Thursday, December 29, 2016

Curdled sky


     Every morning I walk the dog. Were walking the dog a chore, I would dragoon my wife to help. But I am habitually awake far earlier than she, and enjoy walking the dog, as it involves two of my favorite pastimes: walking and the dog. 
     So I do it. Heading down the front walk, sometimes the dog will tack left, curling around the house north toward the library, a route I don't mind because I get to pass my Lake Superior hemlock tree, and note with approval its steady progress skyward. But we typically go right, a standard route -- three blocks down, a block over, and three blocks back. 
    Dogs like routine. As do humans. I make a point to always grab a few old blue newspaper bags before we go, to clean up after the dog—let the Internet try expropriating that important journalistic function. Some dog walkers are careless in this, but I am not. Once, forgetting bags, I used my handkerchief, throwing it away afterward. 
    I seldom forgot a bag after that. What I don't always remember is my phone, a lapse I only think of when confronted with something I'd like to take a photo of, like the banded sky above. I couldn't recall seeing clouds so evenly striped in straight lines like that, and wanted to record it. Clouds don't stick around, typically, waiting to be documented. But when I returned home, I puzzled the dog by leaving her in the foyer, bolting upstairs, grabbing my phone in my office, and heading back outside. Finding the best spot for observing an unbroken expanse of sky, I stood next to a neighbor's house, snapping happily away, until I paused, realizing that I was standing five feet from a brightly-lit window, worried my interest in clouds might be misconstrued, and retreated home.  ("Truly officer, it was an intriguing banded effect....") 
    I plugged "striped clouds" and "banded clouds" into Google and didn't find much. A bunch of chitchat, none of it definitive. But my copy of Fogs and Clouds came through almost immediately. Published in 1926, written by W. J. Humphreys, identified on the title page as the Meteorological Physicist of the United States Weather Bureau, author of Physics of the Air; Weather Proverbs and Paradoxes, Rainmaking and Other Weather Vagaries—who among us wouldn't snap that up in an instant?—among other works.
      The book contains 93 photographs, in stunning black and white, "Radiation fog" and "Billow cloud" and "Cumulus boa," and flipping through them I came to No. 27, a "Cirro-culmulus" that has the same striations as my cloud. 
    Okay, it might not be exactly the same -- Humphreys' looks whispier, and mine seems denser, and more wintry. But it seems very close.
    Cirro-cumulus, Humphreys relates, are "arranged in groups and often in lines," and often referred to, at least in the world Humphreys traveled, as a "mackerel sky," because:
    The term "mackerel sky" is an abbreviation of "mackerel-back sky," so named because of the frequent resemblance of rows of cirro-cumuli to the patterns (not the scales) on the backs of one or more species of mackerel. When the cirro-cumuli are small, numerous, and without order or pattern, they often are called "curdled sky."    
     Which would have the average Chicagoan trying to picture a mackerel. Don't feel bad; I couldn't conjure one up either. Here you go. 
     Interesting word, "mackerel." Disappears into antiquity, at least 700 years old, with the Oxford Dictionary not even hazarding a guess where it might be from, noting that "mackerel sky" is at least 300 years old. ("Mackerel" has also been a synonym for "pimp" for at least 500 years, again for reasons mysterious). 
     A common enough word to inspire a host of sayings—of course you know "Holy Mackerel," a softening of "Holy Mary" with a nod to the Catholic preference for fish on Friday's thrown in (One obscure slang for Catholics was "mackerel-snappers.")  An article in the London Sunday Dispatch from 1936, cited in Supplement One of H.L. Mencken's The American Language claims that London swells had stopped using profanity, and instead were inserting names of flowers and animals, preserving this supposed snippet of their cleaned-up conversation: "Hullo, you old baked walnut. How goes the mackerel-footed flea?"
     Dryden refers to a "mackerel-gale" which Samuel Johnson, in his great 1755 dictionary, guesses means "a strong breeze, such, I suppose, as is desired to bring mackerel fresh to market." 
     Which had to be done quickly, because mackerel were famous for spoiling fast. In his definition of the word, Johnson quotes this bit of verse, from William King's 1709 Art of Cookery: "Law ordered that the Sunday should have rest; And that no nymph her noisy food should sell, Except it were new milk or mackerel." What good is observing the Lord's Day if it results in bad fish?
     Plus there are a variety of similes, "silent as a mackerel," which needs no explanation. 
     You see why the fish is used to describe the clouds. But how do the clouds get those mackerelish rows? That's the aspect that really caught my attention, these broad lines conveyed across the heaven in such regularity. What's the mechanism for that? What holds them together? Humphreys, as if reading our minds, is right there with an answer:
     Those occurring in rows presumably are on the crests of air waves or billows at the interface between wind layers of unequal speeds or different directions, or both, and commonly unequal in temperature and humidity.
     Does that make sense to you? Me neither. But then again, I have a bad cold—been battling it for days; I figure, I picked it up on Lower Wacker Drive last Thursday, visiting the homeless.
     Or maybe I'm just blaming them, post hoc ergo propter hoc. Maybe I caught it from a rich swell at a fancy restaurant. Either way, the last thing Humphreys says about cirro-cumuli (yeah, I dig using the plural) is "they are quite thin and contain but little cloud material."
     Which is about how I'm feeling. So my last question is this: did I truly never see such banded clouds before? Or did I see them but didn't notice? My guess is the former, since seeing them this week drew such immediate interest. But you never know. Have you ever seen any? Perhaps they were there, but I was not in the proper spirit to receive their presence. People often confuse what's going on inside with what's going on outside, such as all those Democrats convinced that our nation went through some kind of epic change over the past two months, when what actually happened was we all suddenly looked up and really noticed how curdled the sky had become.


  1. I used to work in the Amoco Bldg. or Aon Center, whatever it's called now, on the 65th floor. I wasted a great deal of time looking out at the Lake and north LSD. I became fascinated with the strange and interesting weather I could actually see happening. Low clouds where you could see rain falling from them, or lightening in the distance over the Lake. Once it was a beautiful sunny day with one tiny whispy white cloud hanging over the city. Suddenly the cloud started growing and turning gray and mean looking and the blue was totally gone and it started storming - it took maybe 5 minutes. I saw a storm with this yellow air actually move across the city and hit the building. Ground fog with just the tops of buildings peeking out. I miss that. Weather on the ground floor isn't nearly as interesting.

  2. It's a joy to read this blog. Very James Burke of you.

  3. By the way, mackerel is quite tasty and good for the heart as well. Stinks up the house in the cooking, however, so says the wife.


  4. I'm familiar with the term "mackerel sky" though I mistakenly thought it referred to the fish's scales up 'til now. My fondest memory of this phenomena is from many years back. I used to walk my dogs in the evening and enjoyed observing sunsets from a high point at my local park. I vividly remember a wispy mackerel sky broken through with rays from the setting sun. After the sun disappeared, the reds and pinks outlining the lines and billows were stunning. I wish I had a picture, but I don't think a photo could do it justice.

  5. Fascinating, though the photo atop this post doesn't look quite like a "curdled" sky to me but rather a "mackerel", or (Neil's adjective) "banded" sky, since the definition of "curdle" is "separate or cause to separate into curds or lumps." I thought of cheese curds or cottage cheese. Just my opinion, of course :)


  6. Let me recommend the Cloud Appreciation Society,, and the charming Cloud Collectors Handbook


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