Thursday, December 15, 2011

Much Ado about Nothings

or The Power of Fluff

Such a tiny feather, just a 3/4" bit of down that was as white and billowy as a fair-weather cloud.  It came to roost among the thyme-leaf speedwell early last month and stayed for several days.  Next to its airy softness, the speedwell leaves looked thick and heavy; not for them the joy of floating effortlessly on a breeze.  The feather rippled in winds so slight that they were imperceptible to me, dressed against a November morning.  Even when I set my hand right next to it, I wasn't sure whether I was feeling a breath of wind or of imagination.  But then, down is especially good at trapping air, at holding it close against a beating heart, a small body of hollow bones and flight feathers and hunger, where it can warm and insulate.  It is a cushion against the jagged edges of frost.

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Late in November the lone seedpod on the milkweed finally burst.  I have never yet been able to resist the feel of the seeds' downy floss, and its touch sent me instantly back to childhood:  pressing my thumb along the inside seam of a seedpod to break it open, easing apart the featherbed inside and teasing out the individual seeds, then sending them flying, one by one, on a breath.  Those days, I wasn't particularly interested in the seeds, only in the parachutes that held them so magically aloft in ways that the swingsets at school just couldn't manage. I didn't give a thought to the responsibility those bits of fluff carried with them, to keep their own lifeline going.  But they did teach me the joy of occasionally casting your fate to the winds.

Thyme-leaf speedwell (Veronica oltensis)

The speedwell didn't mind the frost the other morning any more than it had minded the feather.  Just to give you a sense of scale, its leaves are only about 1/8 inch across.  The ice crystals on them are tiny, indeed.  Some had been just pinpoints of water vapor before alighting on the colder surfaces of the leaves, where they condensed and froze.  It's hard to believe such delicate particles had the power at their backs to fell the milkweed overnight, to cast it into a deep sleep as surely as a bite from a magic apple.  

Even mid-December has days of fair-weather clouds—"decorative clouds", as one of my favorite weather forecasters calls them.  You don't expect any moisture from them, and they don't really get in the way of the sunshine.  They just cast softly shifting patterns across the sky that mesmerize you with their fluidity.  They float along in such an easy way, like milkweed seeds held aloft and slowly spinning, drifting on the wind.   That effortless buoyancy, though, belies their enormity.  They carry 350,000,000,000 water droplets per cubic foot (according to the The Cloudspotter's Guide).  "Modest-sized clouds" weigh as much as a 747 or possibly 6,268.75 blue whales—about as many as you can shake a fish at in a day.  Even smallish clouds stretch to a kilometer in diameter.

And from here they look as light and insubstantial as a bit of down.


  1. Beautifully observed post again, Stacy. i love the way you link it together. Isn't it interesting how some things take us instantly back to childhood? I still can't resist blowing at a dandelion seed head and chanting the childhood poems...

  2. "Decorative clouds" - you really do miss them when they're gone. I spent two months travelling through Europe when I was 20. And for the final couple of weeks, while in Turkey and Rhodes, I didn't see a cloud. Not one. When, I finally did see them again, on Mykonos, it was really quite startling. (And I hate myself for being pedantic but did you mean to say one 747 is equal to 6268.75 blue whales? That's a lot of whales!).

    Pleased the feather hung around for several days. It fitted so well.

  3. So beautifully written - again! As Janet noted, you have linked the story so well and added the perfect photographs. I do wonder if you lie flat on your stomach on frozen ground to get some of them!!

  4. Our clouds have slipped away. Let's pretend it's winter has morphed into no no summer IS here.

  5. Thank you, Janet. Dandelion clocks are pretty irresistible… I love things like that, that aren’t just memories but are pleasures in their own right, resonating with childhood’s memories, too. (If that makes any sense.)

    Dave, yes, it’s mostly when someone overdecorates with them that the clouds are a nuisance. I’d never have become a badge-carrying member of the Cloud Appreciation Society in Vermont… Even beautiful blue sky can end up feeling a bit stark after a while, though Rhodes under a cloudless sky sounds like the stuff of dreams. My sister was in Turkey back in the days of film cameras and had to do a lot of creative things to compensate for the intensity of the sun. (I think they mostly involved filters.)

    By all means, be pedantic! I was actually thinking of the 747 and blue whales as alternates because I didn’t know which website to go by but didn’t make that clear. The real problem seems to be that there’s no particular standard for cloud sizes—the Cloudspotter’s Guide suggests 550 elephants, and none of those work out as equivalents to each other.

    Karen, thank you. As a matter of fact, I was lying flat to take the feather picture, but it wasn’t quite as cold out then… I used a little tripod for the frost photo, which let me hang on to a teeny bit more dignity.

    Diana, eventually the season just reaches that Point of No Return… If we averaged out our two climates today, we would have perfect autumn (or spring) weather. Give those roses a little extra TLC.

  6. I'm pleased as punch with the butterfly weed I have growing here. (It's in the milkweed family, I believe...?) It's just so darn FUN -- sprouts late, so it's extra exciting when it appears; great orange flowers (important for Illinois fans); can be infested with fascinating pests; and all that *before* the pods...

    But I digress. Down is so distracting that way... :)

  7. Stacy I loved releasing seeds a child and following them; laying on the grass and watching the clouds slip away slowly, shifting. Lovely thoughts of fluff and its power..

  8. Stacy - Beautifully written. "But they did teach me the joy of occasionally casting your fate to the winds." - I wonder if you need to be covered by insurance to do that ...

  9. I love how you make a story out of a bit of feather alighting among thyme. it shows the joy of noticing the small things. Fascinating information about the clouds' weight. I had no idea! Lovely images, too! Everything's so soft - no prickly cacti anywhere :)

  10. Kathy, I bet that orange also looks just gorgeous with all that GREEN you have out there. Do the fascinating pests include hordes of greeny-yellow aphids, by any chance? J & E must have a ball with the seeds.

    Donna, watching clouds is too often another of those "lost" pleasures of childhood. Glad you enjoyed the post.

    b-a-g, thank you. Oh, it would be lovely if there were an insurance to cover fate-casting!

    Sheila, no, not a prickly kind of post at all! And thank you--this was a fun one to write.