Monday, November 21, 2016

Changing Impressions: Light In A Fall Garden

"Change is a measure of time and, in the autumn, time seems speeded up. What was is not and never again will be; what is is change." Edwin Way Teale

Noon light illuminates a panel of stained glass in the garden shed

We tend to think of our gardens as constants, as entities expressing a distinct character that persists from day to day. As gardeners, we work hard to create that sense of enduring character in our gardens. But within the garden's confines, and despite our efforts at ordering its space, change remains the norm. Change takes many shapes: growth and decay, additions and deletions, our deliberate plans skewed in turn by nature's hidden operations. But beyond these elemental forces another change agent is always at work, adding its transient touches from moment to moment, varying the way objects appear to our eye and the impression they leave. Time of day, season of the year and, above all, atmospheric conditions alter the light we see things in, affecting how gardens look and feel at any given moment. The sun's mobility, itself varying along a changing arc, modifies the light-yield of day and season, lengthening or shortening the shadows it casts, or dispensing with them entirely when it's overcast.

As gardeners who get to observe their charges in so many different lights, we come to appreciate subtle gradations that modify how the garden appears. Light structures the mood of the garden. The simple act of watching turns out to be an enjoyable experience that itself can be cultivated, even as our hands are busy with tasks. One looks forward to seeing how nature is going to reveal itself each day, especially when the signs at daybreak appear promising. As we grow into our gardens over the years, this practice of observing effects grows upon us, ultimately revealing itself as a practical way of actually living in the moment (as opposed to always living towards the future, not being in the present at all, which many now do). What better way to live in the moment than to observe its particular qualities as manifested by our immediate surroundings? One key to this is the perception that things actually do appear differently in different lights - and, that the way they appear affects their impact on us. Of course, we have to be able to pause long enough to notice them, and remain still long enough for an impression to register. If we can, then certain conditions will command our attention, and at special moments perhaps lead us to experience feelings of awe. This way of approaching light's effects mimics the turn taken by impressionism - recognizing that it's the light of the moment that renders the scene memorable. Viewed from this angle, daylight offers us a living theatre for garden viewing, one that can absolutely captivate the eye on very special days. Sometimes, when conditions are right, bearing witness to atmospheric changes is like having a front row seat at a show nature is conducting. On one such magical day in October, I decided to try and capture a succession of the light's changing effects throughout the day.

Changing impressions caused by the evolving daylight are there to be enjoyed during all our seasons, but fall is a special time. Certainly not every day is evocative in the way this day would show itself (some days display an enervating sameness of effect that drains a lot of the magic, especially, say, in a dreary November). Yet others, and those not infrequently with October's many mood swings here, generate absolutely memorable effects for whole days at a time. The photos below are from the third week of October in Victoria, in conditions that were ideal for this sort of garden watching: the observor available, a variety of atmospheric effects on offer, the day ultimately inducing a glow in everything. I was actually working inside that day, so available to the moments only from time to time - but the scene itself was always visible and thus immediately observable whenever I looked out. I hope the photos and text capture some of the engaging spectacle on display that day.

A misty start after a long night of fall rain, the garden drenched and green

The day dawned through a light mist, after a night of rain. The shot above catches the scene a little before nine o'clock. I'm working inside and looking out through the kitchen windows now and then. One effect of mist is a softening of things, as it diffuses the light and renders the air itself visible. I had a feeling this mist would dissolve fairly quickly into open sunlight, and was intrigued to watch this transition play out. I decided to record these early conditions, so I leaned out a kitchen window and brought the garden up closer with a telephoto lens. The mist in the shot below, while still thick enough to render the background details hazily, is already being infiltrated by fall's golden sunlight.

