Riverdave's Journal
The Herald-Sun
May 2, 1999

          I find paddling a river to be very complementary to walking along its shores. When I walk, for the most part, I must train my eyes downward for careful placement of the feet. Along a path are bulging tree roots, rocks, unlevel terrain, poison ivy, ticks, chiggers and the only venomous snake along the Eno River, the copperhead. To keep from stumbling or just to stay on guard for these terrestrial challenges, I have to keep a downward gaze most of the time. This, of course, is excellent for exploring the surface of the earth.

          But while relaxed in a semireclined position in my inflatable waft, I assume a predominantly upward gaze. If I am wafting on a mill pond where there are no rapids, I need only an occasional glance at the surface to maintain my course. My vision is free to explore the canopy. If I am in an area of open water or on larger rivers, I am also unrestrained to explore the sky with only minimal attention to the area below.

          Here in the Carolina Piedmont, there is very little open space to find the sky. With the slow abandonment of agriculture in the 20th century, much of the area outside of urban centers has returned to forest. I usually have to hunt for a natural open area to have an upward gaze. The open expanse above a river is an important place to find that sky, and while relaxed in my boat, I can become especially engrossed with wafting clouds.

          Puffy, white masses of moisture gently moving across my span of vision ... can there be a more soothing motion? I find that if I have been away from cloud watching for some time, my return to this activity is like food to my famished eyes. If this has been the case, I am usually not aware of the separation until I am back on an open river  looking upward. Then, suddenly, I am reminded how much I have missed my friends the clouds and how important is their ethereal presence to the well being of my spirit.

          My favorite place for wafting clouds is above the Amazon River.  It is several miles wide, so at any given moment I am able to observe dozens of huge cumulus clouds scattered across its horizon.

          The three-decked Brazilian river boat known as the gaiola is an excellent mode of transportation on the Amazon. Freight is carried on the lower deck and passengers in hammocks on the middle deck. The top deck is usually left open for passengers to sit and gaze across the river and into the sky. From this upper deck, I have enjoyed the spread of clouds to the distant horizons on numerous occasions.

          The shapes of clouds are something most parents enjoy puzzling with their children. I well remember my mother and my grandmother, both of whom were artists, picking out sheep, rabbits, snowflakes and other depictions with me as a child. I carried that tradition forward with my children as well. However, I have the feeling that if no parent had ever taught me how to engage in cloud art, I would have spontaneously practiced it anyway. It comes so easily and naturally, almost instinctually. It surely must be one of those universal activities that all humans participate in.

          I know that peoples of some cultures divine by cloud shapes. One will gaze at the sky and wait until a particular animal form take shape. Once the animal is recognized, one ponders what that animal might mean symbolically to the diviner at that moment in his or her life. For instance, if a turtle forms in the clouds, it might suggest to the diviner that one should proceed slowly in an important pending matter. I have used this approach to divination myself on a number of occasions in recent years.

          Watching clouds can teach us much about the weather. Since I have been paddling rivers, I have become more and more interested in weather patterns. Encouraging one's senses to attempt to forecast the weather is an excellent exercise, one I am fine tuning all the time. The direction of cloud movement speaks much about an oncoming weather front. The shape of a cloud reveals its potential to release moisture, and its color portends its readiness to do so.

          Henry Thoreau mentions this phenomenon in his journal: "We had half a dozen distinct summer showers, from black clouds suddenly wafted up from the west and northeast, and also thunder and large hail."

          In ten years of wafting, I have had only one incident of being hailed upon. But it began exactly as Thoreau described, with distinct black clouds that suddenly wafted up from the west. It was quite a frightening experience for my wafting party which included small children. We were forced to drag our boats ashore and crawl under them to keep from being pelted and to prevent being chilled in the middle of the summer.

          I find that the upward gaze of my attention frequently causes my emotions and spirit to follow right in line. To become a watcher of wafting clouds is to have one's spirit buoyed and wafted along as well.

          Although I have long ceased to believe that the ultimate spiritual destination of heaven is a great “pie in the sky by and by,” I still sense that upward is a direction to which we all need to frequently turn. The clouds, from above, look down on our lives and see and understand the bigger context in which we live, reminding us that we are connected with all of life in infinite ways. It is that sky borne, heavenly reflection of the Earth that wafting clouds speak so eloquently when I shift my gaze upward.

Photo by Riverdave: Cloud gazing on the Amazon River in Peru ...