Lessons From the Sky — What the Clouds Taught Me in 2020
Disclaimer: I am not a meteorologist. I just really love photographing clouds (primarily when they’re the protagonist in a sunrise or sunset). I am not a photographer, either. These photos were taken on an iPhone and are unedited.
I have always been fascinated by clouds. I love the way the light reflects off of them, turning them brilliant shades of tangerine, cerulean, champagne pink, fading into cobalt and eggplant. I spent the summer of 2020 staring at the sky from my rooftop. The balmy nights combined with the private light show put on by the sun gave me something to look forward to each day, even when it didn’t feel like there was much to be excited about.
Did you know that there is scientific evidence that explains our love of watching the sun appear and disappear into the horizon? The colors of the sunrise and sunset come from a phenomenon known as scattering. Molecules in the atmosphere change the direction of light rays, causing them to scatter and project¹. This is what affects the color of the light coming from the sky. Clouds reflect the dispersed, scattered light, resulting in a gorgeous sunset. Aerosols also play a key role in this perfection. Aerosols are particles created by natural events, such as pollution and wildfires (which we definitely had plenty of this year). These particles scatter the sun’s light all day long, but they scatter blue and violet wavelengths nine times more efficiently than any other color². Since blue and violet wavelengths are smaller (350–450 nanometers) than warmer colored wavelengths (~700 nanometers), the warmer wavelengths are able to better penetrate the aerosol layer². When the sun rises or sets along the horizon, the aerosols scatter the blue and violet wavelengths before they reach our eyes, leaving behind the warmer colors of a classic sunset.
Taking the time to walk outside, tilt my head back, and look upward represented more than just scattered particles and deflected light this year, though. Dusk was a time to reflect on the day and finally take a deep breath. Exhaling always felt better under that brilliant sky. Everything was heavier this year, especially the things that once felt light. Nothing was taken for granted; the simplest things became sacred. Good health, a place to live, the health of my family and friends were all things I was continually grateful for. Looking up at the sky each night helped me to remember how important those things were.
The minute I saw the glow of the setting sun radiating through the cloud cover, I would bring my book and my headphones upstairs and watch the sky fade until our brightest star disappeared behind the mountains. Some nights the colors were muted; slate grays and violets and aquamarines made me feel like I was underwater while crimsons, marigolds, and goldenrods lit the sky aflame. An impending storm might darken the sky, giving us all the hope of rain and a fresh start. It’s quiet up there, on the roof. Sometimes I could hear the faint chatter of people on neighboring rooftops or the whir of cars down below, but mostly, it’s peaceful. My worries subside and I’m free to let my mind wander. This year my thoughts took me to places I wished I could visit and memories of trips that felt like they belonged to another lifetime.
On mornings when I rose early to cruise down I-70 in hopes of climbing a mountain, I would sip my coffee out on the roof and watch the sun get welcomed into the sky from the East. I’m lucky enough to be situated between the city skyline and the mountains, so the sunrise illuminates the glass windows of the city skyscrapers and lays to rest behind the shadows of the Rockies. I always say the only good part about waking before dawn is getting to see the sun creep over the buildings, bathing them in light. The world is still quiet, save for the cars traveling up and down the freeway. I always find myself wondering where they’re going. Do they work this early or are they returning home from a night shift? Do they notice the sunrise like I do?
Watching the sky change is fleeting. It’s like a secret to which most people do not hold a key. It happens so fast — if you look away too long you’ll miss it and find yourself amid the bright morning or sinking into the depths of the night. Morphing into something else entirely, the sky cannot hesitate. It cannot pause. You’re either ready or you’re not. Watching or not. You cannot ask it to wait; it will not linger for you. Observing the clouds dance across the sky while the sun sunk lower until it vanished was a constant reminder that time continues to pass. In a year that was marked by pause, this was a helpful remembrance for me. Some needed a cue to rest, but I needed a push to keep going. Whether I was doing anything or not, the sun would continue to rise and set, marking the passing of another day.
Studies show that spending some time appreciating natural beauty may boost well-being, increase your generosity, and enhance overall quality of life³. No wonder this ritual was so important for me this past year. But the key to gaining these benefits involves putting down your cell phone and peeling yourself away from your computer screen. Maybe this was a hard ask for you this past summer. Take in the iridescence without the glow of a device forcing you to read yet another article. Allow yourself a moment of peace. Grant yourself fifteen minutes to inhale and exhale and just focus on the metamorphosis of the stratosphere.
Clouds of all kinds can put me in a trance. The wisps that float across the sky are proof that sometimes the simplest things can be instrumental in helping us cope. Clouds are made up of water droplets (or ice crystals) that float in the sky. It’s amazing to me that water droplets can transform in so many ways. My favorites are the ones that hang low in the sky; the cumulonimbus or stratocumulus. Some seem within my reach; if I stand on my tiptoes they might just drift right through my outstretched fingers. The sky was mine. Mine to join and mine to admire. Mine to dream with. Everyone will see its beauty differently and some days they might not see any beauty at all. The darkness of this past year seemed overpowering at times. Some of us sat in silence, longing for connection and familiarity. Others found creativity in the strangeness. Sure, we all see the same moon, but we also all experience different skies. Another important lesson: your experience will never be the same as someone else’s. Your perception of an event will differ as well. In order to even begin to understand each other, we must listen to each other. We must train our ears to hear a different frequency of sound, one that is not our own.
For me, every day started to feel the same. Monotony plagued me. Wake up, work, workout, eat, sleep. My normal summer schedule of live music and travel was disrupted. I didn’t see my family. The ocean was as far away as ever and the sounds of waves lapping against wet sand seemed to haunt my dreams. Home became not somewhere I returned to, but somewhere I never left. I no longer wanted to walk around my neighborhood; the streets felt mocking and I couldn’t help feeling like I was walking in circles. It was my precious clouds that kept me sane. They whispered words of encouragement. Rolling in and out, they reminded me that I had changed, too. After a year spent learning, I had a new career and finally found hope that I would be able to answer some of my goals that had been knocking at my door for years. I had a fresh mindset and a desire to do more for my community. Through all those seemingly stagnant months, I had grown.
The sky will continue to both impress and perplex me. The clouds will continue to roll in and fade out; they will bring precipitation and storms. They will bring shelter and shade. They will nourish and they will neglect. We will stare at them one day and we will forget about them the next, too consumed with our own lives to glance upward and fill our lungs with fresh air and our heads with dreams. We will move on and push forward with previously unknown diligence. We will adapt to new ways of life, while still feeling the pull of nostalgia for the old. We will laugh and cry and remember. We will share those memories and next year, we will realize we have memories from this year, too. We will glance backward, wanting to close this door behind us, leaning into the hope that propels us toward a better future.
- Williams, David. (22 Feb 2020). Here is the Science Behind What Makes Sunset Photos So Beautiful. https://www.diyphotography.net/here-is-the-science-behind-what-makes-sunset-photos-so-beautiful/.
- The Weather Channel. (15 Nov. 2016). The Science Behind A Perfect Sunset. https://weloveweather.tv/science-behind-perfect-sunset/.
- Andrews, Linda. (16 July 2014). How Admiring the Sunset Changes You for the Better. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/minding-the-body/201407/how-admiring-the-sunset-changes-you-the-better.