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La percepción de la distancia

Guillermo Mena

Text: Sofía Dourron

04.03.21 - 17.04.21

Like elephants listening to the clouds

Is it true in this light
almost snowy from a cottony garden
that floats, opens, and closes on the streets alone
in a pure childish fantasy?
The town under the clouds, Juan L. Ortiz

      In the middle of the Namib desert a herd of elephants stops abruptly, in unison, they spread their ears and turn their colossal bodies in the same direction, they are not scared, they are listening to the clouds. There are many animals and insects that have the sensory ability to anticipate weather events, in a human sense, they predict the weather, especially storms. Birds and bees disappear from the gardens hours before it rains, fire ants reinforce their nests by forming small mounds of earth, mosquitoes bite more ferociously. Studies on the hearing capacity of elephants have shown that these animals can perceive frequencies as low as the movement of clouds hundreds of kilometers away, and thus predict where it will rain and where they will be able to find the water they need to survive.

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      Instead, from the origin of humanity, we humans have chosen to look at the sky, and not just to predict the weather. We observe the stars and planets with laborious obsession, we created astronomical charts and knew that the Earth was round. We look
the stars to understand where we were standing, to move, to navigate and even to conquer foreign lands. Since we discovered agriculture, we have observed the sky and the position of the stars to keep track of time and plan crops. For centuries, much of the work of astronomical observatories.

     Westerners was dedicated to looking at the sky to know precisely the time of day and thus organize the functioning of society, work and production. Other ways of observing the sky organize not only the functioning of a society, but also its spiritual, religious and cultural life. It has been 300,000 years since humans have looked to the sky in order to survive on earth.

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      Clouds have been, throughout the history of sky observation, an elusive phenomenon, difficult to grasp, especially for sciences eager to name and classify. It took the science that powered enlightenment more than a century to colonize them. Clouds, changing ornaments, mutants, which hang from the sky and can disappear from one second to another, resisted being counted and named. It was not until 1803, when the young English pharmacist Luke Howard, a keen climate observer, published his On Modifying Clouds that an international language for naming clouds was established, one that eventually transcended their transient nature. Thus, what had previously vanished into thin air without materializing in a word began to be called cumulus, stratus, or cirrus, or a combination of the three previous categories: nimbus, the plump, rain-laden cloud.

     The scientific community took decades to accept these categories, it needed material and concrete evidence: it needed images that would declare their veracity and could be accumulated in the form of scientific knowledge. Albert Riggenbach was the first to successfully capture the image of the cirrus, and one of the creators of the first International Cloud Atlas in 1896, which featured 28 color plates accompanied by definitions and descriptions of clouds, as well as instructions for their Observation in Three Languages: A Landmark of Early Globalization. Once the first cloud was captured there was no going back. From that moment on, every cloud was global, static, and a combination of up to three possible categories. The pure and childish fantasy vanished between the pages of the atlas and no cloud could be unique and unrepeatable.

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     Nowadays, scientists continue to look at the clouds, however, that avid and imperial look of the 19th century has been replaced by a frantic, I would say, even desperate search. Laboratories reproduce clouds in large glass chambers, simulate them in climate models and calculate kilometer projections, trying to understand the role they play in the atmosphere and how they will react to climate change. There are those who seek to use clouds as cooling chambers for the Earth, others concerned about the uncertain effect of cosmic radiation on clouds and aerosols, many are concerned about the feedback between climate change and the reduction of clouds in the atmosphere.

    They all launch satellites into the stratosphere in the hope of breaking the vicious cycle of progress, that circle that has placed them in their laboratories, dressed in white coats, observing the chaos that progress has created. And maybe they can, maybe they can cool the earth. Or maybe not.

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      But, what would happen if, instead of recording the clouds in international atlases and satellite images, we only kept the imprint of change from them? What would happen if, like elephants, in addition to looking at the clouds, we listened to them? If we allowed them to be ephemeral and unique, if we tuned our senses and our bodies to their cottony movements. If instead of looking with our eyes, we look with all our senses. Anna Tsing calls this the "art of noticing," or perhaps the art of paying attention. In this era that geologists have called the Anthropocene, in which the human transformation of the Earth surpasses all geological forces, we cannot help but notice the precariousness and indeterminacy that surround us. We can observe the effects of our existence, but we can also listen to them, embrace their rhythms, draw their patterns on white sheets of paper. We can, perhaps, learn its fragility.

Sofia Dourron

Buenos Aires, March 2021

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