Mountain Vapors

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In August 2022, my wife and I had the sublime privilege of hiking in the Canadian Rockies, urging our aging bodies forward, putting one foot in the front of the other along incessantly uphill trails. We established a daily routine not unlike preparing to go off to work: get up early to beat the crowds; pack our cameras, snacks, water, bear spray, and hiking poles; and drive to the trailhead in hopes of securing a place to park.

Without knowing quite why, I found myself raising my camera often to frame the clouds that formed above and around the majestic peaks. My wife asked me if I thought the clouds and mountains were “in dialogue” (they were, at least meteorologically). Taking inspiration from Joni’s Mitchell’s song “Both Sides Now”, I certainly appreciated the diverse emotional moods of different formations, some light and fluffy while others dark and stormy. Some clouds evoked a sense of letting go while others appeared to be bottling up strong emotions inside.

It wasn’t until after we returned home to Maryland that I appreciated the irony of focusing my heavy camera on airy mountain clouds while trudging along those steep trails to our purely self-imposed destination. As I viewed the images that I had made, I thought back to those hikes and wondered, were the clouds gently bemused by my continuous striving against gravity as I scrambled over and around the rocks that impeded my forward progress? Can I perhaps treat challenges more as clouds than as rocks?

I realized that I have that choice of mindset: I can view life’s challenges as rocks to be pushed uphill like Sisyphus. Alternatively, I can step into a more cloudlike mindset, one without sharp boundaries, that is ephemeral, that has the ability to shift between phases of matter, liberated from the shackles of gravity. 

According to the psychologist and Buddhist Rick Hanson,

“Clouds are made up of lots of vaporous little bits, those bits come together for a time due to many swirling causes, and then they swirl away again. Meanwhile, the edge or boundary of a cloud blurs into other clouds or the sky itself. There is a kind of insubstantiality to clouds, and a softness, a yielding. . . . In a way, everything is a cloud. Everything is made of parts (‘compounded’), everything arises due to causes (so nothing has absolute self-existence—even ‘I’), and everything passes away eventually. Everything in your experience and everything ‘out there’ in the universe is a cloud: every sensation, thought, object, body, job, career, activity, relationship, rock, raindrop, planet, galaxy, and moment. . . . Everything really is an eddy in the river of reality, emerging and changing and ending because of 10,000 causes upstream.”[1] 

With my cloudlike mindset, and influenced by Hanson’s viewing of everything “‘out there’ in the universe as a cloud,” for this photo essay, I decided to share images that juxtapose the fluidity and ephemerality of clouds to the unyielding solidity and permanence of the mountain landscape. I invite viewers to open themselves to impermanence, interdependence, and the fundamental cloudiness of everything—intuitively, emotionally, and bodily. Although we humans tend to be more comfortable when there are clear boundaries, as Rick Hanson also says, “We are but passing frothy foam on a transient wave in our ocean of a universe.”[2]

[1] Rick Hanson, “Step into the Cloud,” Psychology Today, January 11, 2012, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-wise-brain/201201/step-the-cloud.

[2] Hanson.

  • Keith Kozloff

    My interest in photography began during my adolescence when I developed a deep connection with the natural world. Photography and nature both offered temporary escapes from a sometimes turbulent home life. That connection emerged from my interaction with a small remaining area of native prairie nestled in my suburban neighborhood, sandwiched between a bustling street and a commuter rail line.

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