Head in the Clouds

Reading the language of the sky

illustrations by Nikki McClure

IN 1956, THE FORD FOUNDATION approached Rachel Carson with the idea of writing the script for a television documentary about clouds. This was around the time that meteorologist Vincent Schaefer was first publishing his research into cloud forms, which, contrary to prior scientific understanding, he’d found to be not at all arbitrary. Carson was moved by the thought of nudging young viewers toward a view of the sky as “a sequence of events in time and space that is full of meaning for us as living creatures.” The resulting program, “Something About the Sky,” aired on March 11, 1957. The following represents a brief excerpt from the script.


Among the earliest memories of each of us are the images of clouds drifting by overhead, fleecy, fair-weather clouds promising sunny skies—storm clouds bringing portents of rain or snow. The farmer plowing his field reads the weather language of the sky. So does the fisherman at sea, and all others who live openly on the face of the earth. They are the writing of the wind on the sky.

Out there is the ocean of water—familiar, though always mysterious. Its greatest depths lie seven miles down. From surface to bottom pressure increases, from thirty-five pounds to the square inch at the surface to seven and a half tons in the greatest depths. Waves move across it. Great currents flow through it like rivers. Up there is another ocean—the air ocean that envelops the whole globe. Like the sea, the atmospheric ocean is a place of movement and turbulence, stirred by the movements of gigantic waves—torn by the swift passage of winds that are like ocean currents.

What of the clouds themselves—the aerial agents of this cosmic process?




Most ethereal and fragile of all are the high-floating wisps 

of cirrus, drifting just under the stratosphere. If we could 

approach them closely in an airplane we would find them 

glittering in iridescent splendor like the dust of diamonds.  

It is the high-riding cirrus that first beholds the sunrise, or 

in evening holds the light of sunset longest, reflecting back 

to the dark earth the splendor of a light no longer visible—

the rose and gold, the wine and scarlet of the sun.




Most cumulus clouds have straight-edged bases, as

though evened off by the stroke of a cosmic knife.




Rolling, swirling along the floor of the air ocean are the 

lowest clouds of all—fog. For fog is nothing but a stratus 

cloud so near the earth that sometimes it touches it.


Rain falls on the earth—the end of a long journey that began in a tropical sea. Or, in the cold regions, snow—a deep, soft, sound-absorbing blanket bringing a great quiet to the earth; storing moisture that will be released gradually to the thirsty land.

From the runoff of high ground—from melting snowfields and glaciers, the water finds its way to the streams: the noisy hill streams tumbling over rocky beds—the quietly rolling waters of the valleys and plains—all  to return at last to the sea. 



Reprinted from Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson,© 1998 by Roger Allen Christie, and courtesy of Frances Collin, trustee.

Nikki McClure writes and illustrates books for children. Her latest book is 1, 2, 3 Salish Sea, featuring some of her favorite creatures with whom she lives in Olympia.

Rachel Carson was the author of four seminal books in the tradition of nature writing, including Silent Spring.