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Rants from the Hill: Words and Clouds

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Michael Branch | Jan 17, 2012 09:00 AM

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada’s western Great Basin desert.

Our corner of the western Great Basin is tucked into the rain shadow of the Sierra crest, which knocks the bottom out of those big, wet storms that rise in the Pacific and cross California’s central valley before pounding the Range of Light. Here in Silver Hills we average only seven inches of precipitation each year, while just up the mountain at Donner Pass the average is fifty-four inches, which falls in the form of thirty-five feet of snow—a detail that may be of special value if you happen to be travelling by wagon train and don’t have an appetite for the “other other” white meat. We don’t see many clouds above the Ranting Hill, where 300 days of sunshine each year ensure that our passive solar house remains self-heating until well into the cold nights we experience here at 6,000 feet. This winter has so far been especially clear and dry, making clouds in Silver Hills as scarce as city council members uncorrupted by real estate developers. And in an era in which everything I thought was stored on my computer is apparently kept in THE cloud, I find myself doubly troubled by these unbroken skies.

Lenticular cloudsAll this stunning high desert cloudlessness has me thinking about clouds. Stratus. Cirrus. Cumulus. Nimbus. These are names so lovely it occurs to me that we should have named our daughters after them. It would at least have made hollering at the kids more entertaining: “Cirrus and Nimbus, take out the trash!” Mostly, I’m envisioning the signature cloud of the western Great Basin, the lenticular. A lenticular is a high-elevation cloud that is flat on the bottom and gracefully arched across its domed top. It resembles a flying saucer, for which it is sometimes mistaken—especially here in rural Nevada, where so few of us are wholly sane, and where we lead the nation in both foreclosures and UFO sightings (are the feds covering up a relationship between the two?). A lenticular forms when the moist air pouring over the Sierra hits the dry air rising from the desert floor, creating a cloud that is essentially a standing wave made visible. As that moist air sweeps over the top of the cloud it vanishes into vapor, which is precisely what makes the lenticular so special: it never leaves home, as do other clouds, which drift across the sky. Lenticular clouds are instead the children of mountain and desert, and it is their essential nature to perish precisely where they are born and shaped, an aerial analog of the stunningly beautiful ecotone below them.

In the disturbing absence of both altocumuli and baseball season, my wandering writer’s mind has also turned to the peculiar kind of cloud known as a “word cloud.” A word cloud is a graphic representation of words commonly used in any given text—a word diagram that not only transforms language into visual art, but also employs font size to represent the frequency of each word’s use. So, for example, a word cloud of anything said by a presidential candidate would depict the word FREEDOM in 36-point type, while words like solar, endangered, poverty, or disarmament would languish in wee 10-point. Thinking about word clouds caused me to wonder if, like actual clouds, they might function as messengers, as bringers of news about fine weather or impending storms. I wondered if a word cloud might form around a writer’s sensibilities and values, not only exposing elements of style or voice, but perhaps revealing his secret dreams about this world as it is or as it should be.

To test this proposition I built a word cloud using the full text of a big handful of these monthly Rants from the Hill, selected randomly from the eighteen Rants that have appeared since the debut of the essay series in July, 2010. The results of my lexical experiment were surprising and also a little disturbing, and at first it was tough to discern the silver lining of my vaguely ominous word cloud. The first thing I noticed is my obsession with local flora and fauna, which may suggest that I’ve become a misanthrope. In fact, both misanthrope and curmudgeon appeared in the word cloud, along with the name of my most curmudgeonly neighbor, whom I consider an inspiration and role model. Even worse, it appears that I play favorites. Of the six native shrubs hereabouts, sage, rabbit brush, bitterbrush, ephedra, and desert peach all received air time, while gooseberry did not. For the record, gooseberry is a lovely little shrub in the currant family, rich with berries, excellent habitat for native birds and rodents, and often as beautifully domed as a lenticular cloud. What could I have against gooseberry that I should snub it in this way? Could it have been a superstitious association with an actual goose that once attempted to peck my eyes out?

Rant word cloud

And why do I write so much more about pronghorn than mule deer? Might it be that the pronghorn was the sole antelope-like ungulate to survive the massive Pleistocene extinctions and has thus evolved in this place over the past 20 million years—or is it just cool to write about something that can run 60 miles per hour? And why do I apparently prefer packrats to kangaroo rats? Could it be the fact that some fossil packrat midden sites in this area have seen continuous use for 50,000 years, and that the ancient objects collected by packrats are indispensible to our understanding of long-term climate change? And what of my obvious bias for jackrabbits over cottontails? Certainly this must be attributable to the fact that cute, slow animals like the cottontail seem so out of place in this harsh, beautiful environment that any sensible person would join me in rooting for their predators—those elegant, vicious owls and coyotes that are so well represented in the experimental Rant cloud.

It seemed to me that my rationale for these kinds of preferences was perfectly defensible. Unfortunately, this self-assurance lasted only until our two young daughters became involved in analysis of the word cloud. Eight-year-old Hannah began by observing that neither she nor her five-year old sister, Caroline, appeared anywhere in the word diagram. “That’s because I always refer to you as my daughters, which is right here,” I replied, pointing to a rather tiny daughters that appeared buried in the cloud. “Yeah, Dad, but daughters looks a lot smaller than chainsaw or weed whacker.” “Well, sure,” I replied, “but a weed whacker has a hundred and one uses. How many uses do you have?” Wisely ignoring me, Hannah went on to point out that daughters also appeared smaller than tractor, pickup, shotgun, snowshoes, and baseball. Before I could mount a defense, my wife Eryn chimed in that beer and even IPA were also larger than anybody in the family, and that whiskey was among the most beloved words even when bourbon was not also taken into consideration. And then came the coup de grâce: little Caroline noticed a word she could sound out and asked why scat also appeared larger than daughters. Sensing my impending loss in this battle of words I beat a hasty retreat to my beer fridge to snag an IPA, quoting as I did from my patron saint, Mark Twain: “Never argue with a fool; onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.” This filched witticism wasn’t a great fit, but I rationalized that writers, like children, must always have the last word. Besides, now fool might appear in my next Rant word cloud, which seemed somehow encouraging. (And if it didn’t, I could engage in word cloud seeding: fool, fool, fool, fool, fool!)

While the word cloud experiment offered a painful reminder of how rarely I win an argument (even with small children), it also revealed how home-grown my prose is, and in that sense the cloud offered a salutary reminder that writing can function not only as a description of local environments but also as a means to cultivate and celebrate our connections to them. As what supergeeks would call “weighted keyword metadata,” my Rant cloud is literally created by desert diction, by words like playa, caliche, arroyo, midden, aridity, zephyr, foothill, and canyon. In some profound sense, Great Basin and home must appear equally gigantic because to me they signify the same thing. The prominence of wind, snow, and fire must reflect the presence of those forces in this extreme landscape and in the wild imaginations of those of us who choose to inhabit it—just as surely as must the absence of rainclouds. If as a writer I’m less dreary than a stratus and less fluffy than a cumulus, neither am I as productive as a nimbus or so lofty as a cirrus. Ultimately my word cloud reveals a lexical and lyrical lenticular—something sculpted here in this montane-desert ecotone, and always on the move in order to remain in place.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.

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Image of lenticular clouds courtesy Flickr user  C. Moses

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