Saturday, February 23, 2013

Revealing Light

In the documentary film "Ansel Adams, Photographer", narrator Beaumont Newhall says
“Light to Adams, as to all photographers, is the great medium of revelation.”
The phrase "light is the great medium of revelation" was first expressed in a 19th century sermon by Princeton theologian Charles Hodge.

In making the unsupportable assertion that god is light, Hodge, a fundamentalist confined by dogma, nevertheless makes arguably insightful observations about light:
  1. Light is the great medium of revelation
  2. Light in the natural world is the source or necessary condition of life
  3. Light is the source of all beauty

The Tetons and The Snake River by Ansel Adams, 1942.

This "revelation" is not of the divine, or of a self-serving deity, rather is self-evident phenomena and beauty revealed to- or discovered by- those who make a concerted practice of seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, and touching the natural world.

Light encompasses all gradations of luminosity ― between blinding highlight and the dimmest shadow.
"When you light a candle, you also cast a shadow."
― Ursula Le Guin

Ansel Adams photographed the American West revealing its sublime beauty for generations to contemplate.

Adams was a student of light, both as an aesthetic and scientific pursuit (cf. The Zone System).

Of Adams' attention and sensitivity to the quality of light, Beaumont Newhall says
“Through its moods: noon brilliance, first light, dawn; through the illusion of substance: snow, charred wood, stone and the magic of a place and a moment, he conveys universal experience."

McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park  by Ansel Adams 1933-42.


Saturday, February 16, 2013

Nature Writing

Mystic Lake, 1872
by William Henry Jackson
Nature writing reaches a crest when it is poetic and mysterious, yet grounded in the observational discipline of scientific inquiry.

Most often written in the first-person, readers are treated to the author's reflections and existential musing. The earthly mechanics of nature provide a wealth of metaphors.
"The grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried all at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls."
John Muir
Nature writing engages our senses, coaxing from us heightened sensory awareness. At its best, nature writing reminds us training our senses enables us to see beyond mere highlight, shadow, and color.
"It's all a matter of keeping your eyes open...If I can't see these minutiae, I still try to keep my eyes open. I'm always on the lookout for antlion traps in sandy soil, monarch pupae near milkweed, skipper larvae in locust leaves. These things are utterly common, and I've not seen one."
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Words and phrases engage our auditory sense:
"Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings."
John Muir, The Wilderness World of John Muir
Words and phrases engage our olfactory sense:
"In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt."
Margaret Atwood, Bluebeard's Egg
Words and phrases appeal to our sense of taste:
"One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring."
Aldo Leopold
Words and phrases appeal to our primal instinct to connect:
"One touch of nature makes the whole world kin."
John Muir, Our National Parks
Nature writing is often deliciously multi-sensory:
"Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery."
Cormac McCarthy, The Road
From acute sensory experience, the best nature writers deftly transition to existential ruminations and philosophy. Compelling nature writing frames the alluring sensory experience with the limit of our senses, our morality:
"Autumn teaches us that fruition is also death; that ripeness is a form of decay. The willows, having stood for so long near water, begin to rust. Leaves are verbs that conjugate the seasons."
Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces
"All through autumn we hear a double voice: one says everything is ripe; the other says everything is dying. The paradox is exquisite. We feel what the Japanese call "aware"--an almost untranslatable word meaning something like "beauty tinged with sadness."
Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces
Nature writers invite us to find comfort and solace:

"Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature -- the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter."
Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
From comfort and solace, we are gently coerced to the short leap into meditation and philosophy:
Being the Stream

Meditation is not just a rest or retreat from the turmoil of the stream or the impurity of the world. It is a way of being the stream, so that one can be at home in both the white water and the eddies. Meditation may take one out of the world, but it also puts one totally into it."

Gary Snyder


Saturday, February 9, 2013

Eon to Instance

We expect geologic phenomena to occur on a geologic time scale. We expect these phenomena to be revealed on a time scale so vast that scientists must describe them in terms of their relationships to other major geologic milestones or paleontologic occurrences like mass extinctions, which have unfolded over the 4.54 billion year history of the Earth.

Unless one has the good fortune, like Adam LeWinter and Jeff Orlowski, to witness and record a massive, lower-Manhattan-sized glacier calving in real-time (video below).

Ice calving is the sudden cleaving of a mass of ice.

The video shows the calving of the Jakobshavn Glacier in western Greenland during 2008. For 75 minutes, the glacier retreated a full mile along a calving face estimated at 3 miles in length.

The footage is featured in the film Chasing Ice. For a sense of the size of the calved ice, the film producers likened it to the entire lower tip of Manhattan Island breaking off.

Scientists have recorded the steady retreat of the Jakobshavn Glacier since 1851 (NASA satellite image below).

Retreating calving front of the Jacobshavn Glacier (1851 - 2006)
"A man who keeps company with glaciers comes to feel tolerably insignificant by and by. The Alps and the glaciers together are able to take every bit of conceit out of a man and reduce his self-importance to zero if he will only remain within the influence of their sublime presence long enough to give it a fair and reasonable chance to do its work."
— Mark Twain, from A Tramp Abroad, p. 466.

Geologists have divided the 4.54 billion year history of the Earth into a hierarchy of supereon, eon, era, period, epoch, and age. Calving of the Jakobshavn Glacier has been recorded in modern history since 1851 The 2008 calving occurred in a matter of minutes.


Saturday, February 2, 2013

Tuning Our Senses

Responding to the urge to immerse myself, I deliberately alert my mind to the prospect of incoming data. I have experienced the automaton-like phenomena of pinging my senses in a sort of mental roll-call:
What can I see? What can I smell? What can I hear?
Yet in what I imagine to be heightened awareness, I am often surprised ― not by what I see, hear, or smell, rather by the flicker of something I have just missed.

A School of Minnows
Sensual acuity is like a muscle needing the discipline of exercise and practice.

Annie Dillard devotes a chapter to Seeing in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She writes that the most obvious objects in nature are often the most difficult to see.
Nature is one of those line drawings of a tree that are puzzles for children.
Annie Dillard
We are creatures deceived by expectation. Often we only see what we expect.
My eyes account for less than one percent of the weight of my head. I'm bony and dense; I see what I expect.Annie Dillard
How do we tune our senses to the unexpected?
If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail. Heraclitus