The nature of light and the light of nature. More than just a not-terribly ambitious play on words, it’s become a bit of a philosophy of late. Or rather, a bit of a philosophy of not being late.
You have to get out early to get the best light.
It all comes down to an endless pursuit of moments impossible to physically capture. So, I chase after the rising sun, hoping to find the perfect moment. Or rather, I chase after the spot I can find that will let me see the blossoming light for the wondrous thing it truly is. I get up early weekends and try to be somewhere I would not normally be when the sun rises. (A hunting strategy of sorts; I get up early weekdays as well, though hardly for the same reasons.)
I know absolutely nothing of astronomy, and have never even remotely approached the deep sentiments of which astronomers speak; it seems to me that infinity is at our doorstep and ever-present in every moment, not just through a telescope. I possess no scientific pragmatism; indeed I don’t honestly pretend to know very much, just to see.
A few painters who pursued most assiduously the fleeting light: Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran & Frederick Edwin Church
Left: “Looking Down Yosemite Valley”, dated 1865, by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902). The German-born Bierstadt found inspiration in the magnificent mountainous landscapes of America – his adopted country – and apparently sketched and photographed his way across the sweeping vistas he later portrayed with such painterly precision.
Center: “Cliffs of the Upper Colorado River, Wyoming Territory”, dated 1882, by Thomas Moran (1837-1926). The notes on this painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, describe the work as “skilfully combining the spectacular landscape of Green River with figures that reflected an increasingly nostalgic view of Indian life.”
Right: “Rainy Season in the Tropics”, dated 1866, by Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900). The pupil of Thomas Cole (1801-1848), and regarded as a second-generation member of the Hudson River School, Church also painted more exotic landscapes that were products of his South American travels, inspired by his admiration for the naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859).
The light from our Sun, while it is, I suppose, a reassuringly constant and measurable thing before it reaches us, becomes so many different things when our subjectivity is called to describe it. In a sense it’s all about what the sunlight does, and the sentiments it can evoke. It can come in nearly horizontally on late November afternoons, when it lights long corridors or turns walking towards the sunset in a street into a shadow theatre of light-rimmed forms. Or the fading light of the sun that becomes the cold light of space as the stage darkens and the backdrop becomes indigo. Or the sun lighting clouds late in the day, stacking up layer upon layer of opaque cliffs of cumulus; pure Maxfield Parrish. Rainbows and God rays; so many times the same light different.
In fact, it is not about cosmic vastness at all, it’s about trying to grasp something inherently earthbound. Dawn, like dusk, is of course a permanent event, and only exists because we are small slow creatures on a ball spinning in space around a star, protected by a skimpy film of air. (Dawn, in space, is meaningless; beyond our little spinning ball, there is no dawn, if not the dawn of time itself.) I’d call it eolucence, the idea that each dawn is identical to the first, given that as far as we brief humans are concerned, Earth and Sun are ageless.
But the dawn of time (unrepeatable), and the dawn of every day repeated, are phenomena that much more than others, have affected and affect the lives of we mortals, since we cannot oppose them. We cannot act on dawn or dusk; we cannot change or control them.
At this point the human, in despair of not being able to exercise control over a phenomenon that controls him, (even if the man has tried in every way to not play the game of natural time and days) finds nevertheless a way to escape, humanizing and deifying the event, all for a bit of breath that warms a phenomenon celestial and cold.
“Eos”, dated 1895, by Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919). De Morgan’s depiction is of a Botticellian Dawn. Aurora as rosy-winged water bearer, saffron-robed to reflect the softly lit, awakening landscape, and echoing the pale gold of the skyline. This is the poetic rendering described by Thomas Keightley: “Sometimes she is winged……..Yellow-robed;….Snow-footed; Fair-lighting….”
So we have been given Eos, Aurora, Ushas and all the goddesses of dawn, whose brevity equals their beauty. In Greek mythology, Eos was a daughter of “gold Hyperion….the bright Titan,”1 and Theia, “the far-shining one”.2 Hesiod’s Theogony apparently names their children as the Sun, Moon, and Dawn. She was the wife of Astraeus, god of dusk, their children being the four Anemoi, or Winds: Boreas, Notus, Eurus and Zephyrus, as well as the five “Wandering Stars” of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
Thomas Keightley (1789-1872) wrote in, “The Titans and their Offspring,” Part I, Chapter IV of his vast volume, The Mythology of Ancient Greece and Italy (published by Whittaker & Co., London, 1838, in a “second edition, considerably enlarged and improved”):
“The third of the children of Hyperiôn and Theia was Eôs, or the Dawn. Like Selene she was named by later poets from Pallas, and their reason for so doing is not easy to be discerned. Æschylus would seem to term her the child of Night, — a very obvious and natural genealogy. In Homer and Hesiod Eôs is simply the goddess of the dawn, but in works of succeeding poets she is identified with Hemera, or the Day. Homer, who is silent respecting the chariots of Helios and Selene, names the steeds which drew that of Eôs. He calls them Lampos (Shining) and Phaëton (Gleaming). Æschylus and Theocritus name the goddess ‘white-horsed’, and Euripides describes the ‘white-winged’ Hemera carrying off Tithonos in her golden four-horsed chariot. In another passage of this poet we meet the ‘one-horsed’ Eôs, whether riding or driving is not said. Lycophrôn gives her the winged horse Pegasos for her steed, and the scholiasts inform us that, when this horse had thrown Bellerophôn down to earth, Eôs asked and obtained him from Zeus. Eôs was, by Astræos, the mother of the winds Boreas, Zephyros and Notos, and of the stars of heaven.”