Similar angle, sun now starting to rise above the mist, fall colours flooding in

Morning mists occur periodically in fall and winter in our marine climate, which sees the jet stream push clouds and storms in off the Pacific Ocean and across the peninsula we inhabit. Mists and fogs are usually associated with an air mass that's come to a standstill, which we experience essentially as a motionless cloud sitting right against the land. This stillness and the shrouding effect of mist always adds an air of mystery to our surroundings (that is, if one isn't traveling in it). Apparently the physical phenomenon of fog is caused by temperature differentials triggering evaporation from land (or sea) to air, concentrated and compressed by inversion, whereby another air mass above it holds the mist in place. When this is the case, especially in parts of the year when the sun's arc is lower in the sky, solar energy has to penetrate the mist for longer before dissipating it. (In Vancouver's West End, fog coupled with inversion sometimes persists for days on end, enclosing the visible world to the point of claustrophobic surreality). Our mists and fogs sometimes blanket broad areas, at other times they are limited to lower-lying pockets of land, and at still others, they are sequestered over the straits, complicating navigation. To someone on land, settled in a secure location, the presence of mist adds ethereal effect to the landscape, especially as it gradually thins out and daylight breaks through. This was exactly the dynamic at work that day.

"Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst."  
                                                           Robert Frost, October


At this point I was beavering away at work and only occasionally glancing at the day's sights through the windows. Things, however, were moving along dynamically. As the sun rose higher in the sky, the light turned more lustrous and golden, and with it the fall palette of reds, yellows, oranges and browns leapt to the eye. Bright sunlight falling on a garden drenched with rain adds a kind of pulsing resplendence to the entire scene, at points seeming almost paradisialy splendid. Our fall sunshine is certainly brilliant, but not so intense as to quickly dry out the landscape, which means these Edenic impressions of verdure and vibrant colour go on and on. Through the flow of moments the surroundings are simply glowing with radiant energy. Check below how the fall colours are beginning to smolder as the sun's rays fully break through (there's now only the faintest hint of lingering mist in the distant background).

Suddenly the mist dissipates, sunlight grows dominant, and fall colours blaze

The sun's appearance renders the world into blocks of contrasty light and shade. Periodically I look up to notice that the shade line running across the back garden has retreated eastward as the sun rises further above the roof, bathing ever more of the ground plane in intense fall light.

Rising in the southeast, the sun casts angled light onto the oaks, lilacs and shed front

From my seat at the counter, our generously sized kitchen windows play the role of framing views that appear astonishingly rich and vibrant. The thought occurs how fortunate I am to have such direct visual access to the garden from inside a building, and how rare and unusual this degree of wall porosity actually is. Ample windows make walls seem semi-transparent, tipping the usual distancing effect towards one of connection. I quietly thank the building's designer for so creatively linking inside to outside, affording me a pleasurable sense of immediacy without leaving my seat.

View-framing window with scenic ensemble

Shade and shadow effects balance the sun's progressive illumination of the scene

Come break time, I stop working to make tea and then wander about to inspect the changing scenes framed through other windows. I am intrigued to try recording some more of these engaging impressions, rendered rather dreamily through the wavy lens of old glass.  It's towards eleven o'clock when the next photos are taken.

Window scene looking southwards across a tangle of shrubs

Mossy green limbs of Garry Oak, looking south-east through living room windows

After another work bout, I decide to head outside for a breath of fresh air and to sample the changing impressions from closer up. The day outside registers as awe-inspiring autumn at its entrancing best: echoes of summer's forceful energy tinged with the faintest hint of winter's approach in the sharpening plays of shadow and light. While the front garden (down slope) is now fully illuminated by high sun from the south, the back garden still shows large areas  locked in deep shadow. The contrast between zones is stark, the oak trees and garden furnishings casting intriguing, mobile shadow patterns into the sunny parts of the scene. The fact the sun is much lower in the sky during our fall equinox lengthens the shadows objects cast. There are also fewer hours of sunlight now, so the daily progression of changes is more compressed and rapid, sensitizing us to its movement. That shortening day, with its less intense solar energy, is what triggers the leaves to stop making chlorophyll, in turn prompting their gradual turn from lush green towards the fall colours. The sunlight however, while less intense, remains brilliant, but not in the blinding, colour-fading way of summer sunshine. Look at the shadows cast by oak limbs on the bay tree in the next photo, imparting a slightly whimsical quality to the scene.

