Where the Forest Murmers,
Vol VI, Fiona Macleod

Summer Clouds

For one who has lived so much among the hills and loves the mountain solitude it may seem strange to aver that the most uplifting and enduring charm in Nature is to be found in amplitude of space. Low and rolling lands give what no highlands allow. If in these the miraculous surprise of cloud is a perpetual new element of loveliness, it is loveliness itself that unfolds when an interminable land recedes from an illimitable horizon, and, belonging to each and yet remote from either, clouds hang like flowers, or drift like medusę, or gather mysteriously as white bergs in the pale azure of arctic seas.
We are apt to be deceived by the formal grandeur of mountains, by the massed colours and contours of upbuilded heights, whether lying solitarily like vast sleeping saurians, or gathered in harmonious, if tumultuous, disarray. There is a beauty that is uniquely of the hills. The mountain lands have that which no lowland has. But in that company we shall not find what the illimitable level lands will afford, what inhabits the wilderness, what is the revelation of the desert, what is the lovely magic of the horizons of the sea. By the sombre reaches of the Solway, in the fenlands of East Anglia, in the immensity of the great bog which cinctures Ireland, in the illimitable lowland from Flanders to the last brine-whitened Frisian meadows, I have seen a quality of aerial beauty that I have not in like loveliness elsewhere found. Who that in mid-ocean has long watched the revelation of distance and the phantasmagoria of cloud during serene days, or from island shores looked across limitless waters till the far blue line seemed lifted to the purple-shadowed bases of leaning palaces, can think of an excelling loveliness? Who that has seen the four-fold azure, in east and west, in north and south, over the desert, and watched the secret veils of a single pavilion of rose-flusht cumulus slowly be undone, till the vision is become a phantom, and the phantom is become a dream, and the dream is become a whiteness and stillness deep-sinking into fathomless blue, can forget that the impassive beauty of the wilderness is wore searching and compelling than the continual miracle of wind-swept Alp and cloud-shadowed, highland; that it has, in its majesty of silence and repose, that which is perpetual on the brows of Andes and does not pass from Himalaya?
Perhaps in sheer beauty of pictorial isolation clouds are most lovely when viewed above sea horizons, from shores of islands, or promontories, or remote headlands. In the South this beauty is possibly more dreamlike, more poignantly lovely, than in the North. Certainly, I have nowhere known cloud beauty excelling that in the Mediterranean and Ionian seas, viewed from the Spanish coast, from the Balearic Isles, over against the mountain-bastions of Sardinia and Corsica, from the headlands of Sicily, where Ithaka and Zante are as great galleys in a magic ocean, where for weeks at midsummer the wine-dark waters are untroubled between the cliffs of Hellas and the sands of Alexandria. Perhaps. It is difficult to say of any region that there beauty is more wonderfully revealed than elsewhere. It comes, and is present, and is upgathered; as the wind, that has no home, that the shaken reed knows, that crumbles the crests of ancient hills; as the rainbow, which is the same aerial flqme upon Helicon, upon Ida, on the green glen of Aghadoe, on the steeps of Hecla in the Hebrides, that gives majesty and wonder to the village green, and delivers mystery on the horizons of the frequented common.  It is like light, whose incalculable arrivals are myriad, but which when most steadfast is most dreamlike, a phantom: as moonlight on the mysterious upturned face of great woods; or as when, on illimitable moors, the dew glistens on the tangled bent and pale flood of orchis where the lapwings nest; or in golden fire, as when at the solstice the sorrel in the meadows and the tansy in the wastes and the multitude of the dandelion are transmuted into a mirage of red and yellow flame; or in rippling flood of azure and silver, when the daysprings loosen; or in scarlet and purple and chrysoprase, when the South is as a clouded opal and the West is the silent conflagration of the world.  There is not a hidden glen among the lost hills, there  is not an uvisited shore, there is not a city swathed in smoke and drowned in manu clamours, where light is not a continual miracle, where from dayset to dawn, from the rising of the blue to the gathering of shadow, the wind is not habitual as are the reinless, fierce, unswerving tides of the sea.  Beauty, and Light, and Wind: they who are so common in our companionship  and so continual in mystery, are as one in this---that none knows whence the one or the other is come, or where any has the last excellence or differs save in the vibration of ecstacy, or whither the one of the other is gone, when the moment, on whose wings it came or on whose brows it stood revealed, is no lonber Eternity speaking the language of Time, but the silence of what is already timeless and no more.