Keightley’s footnotes offer an array of sources, including the aforementioned Æschylus, and also encompassing Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Homer (both Iliad & Odyssey), Hesiod’s Theogony, and several other classical authors. He adds that “The lovely goddess of the dawn was more than once smitten with the love of mortal man.” There follows a veritable inventory of beauteous young men upon whom Eôs appears to have cast her daybreak eyes.
Keightley then concludes by saying: “In the works of the artists Eôs drives a four-horsed car. Night, the moon, and the stars retire before her. Sometimes she is winged, at other times not. Eôs was styled by the poets, 1. Rose-fingered; 2. Rose-armed; 3. Yellow-robed; 4. Gold-seated; 5. Well-seated; 6. Well-tressed; 7. Snow-footed; 8. Fair-lighting; 9. Mortal-illuming; 10. Much-seeing; 11. Air-born, etc. The most probable derivation of the name Eôs….seems to be that from äw, to blow, regarding it as the cool morning air, whose gentle breathing precedes the rising of the sun.”
In Homer’s Iliad, Book XIX opens with the sea-nymph Thetis, mother of Achilles, bearing to her son a gift of glorious armour from the god Hephaestus, whilst the Greek hero grieves for the slain Patroclus: “As Dawn rose up in her golden robe from Oceanus’ tides, bringing light to immortal gods and mortal men……” (Robert Fagles’ translation, first published 1990.)
Keightley may well have been familiar with the rendition by Alexander Pope (1688-1744) in The Iliad of Homer, (W. Suttaby, London.1806):
“Soon as Aurora heav’d her orient head Above the waves that blush’d with early red, (With new-born day to gladden mortal sight, And gild the courts of Heaven with sacred light,)”
As Odysseus and his faithful wife Penelope are poignantly reunited in Book XXIII of The Odyssey, Homer describes the scene (line 241):
“Rosy-fingered Dawn would have found them still weeping, had not Athene of the flashing eyes had other ideas. She held the night lingering at the western horizon and in the East at Ocean’s Stream she kept golden-throned Dawn waiting and would not let her yoke the nimble steeds who bring us light, Lampus and Phaethon, the colts that draw the chariot of Day.” (E. V. Rieu’s translation, first published 1946.)
An alternative rendering comes from an edition of Homer’s Odyssey, translated by Alexander Pope, to which are added The Battle of the Frogs and Mice by Parnell, and the Hymns by Chapman and Others. Edited by the Rev. J. S. Watson, M. A. Illustrated with the entire series of Flaxman’s Designs. (George Bell & Sons, Publishers. London. 1906.):
“Nor had they ended till the morning ray, But Pallas backward held the rising day, The wheels of night retarding, to detain The gay Aurora in the wavy main; Whose flaming steeds, emerging through the night, Beam o’er the eastern hills, with streaming light.”
If the Greeks were so taken by the dawn, no wonder so many ancient megalithic structures were built to catch the light at specific times. Not only were they proof of the constancy of the dawn, of the regularity of the years, they established fixed points in infinity, affixing the circadian to the wider cycles – proving that on a given day the sun would tell us that, in the infinity of space (and don’t think ancient peoples thought the world was flat and the sun hanging from a blue ceiling just over their cowering heads) what goes around had come around once again, and order could keep chaos at bay for a while yet. A quantum of solstice, an equilibrium of equinox. Nor was magic involved, or not the magic we invent for the ancients; such constructions were fixed points in a universe in perpetual movement, places to hang the Earth on.
That’s what I mean by the dawn of the world. Imagining seeing everything for the first time, imagining a novelty and a vibrancy to the light, as if it could be re-experienced over and over, that things could be new and washed clean of conscious memory and the weight of repetition, to be re-experienced each time, and that our place in them could be not what we have made it – distanced, quotidian, so familiar as to be devoid of contact – but how it should be, an infinitely renewed marvel of light.
