Saturday, September 11, 2010


Returning to the States from a summer in Ireland, I'm jet-lagged for several weeks. I wake at 4 AM no matter how late I try to stay up in the evening. There's nothing to be done but get up, shower, dress, have a bowl of Honey Nut Flakes, and walk to college.

Once I'm up, I count myself lucky. My walk takes me through woods and meadows in the care of my town's Natural Resources Trust and, for a few jet-lagged weeks in September, I have those dawnlit acres all to myself.
Mist pools in the hollows of the meadow. The water in the brook slips under the bridge with a dreamlike languor. There is always the possibility that I'll see a grazing deer or two in the meadow; they'll bound into the underbrush at my approach, white tails flashing.

The world holds its breath.

At dawn, the atmosphere empties out its bag of optical tricks -- reflection, refraction, scattering -- to great effect, spilling sunlight over the horizon, parceling out components of the sun's white light in pale washes of color. The reeds along the pond and the trees at the back of the meadow are daubed like stage sets, eerie tints of rose and violet that are exquisitely sensitive to the quantity and kind of water vapor and pollution in the air.

A dozen twilight effects of air and light are listed by Fred Schaaf in his useful book, Seeing the Sky. Belgian astronomer Marcel Minnaert piles on more things to see at dawn in his teeming compendium, Light and Color in the Outdoors. These books make me realize that I go through life half-blind, with tricks of radiance occurring all about me. The auroral hour is prime time.

Jupiter dissolves in the west. At last the sun breaks the horizon and pours molten gold through the trees, across the meadow, and down along the path. Suddenly the sky is blue, the trees and grass are daytime green, and the world of human commerce wakes up with a bang. Early-rising joggers come loping along the path, earplugs connected to sound machines at their waist. As I reach the campus an ROTC platoon thunders by, voices and steps in cadence.