It has been said, less wisely than disdainfully, that the chief element of beauty is destroyed when one know the secret of semblance.  Clouds, then, are forfeit in loveliness when one knows the causes of their transformation, their superb illusion?   Not so.  Has the rose lost in beauty, has she relinquished fragrance, for all that we have learned of her blind roots, the red ichor in her pettals, the green pigmant in her stem, her hunger that must be fed in coarse earth, her thirst that must be quenched in rain and dew, her desire that must mate with light?  Is the rainbow the less a lovely mystery beause we know that it is compact of the round, courlorless raindrops such as fall upon us in any shower?  Is the blue of an unclouded sky the less poignant for us if we know that the sunlight which inhabits it is there, not the yellow of red or suffused white which we discer, but itself an ineffaboe azure; that, there, the sun itself is not golden or amber or bronze, but violet-blue?
I remember it was complained once of something I wrote---in effect, that cloud was the visible breathing, the suspended breath of earth---that the simile was as inept as it was untrue. None who knows how cloud is formed will dispute the truth in similitude: as to disillusion, can that be "unpoetic" which is so strange and beautiful a thing? The breath of a little child born in the chill of dawn, the breath of old age fading into the soon untroubled surface of the mirror held against silent lips, the breath of the shepherd on the hills, of the seamen on dark nights under frost-blue stars, the breath of cows on the morning pastures, of the stag panting by the tarn, the breath of woods, of waters, of straths, of the plains, of the brows of hills, the breath of the grass, the breathing of the tremulous reed and the shaken leaf . . . are not these the continual vapour of life; and what is cloud but the continual breath of our most deep and ancient friend, the brown earth, our cradle, our home, and our haven?
If any reader wish to feel the invisible making of the cloud that shall afterward rise on white wings or stream like a banner from mountain-bastions, let him stand on the slopes of a furrowed hill in this midsummer season. He will then feel the steady, upflowing tide of the warm air from the low-lying glens and valleys, a constant tepid draught, the breath of the earth. It will not be long before the current which shook yonder rose-flusht briar, which swayed these harebells as foam is blown, which lifted yonder rowan-branch and softly trampled this bracken underfoot, is gathered by scaur and sudden corrie to the sheer scarps of the mountain-summit, to be impelled thence, as a geyser is thrown from an imperious fount, high into the cold and windy solitude: There it may suddenly be transmuted to an incalculable host of invisible ice-needles, and become cirrus; to float like thistledown, or to be innumerably scattered in wisps and estrays, or long "greymares'-tails," or dispersed like foam among vast,  turbulent shallows. Or it may keep to the lee-side of the mountain-summit, and stretch far like a serrated sword, or undulatingly extend like a wind-narrowed banner, covering as a flag the climbing armies of pine and boulder and the inscrutable array of shadow.
Cirrus . . .what a beauty there is in the familiar name: what beauty of association for all who love the pageant of cloud, and, loving, know somewhat of the science of the meteorologist. It is not alone in this: memory and imagination are alike stirred by the names of the three other of the four main divisions of Cloud---the Cumulus, the Stratus, the Nimbus. From the grey and purple of earthward nimbus to the salmon-pink bastions of the towering cumuli those unloosened mountains of the middle air, those shifting frontiers of the untravelled lands of heaven, and thence to the dazzling whiteness of the last frozen pinnacles of cirrus, all loveliness of colour may be found. Neither brush of painter nor word of poet can emulate those apparitions of gold and scarlet, of purple and emerald, of opal and saffron and rose, There every shade of dove-brown and willow-grey, every subterfuge of shadow and shine, can be seen.
The cloud-lover will know that these four great divisions are but terms of convenience. There are intervening children of beauty. Betwixt the earth-held, far-reaching nimbus and the climbing cumulus, whose forehead is so often bathed in the rarest fires of sunset, is the cumulonimbus. Between the cumulus and the stratus, whose habitual grey robe can be so swiftly made radiant in yellow and orange and burning reds, is the strato-cumulus: a sombre clan in the upper wilderness, heavy with brooding rains, moving in dark folds, less persuaded of the great winds which may drive the as silent seeming stratus, some ten thousand feet higher it may be, at the lightning speed of the eagle. Between the stratus and cirrus there are the cirrocumulus and the cirro-stratus. The former is in one form as commonly welcome as beautiful, the familiar "mackerel-sky," harbinger of fair weather---in another, it is the soft dappled sky that moonlight will turn into the most poignant loveliness, a wilderness of fleecy hillocks and delicate traceries. The latter is that drift-ice or broken-up snow-field enmassing which is so familiar. Both march from horizon to horizon in ordered majesty, though when they seem like idle vapours motionlessly suspended along the blue walls of heaven they are rustling their sheaves of frost-fire armour, are soaring to more than twenty thousand feet above the earth, and are surging onward with impetuous rush at the rate of from seventy to eighty miles an hour.
I have called them the children of beauty. But these children of cloud are many. In each division, in each subdivision, there is again complex division. In a Gaelic story or poem-saga they are called " the Homeless Clan." It is a beautiful name. But they are not homeless whom the great winds of the upper world eternally shepherd, who have their mortal hour in beauty and strength and force, and, instead of the havens and graves and secret places of the creatures of earth, know a divine perpetual renewal.