From beetles to clouds, finding happiness in nature’s surprises

Fermin Rodriguez/Nurphoto/AP/File
Lenticular clouds form over the Sierra Nevada at sunset in Granada, Spain, in December 2020.

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If you want to be joyful, you need to be surprised, often. To do this, you really need to go outside.

My husband and I like to give ourselves ample time to be surprised, so we spend a lot of time outside. We took off for Paradise Park on Mount Hood the other day. We sat down for lunch, expecting to be entertained by hawks riding the thermals at the mountaintop. We weren’t expecting to have a front-row seat to watch those thermals assemble lenticular clouds out of pure water and jazz, right above our heads.

Why We Wrote This

Surprise often fosters delight, and nature is full of surprises. Sometimes the surprise is the difference between what something looks like from afar and how it appears when you arrive.

Lenticular clouds are saucer-shaped drifts of perfection that form over large objects such as mountains. From a distance, it looks as though the mountain put on a cap. But close up, the water in the cloud is constantly renewing itself and trailing away – the very illustration of ephemera.

Things do look different from a distance. 

If you want to be joyful, you need to be surprised, often. And to do this, you really need to go outside. There’s only so much astonishment you can manufacture for yourself if you’re in your house – or, worse, in your head – all the time. You might come up with something unexpected in your refrigerator, but if you thought about it, you’d realize you should have seen it coming the moment you stuck that thing into the used yogurt container and shoved it toward the back. But if you’re outside, paying even a modicum of attention, something is bound to slap you happy.

It could be a bug. In fact, it’s likely to be a bug. You might see a beetle tripping along in the dirt, armored up in a metallic green you’ve seen only on a bridesmaid, and you’d catch your breath and say, “When did they start making those?” 

Actually, they’re common, but you’re thrilled anyway because you didn’t know that. And it’s thrilling to come across something you don’t know, unless you’re the sort that has it all figured out all the time, in which case you might as well stay inside and mock people on the internet.

Why We Wrote This

Surprise often fosters delight, and nature is full of surprises. Sometimes the surprise is the difference between what something looks like from afar and how it appears when you arrive.

Or you could watch a spider wrapping a fly burrito. You knew they did that, but maybe it’s been a while since you had your nose that close to a spider, close enough to admire her eyes, her mastery. Maybe you didn’t remember just which legs she uses to spin the burrito.

Even people who actually do know a lot of stuff can be delighted at any moment, say, when they discover a rare violet peeking out of the duff. Nobody else knows it’s rare, or even there, but they do – they recognize it by its little nose hairs, or something – and they’re as tickled as you are with your green beetle. The power of surprise does not diminish with education. Education only improves your odds of being elated by something.

My husband, Dave, and I like to give ourselves as much time to be surprised as we can, so we spend a lot of time outside. We were hoping for beauty, at least, when we took off for Paradise Park on Mount Hood the other day. Beauty is a guarantee at Paradise Park, an alpine flower meadow just below the snowy peak of the mountain, and we had it to ourselves. We sat down for lunch, expecting to be entertained by hawks riding the thermals at the mountaintop. We weren’t expecting to have a front-row seat to watch those thermals assemble lenticular clouds out of pure water and jazz, right above our heads.

Lenticular clouds are surpassingly cool. They’re saucer-shaped drifts of perfection that form over large objects such as mountains. They are frequently misidentified as UFOs by people who are insufficiently awestruck by reality. Sometimes they lift off fully formed, one right after the other, and sail away in stacks. When you’re as close as we were, you can see there’s nothing static about them. 

Lenticular clouds are a snapshot in water of the air currents over a peak. Water molecules coalesce as the air rises over the obstacle, and evaporate on the other side as the air current slides down again. When you see it from a distance, it looks like the mountain put on a cap. But the water in the cloud is constantly renewing itself and trailing away. It’s the very illustration of ephemera.

Things do look different from a distance. When I was a little girl, I thought there were two kinds of people, old ones and young ones, and they didn’t have much in common. Grown-ups had always been big; they started out that way. But I grew up. Surprise! Rejoice!

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