Charles River

Last weekend, J and I took a long, woodsy walk around our neighborhood, walking first to Hemlock Gorge to leaf-peep around Echo Bridge and then wending through the woodsy fringe along Quinobequin Road, which skirts the Charles River. The air was brisk and the sun was bright—a quintessential New England fall day—so walking just about anywhere was glorious. On sunny October days in New England, you look for any excuse to be outside in the golden gleam of autumn.

Overhead

Folks who have seen New England autumns only in photographs focus on fall foliage, but those of us who live here know that tree leaves are just a small part of the beauty. What’s magical about autumn in New England is the light. Autumn light angles low, refracting through the prisms of countless turning trees. In February, I’ll bemoan the white, oversaturated glare of our monochromatic winters, but in October, the light in New England is itself golden, like sunbeams filtered through stained glass.

Under the bridge

Because I’ve weathered enough New England winters to know how starved for light and color I’ll be come January, I find myself wanting to soak up every second of October’s golden light. Even sitting on a bench in October is a sensuous experience as your body relishes the contradictory sensations of brisk air and warm sunlight.

Sunlit

Emily Dickinson once said a true poem makes you feel like the top of your head has been removed, and I’d say something similar about autumns in New England. October is the one time of year when I want to steep myself directly in sunlight, even if that means ripping off the roof and removing the top of my skull: anything to better bask my brain in this fleeting gold gleam.

Sunlit

This week, our Jewish neighbors have erected sukkahs like Rachel’s in their yards, and I find myself quietly envying them: I have to admire a religion that requires its adherents to spend as much time as possible outside in October, simply sitting. And yet, living in New England, I’d make a terrible Jew, as any sukkah I’d erect would be topless, or at best convertible, the better to let God’s own golden gaze in.

Forget Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry: the title of today’s post comes from a line from Pharrell Williams’ irresistibly peppy ode to joy, “Happy,” which invites listeners to “Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.”

Daddy longlegs

It’s already late September, and a few eager leaves are starting to turn. The trees with their old, mostly green leaves look ratty: the oak tree outside my office at Framingham State, for instance, is so shabby, it’s difficult to find a leaf on it that isn’t insect-eaten and worn. It feels like nature is slyly shutting down, like when you linger late at a restaurant and the waiters start dimming the lights and putting chairs on the tables. Please, feel free to finish your meal at your leisure, they insist, but it’s clear they’re closing up shop.

Berry bush

There’s something about the light in late September, when it acquires a particular angle and color. The light this afternoon looked antique, like something leaning from gold toward bronze, a tarnished time. Already the days are noticeably shorter, and I wonder well ahead of time how we’ll weather another winter, starved for light. On brisk, brilliant, and deep-blue skied days like today, I resolve to absorb as much light as possible, while I still can.

Flowering fence

Is this the reason why autumn leaves are so precious, their brilliance and color filling in for sunlight lost? Right when sunlight starts to lean deep toward the twilight of the year, the turning trees switch on like emergency beacons, vanishing chlorophyll unveiling long-hidden fires. In summer, the sun illuminates our lives; in the fall, we rely on leaves. In winter, fresh snow will reflect what little light there is, then we’ll round the corner into spring, when chlorophyll itself will ignite every green fuze: the old year renewed.

Dried hydrangea

Emily Dickinson knew that in the winter, afternoon light has a particular quality–a certain slant–that sets it apart. On winter afternoons, the light angles low on shadow-strewn snow, and the landscape is shot with hues of blue and gray. Dickinson felt the heft of those certain slants; she deemed them an “imperial affliction” whose imprint is indelible. On winter afternoons, those certain slants are enough to slay you, the warmth of spring seeming as unattainable as the glaring white sun.

Dried hydrangea

And then there is the afternoon light of autumn. I can quote no poet who captures it, this light that burns warm like gold or copper, filtered through a veil of lingering oak and maple leaves. Whereas Dickinson’s certain slant of winter is the light of loss and longing, the burnished brightness of autumn is intrinsically nostalgic, the whole world tinted like a forgotten sepia-print.

On winter afternoons, you mourn a sun that’s already gone; on autumn afternoons, you rejoice in a sun that’s in the process of going: a Now that’s hastening toward Then. Autumn light lingers long enough to break your heart, looking back as it leaves, tossing golden beams over one shoulder as a radiant reminder of its passing. Autumn light loves the look (as I do) of dried hydrangea blossoms, each petal outlining in vein and line the arc of afternoon’s exit.

Dried hydrangea

Grapevine with shadow

When I saw today’s Photo Friday theme, In Shadow, I knew I’d have a difficult time choosing one image to share. J and I have an ongoing joke about my fondness for taking pictures of shadows; whenever we go walking, J knows that if I stop and aim my camera down or toward an otherwise unremarkable wall, I’m probably shooting a shadow.

Shadows

I’m so fond of light and shadow, I have an entire blog category, a Flickr photo tag, and several photo sets devoted to them. I admire the way shadows simplify objects by streamlining them into mere shape; shadows, like photographs, condense three dimensions into two. I also marvel at the way shadows define presence through absence: because light isn’t here, some sort of object must be there. I love to watch the shadows of overhead clouds, for instance, roll across a landscape, and I’ve spotted more than a few overhead hawks and crows because their shadows have passed beneath my earth-bound feet. I’m intrigued, too, at the multiple meanings of the word “shade,” for the dark shape cast by slanting light both embodies the essential shape of a given object but also its transience: shadows, like the bodies that cast them and the ghosts they leave behind, are here today and gone tomorrow.

Three umbrellas

Yet, shadows are even more transient than that, for anyone who has spent an entire day meditating inside a well-lit Dharma room knows how oddly entertaining it can be, when you have nothing to do but sit, to watch your own shade–the upright shadow cast by your torso as it sits centered on your cushion–move around you like a sundial’s hand: here in morning, there in afternoon. Just like your thoughts, ephemeral shadows cast by clouds race across the floor before your downcast eyes: who knew that a quiet wooden floor had such daily dramas played upon it, unnoticed?

Due to a congenital quirk, J has trouble perceiving visual depth: to him, the world looks flat, not contoured. Rather than seeing the world in three dimensions, he sees it in two, with both shadows and objects looking like flat patches of color. Given this optical oddity, it makes sense that J is an excellent photographer: whereas the rest of us have to imagine how a three-dimensional scene would look when flat and framed, J’s eyes already focus on the bare essentials of color and line. Shadows, too, simplify a scene by eliminating the extraneous details of depth and distance. The sun is millions of miles away, but right here, underfoot, she announces her presence in shadow.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, In Shadow.