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Author Ruth has her head in the clouds — and she wants yours there too

Maria Mudd Ruth with the clouds in Monterey County, California.
Maria Mudd Ruth with the clouds in Monterey County, California.

Maria Mudd Ruth of Olympia has looked at clouds from both sides now — the scientific and the personal.

In her book “A Sideways Look at Clouds,” Ruth rhapsodizes on the makeup, mysteries and meaning of clouds — and on her, and our, relationships to these collections of floating water or ice that remind us of cotton fluff and ice-cream castles.

“I think the clouds need some good PR,” said Ruth, a natural history writer who’ll speak about and read from the book Wednesday at the Olympia Timberland Library.

She and her family moved from sunny — too sunny, she says — Southern California to Olympia 11 years ago, and it seems appropriate that it was on her first visit to Olympia, driving down Interstate 5 from the airport, that she recognized her affection for clouds.

“I noticed a massive pile-up of white clouds billowing up from the horizon,” she writes in the introduction. “I squeezed the steering wheel, leaned into the windshield for a bigger view, and said out loud and loudly, ‘I’ve missed you guys!’ ”

At the time, she didn’t know that those billowy mashed-potato-like clouds — cumulus congestus, in scientific terms — were the more mature version of the classic cumulus clouds that children draw and precursors to the massive cumulonimbus rain clouds.

She just knew that they were familiar from her East Coast childhood, and that she was happy to see them.

“I didn’t realize that I had really missed the clouds,” she said. “My reaction really surprised me.”

Two years later, while looking for a topic for her next book, she saw a poster about clouds at a neighbor’s house, found herself fascinated and realized that she really didn’t know clouds at all. She wanted to learn about and write about them.

“Sideways Look,” which Library Journal’s Catherine Lantz called a “delightful exposition on clouds,” includes plenty of science — enough that Ruth encourages readers to jump around rather than read the book straight through.

Her explorations went well beyond reading and research and talking to experts. She visited art museums. She toured a factory that creates artificial skylights that simulate the real sky, clouds and all. She swam in a fogbank.

But it was the simple daily practice of cloud gazing that has changed her life.

As she puts it in the book, “I started looking up.”

And looking up became much more. She discovered that although clouds are ever changing, she could see their movement only if she sat still.

“I challenged myself to sit in a chair every day and look at the clouds … really focusing on one cloud to see what I could learn,” she said. “I set my cell phone alarm to go off in five minutes, and I didn’t make it past two minutes before I started looking away.”

Eventually, she got the hang of it and began to not just look but see the objects of her attention.

“As I’m slowing down, the clouds are speeding up and becoming more and more dynamic,” she said. “The more I slowed down, the more the clouds revealed themselves.”

She also took thousands of photos of clouds, eventually crashing her computer because she had so many, and then she had to slow down again. “I had to stop taking pictures and allow the clouds to be themselves and then let them go,” she said. “That was a big life lesson.”

But Ruth, who has written several other books for children and adults, continues to watch the skies and sometimes take photos. She says she’s still seeing things she’s never seen before.

“I’m probably a cloud-watching addict,” she said. “Once you see how much beauty is up there, it’s really hard to look away.”

With “Sideways Look,” and on her book tour through the Northwest, she’s hoping to inspire the rest of us to follow suit.

“It’s not how many books can I sell, but how many people can I get to look up and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t notice the clouds before’ or ‘I didn’t realize we had so many kinds here,’ ” she said.

‘A Sideways Look at Clouds’

What: Author Maria Mudd Ruth of Olympia will read from her book and give a slide presentation about clouds, including both science and the meanings and messages we find in them. The presentation is intended for adults.

When: 7:30-8:45 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Olympia Timberland Library, 313 Eighth Ave. SE

Tickets: Free

More information: 360-352-0595, trl.org, mariaruthbooks.net

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