Yesterday I walked through the woods to my cabin in the late afternoon, when the sun sluiced through the thickening branches at lower than eye level. The sun cut through the foliage like a razor or a sci-fi tractor beam, illuminating only the slice of space sheared by its edges. Within that low bank, gold poured in, flooding the shaft, silting every leaf and twig with a glinting residue. Above and below this beam, though, the woods were muted and subdued, darkly greened, flattened. Walking, my body bisected by the ray, I felt divided and disoriented. My lower legs moved in darkness and my head and shoulders followed, equally unenlightened, but my heart and gut were electrified, charged by the beam, and sought the light. This was my same familiar woods, usually home to my feet, yet with the light at this angle and pitch, they were eerily transformed, made strange only through the quality of light.
Light defines, reveals, creates. Up before dawn, hauling cameras, lenses, and tripods from his remote camp site to a cliff overlooking a mountain range or clamoring over rock to get a unique view of austere red rock structures below, my nephew Andy, an accomplished photographer, studies light. In pre-dawn chill, he waits for it, patient, still, until it nudges the edge of wind-burnished stone, explodes in blinding flame at mountain peak, glints between whitewashed trunks of aspen. I love his investment in light, his attentiveness to gradation and shadow. Only many hours of seeking light, of attending to its subtle shifting and its effects on the objects it touches could train his eyes to intricacy, color, beauty which he preserves in pixels of digitalized film.
Today I am again in the woods, but this time at noon. Now, with the sun high in the sky, light spangles directly down, cascading through the layers of branches, dripping and dappling more evenly across the ravine. Today, the light is safe and measured, and I feel none of that unease of the previous day. Yet in this familiarity there is also something of danger, a loss of an edginess that keeps me alert and affected by the power of the strange. There is something startling and clear and true in seeing quite literally in a different light. Light is thus the image that two of my favorite writers, Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson, choose to urge me from the safe and the usual. In a passage that evokes very nearly my own sensation of being cleaved by light, Thoreau writes, “If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a scimitar, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career.” Dickinson doesn’t play it as straight, but she shares Thoreau’s valuation of stalking truth and studying light: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant–/Success in Circuit lies/Too bright for our infirm Delight/The Truth’s superb surprise.”
More of us should stalk light like this, seek its transfiguration, allow it to surge in our veins. Light could fill us, illuminate us from within, yet we too often live in darkness, seeing only the negative when we could live Kodachrome, choosing an endless palette of grays and refusing brilliance, stumbling in a directionless fog of disorder and confusion when lucidity and truth could be our blazes.
Paul, in I Corinthians, says, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face,” suggesting, I think, that earthly vision is always impaired, especially when contrasted with future, perfected sight. Yet I don’t think we have to resign ourselves to far sightedness; there is so much to see here and now, near and far. If we train our eyes, strain them to see the light, we can see the face of God at every turn.