Mackerel sky


Can you read the sky? This one is a sign that means “unreadable” — a mackerel sky.

An altocumulus mackerel sky or mackerel sky is an indicator of moisture (the cloud) and instability (the cumulus form) at intermediate levels (2400-6100 m, 8000-20,000 ft). If the lower atmosphere is stable and no moist air moves in, the weather will most likely remain dry. However, moisture at lower levels combined with surface temperature instability can lead to rainshowers or thunderstorms should the rising moist air reach this layer. There is an old saying, “Mackerel sky, mackerel sky. Never long wet and never long dry.”

Beautiful, isn’t it? Let’s face it, stability and uniformity are boring.

talus rock 3

Take rocks. Rocks are far from the paragons of stability we imagine them to be. Go for a walk across a boulder field sometime — it’s easy to lose your balance. Some rocks like to rock, some rocks like to roll, and you just have to keep movin’ and groovin’, as the song says. There are boulder fields in eastern Pennsylvania full of rocks that ring when struck, emitting clear, resonant tones. People come with mallets and go rock-hopping in search of a perfect pitch. Here on the mountain most of the rocks play dead, but some sleep with one eye open.

talus rock 2

If you can’t put your trust in a rock, what else is there? A cipher, perhaps. The abstract truth of numbers. But somehow the mind rebels, and the numbers begin to take on completely extraneous qualities: sexy 6, owlish 8, 55 a pair of drummer’s brushes. 49 seems inexplicably tastier than 48. We could paint by numbers, green and green and green.

numbered laurel leaves

“It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know,” Thoreau once wrote in his journal. “I do not get nearer by a hair’s breadth to any natural object so long as I presume that I have an introduction to it from some learned man. To conceive of it with a total apprehension I must for the thousandth time approach it as something totally strange.”

Total, totally: as if from heterogeneous reality to derive some unity, some gestalt. That too, says my inner Ecclesiastes, is so much empty grasping at the wind.

Mayan head

If each morning you could forget everything, including language itself, and could be reborn in a world free of signs, what would you see? Faces. Everywhere. We make the strange familiar simply by coming to dwell in its fishy midst. We cast our lines skyward, in hopes of landing the elusive holy mackerel.

16 Replies to “Mackerel sky”

  1. We saw the mackeral sky over here at about 1700 EDT Sunday. Have you ever taken notice of sun dogs? I used to see them occasionally from the hawk watch at Council Cup overlooking the North Branch Susky and the village of Wapwallopen, Luzerne County. Sometimes, TVs would float through the “dog.”

  2. Alan – Actually, that photo was from August 20 — I don’t remember a mackerel sky on Sunday, but then again i was probably inside all agog at my newfound Internet access. I mostly see sun dogs in the winter, I think.

    (BTW, for people who aren’t birders, TVs = turkey vultures)

    Brett – Thanks for reminding me! I meant to include it in my sadly neglected “Via negativa” category.

  3. This intensely lovely post left me wholly pie-eyed. Oh, I have questions about some of the pics…but I’ll take a minute, or seven, and just sit happily, quietly, enjoying the ambiguity.

  4. Am I the only nature nut around who’s never seen a sun dog? I’ve looked & looked to no avail…

    btw, what’s the last photo? I’m assuming it’s a macro shot of some sort of fungus?

  5. Lori – I’m very flattered that you should think well of my photography. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Lorianne – Well, they’re not as spectacular as rainbows, of course, but good, bright ones are hard to miss and can last for quite a while, as long as the sun continues to shine strongly through a scrim of the right sort of ice-bearing cirrus. As often as you have to walk Reggie, in all kinds of weather, I’m really surprised you’ve never seen one. Maybe this winter?

    BTW, The Wikipedia article has some interesting quotes about sun dogs, including from Jakob Hutter, founder of the Anabaptist sect the Hutterites, who evidently saw them as a sign from God. So maybe you just need to get right with Jesus.

    The last photo is a close-up of a mushroom that had been partly eaten by a snail or slug (hence the film of mucous covering the “eye”). The numbered laurel leaves, as I mention at the Flickr page, are a part of a study of mountain laurel being conducted on our property.

  6. qrr – Glad you liked the rocks. I noticed that no one was looking at the photos in Flickr (and why should they? I do nothing to promote my page), so i thought I better write them up.

    Bill – Hey, free publicity is ALWAYS welcome! Mimetolith was a new word for me – thanks for that, too. I don’t know how pits like that form — small intrusions in the parent material (quartzite) that weather out, perhaps.

    mb – Thanks. I wasn’t too happy with this post yesterday — it seemed like the same stuff I’ve said before, given a slightly new twist — but all these positive comments are making me think a little better of it.

  7. Nice post and wonderful photos, Dave! I’ve always enjoyed mackeral clouds.

    I’ve seen sun-dogs maybe half-a-dozen times.

    The next time I’m near the east coast I want to check out those resonant rocks.

  8. Dave,

    I am sure you would be rewarded by going to the stone list I linked and opening the post from Tomas Lipps entitled “Ringing Stones”. He gives links to two stone temples with musical columns and links to the developement of a stone xylophone in Scotland in the 19th century.
    Also a link to a writer in Iowa City writing a history of rock music and I quote:

    ‘Rock music makes its big-screen debut in What’s Up, Doc?, starring Barbara Streisand, Ryan O’Neal, and Madeline Kahn. O’Neal plays Dr. Howard Bannister, a musicologist whose bag of resonant igneous rocks gets switched with identical luggage en route to San Francisco. A sample of the dialogue: “It so happens, Mr. Simon, that Howard had discussions with Mr. Bernstein about the possibility of conducting an avalanche in E flat.â€? ‘

  9. Larry – Thanks. Ringing Rocks County Park in Bucks County, PA is the easiest site to find, I think — and not all that far from Philly.

    Bill – Someone should start a blog carnival for rocks and stones. I’d contribute!

    ixchel – Very cool. This comment thread is turning into a real education! Who know that so many people felt so passionately about rocks and clouds? God, I love the Internet.

  10. Great photos and post. What’s with the numbers on the plant?? It reminded me somehow of those little folded paper fortune tellers we used to make as kids. Love the rocks. The skies have been very interesting around here lately. Maybe it’s just all the time I’ve spent commuting – the cloud formations as I head due west on the turnpike after work have been fascinating.

  11. Thanks, Leslee. I don’t know anything more than what I say at the Flickr page (“In the on-going mountain laurel study being conducted inside and outside our three-acre deer exclosure, a paid assistant has written numbers, 1-100, on the leaves of a whole bunch of bushes.”) I think it has something to do with an attempt to gauge the effects of deer herbivory. We don’t see the scientist in charge of the study all that often, just his assistants.

    I think you Massachusetts kids must’ve more sophisticated than us hicks here in central PA. We made those things too, but rather than telling fortunes with them, we used them to catch cooties (which only girls had, of course) – a real basic parlor trick.

    I remember the sky being one of the outstanding features of my commute to Penn State, back in the day. But driving straight into the sunrise, at certain times of the year, is a real killer. Especially if the highway is wet!

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