A Certain Slant of Light

Morning on Alazan Bayou ~ Nacogdoches County, Texas

Hopes for a perfect autumn respite — color-filled days, cooler nights, woodsmoke scented air – had washed away before a flood of interminable, days-long rains. While sodden squirrels sheltered and sulked, nightbirds huddled among the dripping oaks, hickories, and pines of the east Texas forest: invisible, unwilling to take flight. Only occasional hints of frog-song rippled across the silence: soft, hesitant trills that sluiced into consciousness as gently as the shush of footsteps along the sandy trails.

Resigned as much to the rain as to the next day’s unavoidable departure, I retired early, falling asleep to the insistent patter of raindrops. Awakened before dawn by unexpected birdsong, I made coffee, then stepped outside to gauge the weather. Improbably, the rain had stopped. Bits of blue shimmered above the treetops, and what darkness remained served only as a foil for the shafts of sunlight piercing the green canopy.

Even the most casual skywatcher has seen the sort of rays that greeted me that morning. The word used to describe them — ‘crepuscular’ — refers to twilight, and crepuscular rays occur primarily during sunrise or sunset twilight. When they appear, streaks of light seem to radiate directly from the sun, shining through breaks in the clouds or past objects arrayed along an irregular horizon, such as mountain tops.

While the shadowed areas between the rays are formed by obstructions,  the light itself is scattered by airborne dust, water droplets, or even air molecules, providing a visible contrast between shadowed and illuminated parts of the sky.

On this particular morning, days of rain had led to significant ground fog, heavy enough to scatter the light into particularly vivid and well-defined rays. As I watched, the initially monochromatic, almost white, rays began taking on color.

Despite the color, the phenomenon clearly wasn’t a rainbow. Seeing the images, sky-savvy friends suggested the possibility of a double effect: crepuscular rays combined with a corona.

Coronae, produced by the diffraction of light, often appear when thin clouds partially obscure the sun or the moon, but tiny droplets of fog or mist can produce the effect under other conditions. Sometimes, the droplets need not be transparent or even spherical; small ice crystals, pollen grains, and large dust particles also can lead to the formation of coronae.

In a corona, the intensely bright central aureole almost always is white, surrounded by a fringe of yellows and reds. Occasionally, one or more successively fainter, more softly-colored rings will surround the aureole, ranging from blue on the inside through greens and yellows to the outermost red.

With the colors more subtly mixed than in a rainbow, blues and greens can be especially hard to see, but in this photo, at least a hint of them seems to exist just below the sun.

While physicists speak of diffraction and droplets, English-language poets have attempted to describe these experiences of sunlight in quite different terms. More than a few, confounded by the inadequacy of language, have invented their own words.

In the poem “Fern Hill,” Dylan Thomas turned to ‘windfall light’ as his image of choice: a phrase that evokes apple-green light tumbling to the ground.

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, who can pile up adjectives with the best of them, turned to the thirteenth-century word shivemeaning a thin piece sliced off from a larger —  to create shivelight for  his poem, “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire…”:

Wherever an elm arches,
shivelights and shadowtackle in long ‘lashes lace, lance, and pair.

C.S. Lewis regularly turned to the sun as a metaphor in his work. When such familiar comparisons as “shafts of delicious sunlight” didn’t seem adequate, he turned to “Godlight,” as in his Letters to Malcolm:

Any patch of sunlight in a wood will show you something about the sun which you could never get from reading books on astronomy. These pure and spontaneous pleasures are patches of Godlight in the woods of our experience.

Despite the best efforts of the poets, none of these words has caught on, perhaps because they seem to describe the light without expressing the aesthetic pleasure that accompanies watching light playing among the trees.

One word that does seem to combine aesthetics with the experience of nature is the nearly untranslatable Japanese word komorebi.

Komorebi (木漏れ日) consists of three kanji and the hiragana particle れ. The kanji 木 means ‘tree’ or ‘trees‘;  漏 refers to ‘leaking through’ or ‘escape’; 日, is ‘light‘ or ‘sun‘. Because no simple English translation exists, phrases such as ‘sunshine filtering through leaves’ or ‘dappled light’ sometimes are used, although ‘the interplay between light and leaves when sunlight shines through trees’ seems especially apt.

Komorebi can refer to an assortment of phenomena: not only crepuscular rays and coronae but also the larger patches of shimmering, movable light produced when sunlight meets fog and rain. The Irish poet Caitríona O’Reilly captures the magic beautifully in her poem, “Komorebi”:

Between the world and the word
are three small shapes,
the signs for ‘‘tree,’’ ‘‘escape,’’ and ‘‘sun.’’
I watch how the light leaks through them,
casting a shade in both directions
in the late year, on the russet path
barred with the shadows of trees.
I love how it exults, like any escapee,
on the lake in slow reflective waves,
in radiant bands ascending the birch trunks
according to some unknown frequency,
and in the cormorant extending his wet wings to it
in a messianic gesture,
as if dazzled to absolute
by the word and the world’s beauty.  

Scientists seek precision; poets seek metaphor. Meanwhile, komorebi drifts through the woodlands and down the streams, always beyond our grasp. Perhaps no English equivalent for the kanji is needed. Sometimes, an encounter with escaped sunlight filtering through leaves is quite enough.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information about poet Caitríona O’Reilly, please click here.