Edgar Allan Poe, in unfinished notes for the introduction to a book he planned to call The Living Writers of America, discussed what he thought the most suitable themes for the artist. “Distant subjects,” said he, are “in fact the most desirable . . . The true poet is less affected by the absolute contemplation than the imagination of a great landscape.” The landscapes of his poems The City in the Sea and its companion piece The Valley Nis/The Valley of Unrest are bathed in “the light that never was on land or sea,” an imaginary light for imaginary lands, elusive as rainbows – no wonder pots of gold are to be found there – in the place we can never go, that recedes as we approach, a Caer Annwn of light. (The quote, by the way, is from Wordsworth: Elegiac Stanzas.)3 The ineffable density of air, to which we refer prosaically as atmospheric perspective, is the finest of watercolour washes, delimiting the palette, creating depth compounded and foreshortened, inviting the imagination to be projected into space. In the right light, imagination is weightless, thoughts suspended in gold intangible.
Looking north above Makara Bay, near Wellington, New Zealand
Naturally, capturing all those lofty sentiments through a mid-line SLR is another matter, so inevitably, what I can actually manage to find through a lens falls short. Nevertheless, the intent remains intact and the photos are to fix those instants in my mind; means to an end, not an end in themselves. Somewhere out there, somewhere out anywhere, the light is doing wondrous things to the landscape, daily recreating the dawn of the world. What an extraordinary opportunity, and it’s simply there.
“Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird…”
That particular morning, I had the first verse in my mind, although this being the Antipodes, tuis eloquently replaced blackbirds, and yes, like most, I thought the words were by Cat Stevens. They were actually written several decades earlier, by Eleanor Farjeon. At the request of the editor, Percy Dearmer, Farjeon was “asked to make a poem to fit the lovely Scottish tune” of Bunessan, a traditional melody which had come to his attention. The hymn appeared in the second edition of Songs of Praise, in 1931. (It was only on returning home that I sought out the rest of the lyrics, and something of their history.)
Aware I’m indulging in split religion (to paraphrase Hume) and that Romanticism is often perceived as a regard turned inward, or even worse, backward, I’d imagine an outward-looking, forward-thinking sort of Romanticism, one bent on creating the world anew, or at least preserving as much of it as can be. I’d like to put stories, stories that told the world, back into the landscape, with chapter headings of dawn light, with illustrations of wind and rain and clouds, so that every time I look at the light that shows me the world, it will show me all those worlds, all those stories, from the earliest creation myths to the last true folktales. Stories from the dawn of the world.
It’s all about looking at something for the first time every time you perceive it. From an island on the edge of the world, in a weathered primeval landscape, it takes the shortest leap of the imagination to slip through time and imagine the light through the eyes of those who first beheld it. Or it’s as simple as the chiaroscuro of light through leaves, or the setting sun’s track on the water, whose perspective-defying reflection is an invitation to step out of logical convention and touch a simple form of magic.4
Farjeon, by the way, was a prolific writer and poet, often evoking nature, though her words are almost more invocation than evocation.
“….and a train of nature-spirits, evokable (sic) by the very names after which we have called trees, awakes in humming speech. One cannot dwell without love upon the lovely sounds. Cypress is a veiled whisper, Elm a low, full murmur; and if Acacia is the hush of the wind, Sycamore is its wailing sigh. Mulberry drops the round note of a muffled bell, and what a liquid fall have Hazel and Laurel and Myrtle and Maple, and as hard to confine as flowing water are the names of water’s dedicated twins, Willow and Osier. Cedar is good to ear and eye; Alder and Elder begin in light, and after gathering strength decline in mist; and Holly is a pleasant breath without an edge to it — a subtle cheat. Oak fits better his title to his character, and is a very primitive utterance; I think cave-men talked in such terms before language was created. Aspen is a thin silver shiver of sound that does not wholly lean upon association. — When darkness covers the city these rustling spirits find their secret voices, some chanting lyrically, others more wistful as though they sing in a trance; but my window has grown deaf of an ear since the murder of the poplars. I have nowhere seen their equal among their kind; they were twin Titans dreaming upon a mighty past within a present too narrow to contain it, and that perhaps is why they had to go: they were green fountains rushing up into the heavens, and falling earthward filled with the speech of stars. Two waves receded to the infinite flood, two channels to the immortal mystery were cut off, when those great prophets went to their sacrifice.
