The Man With His Head in the Clouds (Quite Literally)


Gavin Pretor-Pinney distinctly remembers the time he traveled halfway across the world to the middle of nowhere.

To see a cloud.

A few years ago, he trekked from his home in the English countryside to the Australian outback to see a Morning Glory cloud, which stretches horizontally across the sky like tubes, a rather rare phenomenon. They look like elongated cotton balls, if you pulled a bunch of them apart and placed them next to each other, rising and sinking like ocean waves along the horizon.

Morning-Glory-1993-Kangaroo-Point

A Morning Glory cloud approaching Kangaroo Point in Australia, 1993. (Photo: Russell White)

“It’s a mecca for glider pilots who go there to surf this cloud,” Pretor-Pinney explained. They form in different parts of the world, but this one stretched hundreds of miles in length. “When I first got there, it was looking dicey. I was worried I would have to go home and say I just saw a blue sky.”

For Prettor-Pinney, clouds aren’t just a hobby anymore; they’re his business. The Cloud Appreciation Society operates from an office adjacent to his barn in Somerset, UK, which is covered in cloud posters and has a big etched hand pointing up toward the sky.

It doesn’t take much prompting for Prettor-Pinney to begin waxing poetic: “Clouds don’t just get in the way of the sun, they are the most dynamic and poetic aspect of nature.” His idea for the society arose as a joke in 2004, and has since taken on a life — and membership base — of its own. In fact, it’s given quite a meteoric jolt to how we classify the wispy white stuff above us.

GavinPretorPinney-Thumb

“Clouds are intriguingly contradictory. They look like objects, but they’re not; they’re droplets or ice crystals,” says Gavin Pretor-Pinney.

Age: 47
Based in: Somerset, UK
Graduated from: Studied philosophy at Oxford University; Master’s in graphic design from Central Saint Martins in London

Previous jobs: My education went from geeky science to more visual artsy, which has influenced the direction of my working life. I started as a designer and art director, and began a magazine with a friend called The Idler. It was about how you can, in some senses, be most productive when you’re not working, when you’re doing nothing. We ran it together for 17 years or so, and he’s still running it though now I’m doing cloud stuff instead. I’ve also worked in various creative roles with brands like The Guardian, Channel 4 News, and PlayStation.

When you say “doing cloud stuff,” most people might think of cloud computing. But that’s not the type of cloud you deal with. The Cloud Appreciation Society started as an idea more than a business, almost without any planning. A bit over 10 years ago, I gave a talk at a festival in Cornwall, which I called the Inaugural Lecture of the Cloud Appreciation Society — just to make it sound more interesting, to make it odd enough for people to want to go. It worked. Then, when everyone said they’d join [such a society], it made me realize that we do need something like it. From a well-being point of view, it’s good be to reminded to value the mundane things that are so vast and present in our everyday lives that we take them for granted.

How did you go about harnessing that public interest into a business? Initially, it was free to be a member; the whole thing was completely open. I started working on my first book, The Cloudspotter’s Guide, and the society continued as a funny idea. Then I started charging a small amount to become a member, but I was still making my living as an author. Over the past year, I’ve shifted to concentrating on the society full-time. That’s partly because of changes in the publishing industry, but I also realized the society has all the right ingredients for working more as a business than an art project. It has a community that is passionate, who is emotionally connected to the subject of the sky. It’s a niche that is clearly delineated, not weather in general. Right from the start, it’s been very focused. And since I’ve been doing this for 10 years, I’ve become known for this subject. It’s transition time right now, going from clouds being a hobby to a job.

Gabriele-Venturi

A storm system illuminated by lightning over Verona, Italy, July 2016. (Photo: Gabriele Venturi, CAS submission)

What’s the current membership model? Membership is $19.45 per year with a $12 sign-up fee. For that, you’ll get a newsletter; enamel membership badge and membership certificate; cloud-a-day service; cloud ID wheel; and a discount at the Cloud Shop. To be a supporting member, it’s $35.30 per year with a $12 sign-up fee, which is also free access to our video courses and web conferences.

Current membership count: More than 40,000.

Has your head always been — pardon the pun here, but I have to — up in the clouds? When I was a kid, there was nothing strange about it. Clouds are great stimulants to the imagination; ancient Greeks were amused by the idea of finding shapes in clouds. I remember being driven to school by my mom at age 5, seeing fingers of sunlight bursting from behind a large puffy cumulus, wondering what it was made of, and what it would be like to sit on.

