makes a sweeping survey of the subject drawing on ancient Egyptian and Babylonian texts, Chinese yin and yang philosophy, Taoist hierarchy of gods, Norse mythology, Greek and Roman treatises on mathematics, astronomy, and meteorology, Christian theology, the Cartesian scientific revolution and Age of Enlightenment (bringing the invention of the telescope, microscope, thermometer, and barometer)—all leading up to the cloud classifications proposed by the modest Quaker Luke Howard.

Although Hamblyn does not reference it, the Iberian spread of Las Cabañuelas around the world, news of which reached me in southern Sonora, Mexico, in 2019, is part of Homo sapiens’ long march to decipher the weather, which is so basic, changeable, critical for navigation and aviation, essential for forecasting and responding to weather-related emergencies—and so very personal. For eons people have been parsing the clouds and inventing interpretations that range from the  quaint (Las Cabañuelas) to the sinister (Noah’s Ark). That there is now a rational explanation for clouds based on their chemistry and physics—what makes a cumulus a cumulus and a cirrus a cirrus—in no way distracts from marveling at their mutable beauty as they waft, roil, and shift across our sky canvas. I often stand outside looking up a cloud formation and hear myself saying, “Oh, my.”


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