For since the divine Pagan dares to exist in harmony with the eternal spirit, trees, which are the temples of Pan, are also the prophets of God….”5
“…. the shaken shower of golden birch-light in a strong sun of autumn? the young green chestnut-fans glittering with spring rain? the grey fir wrapped in twilight at the parting of soft forest glades, as though it were the sentinel of dreams? the oak upon the brink of the glassy lake, watching how the black silence of its surface is pricked with stars night hangs among your hair? …O loveliness of light and night and nature, drawn spiritually from our great brethren of the trees!”6
This is very much a poetic and intuitive rendering of Robert Grave’s scholarly “tree calendar”, both reflecting in equal measure a pagan hymn to nature, something that John Fowles does with the same skill in The Tree. (I’d recommend them all, though The White Goddess is heavy going and should be read as a poetic interpretation rather than a history book. Even so, it requires in itself a thorough reading of Frazer’s The Golden Bough beforehand, just to keep up with Graves.)
Perhaps there’s simply more truth in poetry.
“I stood on the verge of the mysterious forest,
Sunlight lay behind me on the meadows,
But all the world of the mysterious forest
Was a world of wraiths and shadows
The dim trees beckoned, beckoned with their branches,
I said: “The sun’s behind me on the meadows.
”A dim voice calling, calling through the branches
From the world of wraiths and shadows…” 7
Or in Keats’ words, from Hyperion:8
“As when, upon a trancèd summer-night,
Those green-robed senators of mighty woods,
Tall oaks, branch-charmèd by the earnest stars,
Dream, and so dream all night without a stir….”
I seem to have wandered off the path, but then that’s what I tend to do anyway; paths are suggestions, detours are always more attractive. I’m doing my best, though, to get lost, and to find within my modest means, a way of looking at familiar things anew. Even if it means getting up weekends and setting out in the dark.
From left to right, woods south of Titahi Bay, near Wellington, New Zealand
Strangely, the contemplation of dawn is not a stationary exercise, I don’t have the patience to sit and wait for the sun, for some restless reason, I need to be walking, to keep moving, so it’s not just one vista illuminated, but many, as many as can be found in that magic moment. Last weekend, I rose perhaps a little too early, and despite the moon, missed the path I knew was there, that winds up beside a hidden waterfall not far south of Pukerua Bay (birthplace, by the way, of that gentleman who has gotten himself – and me as well – all tied up with a baker’s dozen of dwarves, and inadvertently offered me these landscapes at the edge of the world that I’ve so come to love). I ended up doubling back through paddocks that rose and fell like a great green sea, until I came on the woods I was seeking. A little late, alas, the light I was after had fled. I’ll go back for another sunrise, and there is a stand of trees that needs a sunset as well to see it by.
There is a dim radiance in the depths of any wood, an accumulation of reflected light in a twilight of leaves and branches. Every wood in which I’ve been brings to mind every wood about which I’ve read, or every painting of trees and forests I’ve ever seen. There is truly something hushed and magical, not at all unlike a cathedral – hardly a novel allegory, I confess – no wonder sacred groves were the first temples. Set against sunrise and sunset, the phases of the moon, the cycle of the seasons, clocks and calendars and other man-made instruments seem as mediocre as they are practical, compared to nature’s own diurnal order. Thankfully, though, calendars allow for weekends.
And, I have those weekends planned, weather permitting. The same places are never the same twice; you can’t ever repeat the light. Every dawn is the dawn of the world.
1. From Hyperion – A Fragment, by John Keats (1795-1821). Keats began composing this poem in 1818.↩
2. From TheHomeric Hymns. XXXI. To Helios. Theia is referred to within the verses as “Euryphaessa”, wedded to Hyperion. This collection of thirty-three poems was originally attributed to Homer, hence the title, but some have been assigned to several other authors. They apparently date from the 7th – 6th century BC.↩
3. “Ah! THEN, if mine had been the Painter’s hand,
To express what then I saw; and add the gleam,
The light that never was, on sea or land,
The consecration, and the Poet’s dream;”
From Elegiac Stanzas: Nature and the Poet ~ Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle in a Storm, painted by Sir George Beaumont. William Wordsworth (1770-1850).↩
4. If you wish to read one book on the Sun, read Jacquetta Hawkes’ magnificent Man and the Sun, first published in 1962. I have a copy next to me, when Hawkes is inspired, her intuitive grasp of history is delightful to read, and could not be put into fewer or better words.↩
5. Excerpts from:
Trees, by Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965).
Published in 1914 by B. T. Batsford. London.
6. ibid, pages 50-51↩
7. The MysteriousForest, by Eleanor Farjeon,
From Pan-Worship and Other Poems. Published by E. Mathews, London.1908↩
8. See footnote 1↩
Thanks, as always, to Ann Carling, for her tireless research and impeccable proofreading, and special thanks to photographer Irene Fanizza for her thoughts on the rising sun.