That interest has remained with me. Because of the way we first engage with clouds when we’re young, the relationship people have with the sky goes deep and feels emotional in a way you don’t get with other aspects of the physical world. It has nothing to do with language or geography. The same formations are observed across most of the world. The relationship with the sky is universal, but the subject matter feels personal, which is a really good combination.

How many people work for the society full-time? I have a guy who manages our photo gallery of about 18,000 photos that people send in — which might be the biggest online catalogued collection of cloud photos, all tagged under the right type. I have someone helping with the online shop who comes into the office and deals with membership. I have someone who answers emails. Those people are paid. Then there’s volunteer input from moderators, like the people who make the app work.

The app where people can send in cloud photos. Yes. It lets you take photos of clouds you’re looking at and upload them to your account. Then you’ll hear back within a day or so whether you identified it right or not (you’ll get stars and badges if you were right). That happens by a team of society members who know their clouds, not a computer algorithm. They log in and go through each image that comes in. It transforms this lofty thing into a competitive sport. A lot of the help feels like the Wizard of Oz when they pull back the curtain.

Have the volunteers ever gotten stumped? Actually, the photos have led to a new classification of cloud. We use the World Meteorological Organization’s system for naming clouds, but we kept seeing these wavy clouds that looked very turbulent, which didn’t fit with the normal undulatus clouds. The WMO was hassled about it, and ultimately decided to do a new edition of Cloud Atlas and add it as a new class called asperitas (Latin for “roughness”). That new edition is due to come out in 2017. It’s the first new cloud type since 1951, and it came from citizen science.

Kevin-Wesbroom

A sunset over Linven National Park, Montenegro, July 2016. (Photo: Kevin Wesbroom, CAS submission)

I imagine your office space just being in a wide open field somewhere. That’s not too far off. I live in a barn in Somerset, in the countryside, and the edge is an adjoined office. We have cloud posters and there’s a big etched hand pointing up toward the sky. It’s a stone office surrounded by fields, so it feels like sky is all around. The cloud is one of the most egalitarian of nature’s displays; you don’t need to be anywhere special to be able to look up at the sky.

Best part of your job: The community. It’s a real range in members, with more of an emphasis on women than men, but of all ages. Some are interested in clouds from a science point of view, while others are from an artistic one. Since humans have been around, we look to the sky and want answers. Some people associate clouds with deities; they think it’s a place to see who is pulling strings behind our backs. People want answers about how clouds reveal the moods of the atmosphere.

Most challenging part of your job: It’s not easy doing the transition I’m doing now, turning this into a business. I want to make sure the spirit of the society endures and works in a way that takes everyone with me.

The most misunderstood thing most about clouds: The human brain becomes blind to them. Looking up isn’t something we naturally do. The result is that people only notice clouds when they get in the way of the sun and cast a shadow, like when you’re sitting on the beach. Then we come to associate them with obstructions, which is why clouds are often used metaphorically as “hanging over your head.” Cloudspotting is a great antidote to that, to pay attention to the sky in positive way. It can also be very valuable because of its aimless nature.

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A lenticular ‘pile up’ over Schleiz, Germany, 2016. (Photo: Juergen Klimpke, CAS submission)

Can you ever go outside and not analyze the clouds? My relationship with the sky has changed. It’s become work. It’s great to take something you enjoy and turn it into a job, but you also have to be aware that thing will become imbued with work connotations. I have to remind myself to not always analyze the type of cloud I see. Now, when I see something unusual in the sky, I don’t scramble for my phone; I’m more present and capture it in my mind.

CLOUDSPOTTING TIPS FOR NEWBIES>>

  1. Getting to know the man-imposed names of clouds is useful, but clouds are in a constant state of metamorphosis, which mocks our attempts to put them into categories.
  2. Take a few moments each day to stop what you’re doing and look up, and don’t plan it out. The sky doesn’t work like that. Let it happen when the moment is there. Clouds tend to change relatively slowly, compared to the human pace of life.
  3. The best place to go cloudspotting is your backyard. It’s about frame of mind rather than being in a special place. Even within an urban environment like New York City, the sky is still a resource available to you. Urban cloudspotting is as legitimate as in the countryside, just with more distractions.

You can find out more about the Cloud Appreciation Society on its Facebook page.

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One thought on “The Man With His Head in the Clouds (Quite Literally)

  1. Pingback: The Cloud Appreciation Society | The Man With His Head in the Clouds (Quite Literally)

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