Cloud Mass


In considering this image of clouds for contemplation, the theme that first came to mind was “immensity.” In keeping with my propensity to trace subject matter back to its origins, I observed that every human who ever lived has seen skies like this. Curious to know when an atmosphere developed on the early Earth, I turned to my science database. Along with the answer—about three billion years ago—I came across a statement by cosmologist Brian Swimme that made me decide instead to reflect on the theme of  “emergence.” He wrote—

The universe is not a place, it’s a story or an irreversible sequence of emergent events.

It’s an ongoing creative event.

The universe as a whole, and each being within it, is permeated with the power of emergence. 

                                                                                                                                          Brian Swimme

As a consequence of this perspective, he said the challenge for each of us is to find our own story within the great “epic of being—the universe story.” Now, the clouds—and the tiny jet-trails beyond them—evoked an image of the biosphere  as a creative incubator wherein each life that emerges creates and contributes a story to the greater stories of community, nation, species, planet and universe. I highly recommend his book, The Universe Story, which he coauthored with noted ecologist, Thomas Berry.

If the individual stories of human beings going back 40,000 years ago were represented by blips of light, and the intensity of each was determined by its contribution to the whole, an animated video of this process would begin with dim flickers in Africa that accelerate, spread and burst into a globe of bright, pulsating light. From an evolutionary perspective, the individual human lifespan is so short as to appear insignificant. But from a personal perspective it’s quite the opposite. Every story is unique and precious, if only to ourselves and those closest to us. It’s a perspective that calls me to consider the significance of story and telling each other’s stories. The impression that’s forming is that we live and breathe in an atmosphere of stories. And each story, like the dust and water particles that form the clouds, contributes to the quality and motion of that atmosphere.

In whole-systems science and positive change theory, innovators are sometimes referred to as “emergents.” These individuals literally emerge from within the status quo but are not satisfied with it. Having experienced the dysfunction of no longer workable paradigms, emergents dream of better ways to live and work. And as soon as possible they adopt them. Emergents want what they do to matter beyond a paycheck, status or notoriety. They are their own people, the modern-day equivalents of the “rugged individuals” who settled the West. We recognize them today as social engineers—agents of positive change and social development. In business and industry they are working on alternatives to carbon-based fuels, sustainable ecology, forest, animal and watershed conservation, health and efficiency promoting applications of nanotechnology, energy efficient transportation and the exploration and commercialization of outer space. They are the visionaries, authors, life-coaches, motivational speakers and teachers who champion improvements and innovations in every field—and they live what they preach.

Less dramatic but equally deserving of the label emergent are our neighbors, everyday people who are quietly living ethical lives, people actively looking for ways to work more creatively, smarter and kinder with consideration for those they serve. They do a good job and take pride in it, no matter how menial it may seem to outsiders. They have opted out of popular culture, preferring the more quiet and substantive values of personal enrichment, fulfillment and service.

Because the contributions of emergents have survival value for the planet and all its inhabitants, I see them as paving the way toward a positive and more sustainable future. For this reason alone, they need to be acknowledged, encouraged and supported.

Change the story and you change perception; change perception and you change the world.

Jean Houston

About This Image

Title: Cloud Mass

Theme: Emergence

File #: CDC5012

Location: Blunt, South Dakota

I’d been photographing an ocean of corn fields. Walking back to the car I looked up and took this shot of the clouds. Only weeks later, when I zoomed in on the image to eliminate some dust spots on the lens, did I notice the jet trails. This is an instance where the image wasn’t what I would consider a “stand out,” but today as I was reviewing my files, looking for something suitable for contemplation, it caught my eye.

It’s becoming clear to me that to be evocative, an image doesn’t always need to be a photographic Wow! What makes it evocative has more to do with where the subject and presentation take me when I give it some serious attention.

2 thoughts on “Emergence

  1. Hi David,

    As usual, I find your photo in this post beautiful and your words, eloquent. The part that really moved me was your statement “every human who ever lived has seen skies like this.” Monumental concept! The instant you shot this photo was unique in that clouds had never before or since been arrayed exactly like that. Yet, similar have been seen by everyone. This is exactly what I felt while creating my book, “The Civil War in Color.” Each photo I added color to became a reality in my mind that the original B&W images never quite possessed. Trees were the same then, rocks were the same then, skies and clouds were the same…even people were essentially the same. To me, the realization was that although daily life and customs of that era were markedly different from ours today, many things were the same. This appreciation applies equally to civilization a thousand years ago, or five-thousand years ago. Quite amazing, and humbling!


    • Thanks John. It is indeed fascinating to consider the elements in nature that have been seen by all in the near and distant past. I think of the images of the Civil War battlefields in your book and imagine that the sunlight, grass, trees and clouds were the last things that many men saw as they looked up and drew their last breath. Yes, amazing and humbling.



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