Brilliant sunlight coupled with deep shade effects and sharp shadow lines

High overhead, bathed in full sunlight, a tableau of moss and lichen covers the oak limbs like a shaggy carpet. This secretive world returns to visible life when fall rains swell its array of inhabitants back to prominence. As I observe them now, glowing in this glorious sunlight light after soaking rain, the thought occurs that as gardeners we really should be cultivating this world of plants more consciously for their subtle seasonal effects. While they may be a little lost in the colour-orgy of autumn, by November their presence will assert itself in welcome ways. I'm reminded again of what that canny gardener Sir Francis Bacon counseled so long ago now: "there ought to be gardens for all months in the year, in which, severally, things of beauty may be in season". Here on our suddenly wet west coast, mosses, lichen and their ilk should qualify for more attention in our fall gardens, as they are both beautiful and coming into season now.

An intriguing domain of lichen and mosses that recedes to a mere trace in summer

Come mid-day and a break for lunch, I'm briefly free again to observe the moment's changing impressions. The sun is now more fully overhead, the direction of its light gradually contracting the scene's shaded zones, shortening shadows and further scrambling their effects. At this time of year though, given the elevation of the house on a ridge, some parts of the scene do remain shaded throughout the entire day, emphatically so in the intense sunshine today. These effects, akin to a painter's chiaroscuro, are central to the magic and mystery of the season's changeable light.

Lilac's yellowing leaves through diamond shaped facets

Shadows contracting slowly, light intensifying elements of the composition

Fruiting shrubs display autumn reds and oranges, oak leaves echoed along the path

The afternoon segment of the sun's daily rotation brings subtle new effects in train. Moving into the southwest now, it casts sharply angled light from a gradually shifting direction. Come mid-afternoon, this shifting direction of light causes the garden to appear quite differently. Specific combinations of elements within the garden seem to beckon the eye at this point. For reasons I don't comprehend, the pictures are now virtually composing themselves. Perhaps this sort of light makes every possible scene into a picture.

Scenes seem to suggest themselves to the eye in this light

The tiny pink flowers between the oak and the 'glacial erratic' are invading cyclamen

As afternoon wears on, the changing sun angles continue to subtly modify scenic effects - I am shooting across the direction of sunlight in the next photo, so trees and shrubs appear back-lit, causing a glowing aura to appear along their edges.

Strong shadow line along the curve of boxwoods, golden aura edging tree limbs

Sense of peaceful repose, fall colours still glowing in the later afternoon sun

The sun is now fully into the southwest and descending quickly towards the horizon, but its rays still just clear the treed backdrop to reach deep into both front and back gardens.

Caramel leaves and mossy limbs through wavy glass

Lichen and moss backlit in later afternoon light from the southwest

From time to time throughout the day I've also noticed the earth's fall scent rising up with renewed freshness from recently moistened ground. This earthy redolence is perhaps amplified by my mucking about in flower beds at this time of year, digging out dwindling plants, mixing in fresh compost, and replanting ground with renewed hope. It's also conditioned by the exotic smell of the caramel-toned oak leaves brought down by the night's rainfall, now dried enough to again scrunch under foot.

Neighbouring maple smolders next to greens of box and bay

Near the end of a day's direct overhead light, the remaining rays take on an effect of liquid gold. Now about to slip behind the tall firs to the west and so become diffuse at twilight, the sun splashes a final play of golden light across the south wall of the house.

Last beams of golden light splash against the building as the sun descends in the west

This magical fall day would conclude with a long period of more indirect effects, which also commanded attention but which, at my skill level at least, are less susceptible to rendering effectively as photos. So, echoing the more abrupt way the sun disappears at day's end in fall, my photo-essay ends here too. My eyes were obviously beguiled by the day's effects, an experience I was open to despite my being occupied with my work. It afforded me the possibility of seeing and recording the garden light show as I observed it throughout the course of the day. 

Making oneself available to being engaged by such effects is apparently becoming harder for people today (many now becoming indifferent to their actual physical surroundings, other than as contexts for selfies). There is a clear preference for the distractions of the virtual world over the actual world's changeful appearances. I gather I'm rather old-fashioned in this regard, if anything trying to sharpen my sense of direct engagement with season and landscape from moment to moment. But I should acknowledge my own sleight of hand in this mode of presenting things, as I am in fact using images (hence employing a tool of the virtuality I was just lamenting) to try and convey the potential of being present in person to such effects. I leave it to you to judge whether that worked or not - my intention was to share my own garden in a way that reflects the day's effects and encourages further watching.

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