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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  September 2010


Both Sides Now

Here in the desert Southwest, we really don't know clouds at all — most of the year.

In one of my favorite "Peanuts" comic strips, Lucy, Linus and Charlie Brown are lying on their backs, looking at the sky. Lucy says, "If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud's formations. What do you think you see, Linus?"


"Well, those clouds up there look to me look like the map of the British Honduras on the Caribbean," Linus replies. "That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor. And that group of clouds over there gives me the impression of the Stoning of Stephen. I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side."

"Uh huh. That's very good," says Lucy. "What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?"

"Well," says Charlie Brown, "I was going to say I saw a duckie and a horsie, but I changed my mind."

Charlie Brown would fit right in here in the desert Southwest, where our opportunities to exercise our cloud-formation imaginations are limited. Most of the year, at least, even Linus Van Pelt would be hard-pressed to envision anything in our sparse cloudscape — minimalist paintings, perhaps, or the cave art at Lascaux on a particularly "cloudy" day. In typical desert skies, Linus would have to strain to make out a duckie or a horsie.

All that changes, of course, for a few months beginning sometime in July. Cumulonimbus pile up all afternoon like an arsenal for an especially brutal pillow fight, usually blackening before suppertime to unleash lightning, thunder and the better part of our annual moisture. Even in the mornings, cirrus clouds sometimes skid across the sky, like wispy heralds for the thunderheads just peeking their tufted noggins over the horizon, toward the mountains.

Come nighttime, the Southwest's famously crisp and clear starry skies can be as muddled as a bad watercolor painting. Gray swatches of clouds obscure the constellations, and humidity — what a concept! — blurs the ordinarily fierce, diamond-sharp twinkles.

As I write this in sultry August, in fact, the humidity stands at a shocking 60% — about eight times its seasonal, single-digit low in early spring — and the afternoon clouds look like something Winslow Homer might have painted on a turpentine-fumes bender. An imaginative boy like Linus could probably make out the entire Battle of the Boeotian Encroachment in those turbulent skies.

I grew up taking clouds for granted, with puffy, summery Midwestern clouds like those Charlie, Lucy and Linus gazed at in the comics. (Technically, I believe the "Peanuts" gang lived in California like their creator, Charles M. Schulz — but remember that Schulz grew up in St. Paul, Minn.) Most of the year in South Dakota, clouds brought only menace — or, at best, long, leaden days of overcast skies and rain. During childhood summers, though, there must have been some lazy afternoons when my friends and I made shapes out of the clouds. Our imaginations would have seen superheroes rather than Saint Stephen, of course: "There's Spiderman, firing his webs at the Green Goblin." "I see Daredevil, punching the Kingpin." (Our South Dakota skies would have been violent at such times, even in the absence of thunderclouds.)


I think of clouds more often, though, as the primary scenery on long car trips, since there wasn't much else to see along the dusty Interstate across South Dakota: "Look, there's a cow! No, wait, it's only a tumbleweed." And later, making the drive from the Twin Cities to visit our parents in Sioux Falls, the clouds were often more interesting than the parade of grain elevators and one-stoplight Minnesota towns.

In the wide-open skies of a Midwestern summer with few visual distractions, clouds loomed large. On those prairies, clouds tended to space themselves as evenly as birds on telephone wires, rather than bumping into each other like our Southwest monsoon monstrosities. Think of a box full of cottonballs shot into the Caribbean, and you've got the picture.

Sure, those Midwestern clouds could clump together and turn ugly, too, but thunderstorms more often assembled in May and June, earlier than our monsoons. The night before our mid-June wedding, in fact, we watched tornadoes dance like serpents among the oil-storage tanks visible from my future in-laws' front porch. (By "we," I mean the rest of my soon-to-be-family, that is. I was cowering inside with one eye on what passes for a basement in a split-level house, while seriously questioning the gene pool I was about to marry into.)

That same summer, at my spanking-new job in St. Paul, I recall seeing a tornado spin down out of the clouds and whirl like an elephant's trunk above the Mendota Bridge linking the city to its southern suburbs (where I lived).

As nasty as our monsoon storms can be, tornadoes seem to eschew our side of New Mexico in favor (wisely, I think) of threatening those parts of the Land of Enchantment that (let's be honest here) might as well be in Texas or Oklahoma. They've got all the oil and natural gas and congressmen, so they might as well have the occasional tornado to balance the cosmic scales a bit.


Any place where we've lived before, I'd be terrified to reside within flying-debris range of a trailer park, as we do here. Somehow tornadoes just know to touch down where they can do the most damage.

Here, though, I eye the clouds for fear of their accompanying lightning, winds that put the "fall" in windfall fruit from our apple trees, the odd hailstorm and — especially — power outages. We'll save my pathological fear of power outages for another column, but let's just say that I would not have done well in the era before electricity. Next blackout, that guy you see standing with the flashlight at his chin and whimpering pathetically is me.

By this time of year, in fact, if the monsoons have adequately done their job of replenishing our aquifers and putting my Toyota 4Runner up to its wheel-wells in water, I'm over the whole "we need the moisture" bit. I've had enough of clouds to last me — well, until next July.

Didn't we move to the desert, after all, at least in part because it's dry? Because the crystalline-blue skies soar overhead with hardly a white puff of cloud marring their cerulean perfection? Because the sun shines 300-some days a year, mostly unhidden by the clouds that plague places with higher rates of suicide and lower incidence of skin cancer?

If we're going to have to suffer through weather more reminiscent of Portland than Portales, then we might as well live someplace where the local TV channels are in HD. (For that matter, where there are local TV channels!) That way at least when cloudy, rainy days force us to stay inside, we can watch "Oprah" in all her glory. (Though that escape, too, is soon to be denied us, in HD or otherwise.)

There's a reason, after all, that Barbra Streisand sang, "Don't rain on my parade." Nobody ever made a musical about the sorrows of too much sunshine, although the American Academy of Dermatology has probably tried. (Gene Kelly dancing wetly in "Singin' in the Rain" doesn't count — he was overcompensating for the crummy weather.)

Nope, I'm with Joni Mitchell. At first, she wrote in the song "Both Sides Now," she was a regular Linus Van Pelt: "Bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air/ And feather canyons everywhere, I've looked at cloud that way." But then she wised up and got a more Southwestern attitude: "But now they only block the sun, they rain and snow on everyone. So many things I would have done but clouds got in my way."

You tell 'em, Joni. And don't feel bad, Charlie Brown. Duckie, horsie, whatever — the clouds just get in the way. Monsoon season's almost over here. Leave that fussbudget Lucy before she pulls the ol' football trick on you again and come enjoy some cloud-free autumn days.

When Desert Exposure editor David A. Fryxell looks at clouds, he sees portable generators.



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