The First Light.
My initial connection with this phrase was while watching Little House on the Prairie with our three daughters in the mid 1980s. Every time Charles Ingalls was planning a long journey he would always want to leave “first light." Nevertheless I have always been familiar with that event. While in college, “first light” was generally envisioned from the night before or for a very early lecture.
I first appreciated that time of day when my dad would take us down to the shore at Coast Guard Beach on the Cape to watch the sun rise from the “edge” of the world over the Atlantic. My brother and I would protest defiantly when we were shaken awake but when that first shard of sunbeam zipped above the horizon we stood in wonderment. Genuine first light, however, must be experienced over a stretch of time and with landscape between you and that brightening sky. True, the streaks of sunrays shooting from the Atlantic’s horizon are staggering but then it is done swiftly, dark to light.
With this in mind when I became a serious camper I made it a point to rise early, when still dark. I would quickly “brew” a cup of instant coffee. At this stage of life I was clueless to the world of fresh brewed dark roast or lattes. We now have a drip pot as part of our camping gear and always bring freshly ground coffee with us. Wrapping my hands around the hot cup, I would park myself against a tree (no camp loungers either) facing east and wait. I was either in a forest or at the perimeter of a meadow surrounded by trees, my first light “landscape." Though deemed totally dark, I could faintly make out the shapes of trees, bushes, and tents.
Here, too, total darkness is a relative term. Even on moonless nights, once my eyes adjusted to the lower light, I could see. I have only experienced total darkness three times in my life. First instance was as a child in the depths of Howe Caverns in New York with my parents. Second time was in Mammoth Caves in Kentucky in 1973. Finally last summer in the Galapagos Islands with my wife we climbed into a lava tube with our guide on the Isle of Santa Maria. In all three cases we were cut off from all light by descending into the cavernous depths of the bowels of the Earth.
As I sat sipping my coffee at the outset I didn’t perceive any change in brightness other than my eyes’ slow adjustment to the dark. Then I became aware the trees weren’t just a muddy silhouette. Their branches began taking on individual shapes, solo arms and fingers protruding from the trunk, backlit by the first dim lighting of the sky. This is much better experienced in the cold of winter with no leaves and the frigid air so crisply clean.
Then the jagged horizon of the tree tops became distinguishable. As the light strengthened it almost gave the impression of the trees coming alive, branches and twigs sprouting from main limbs as they became visible. At some point depth joined the surroundings. With greater light I could see the different distances of individual trees and bushes. My landscape was expanding toward and away from me. It was becoming three dimensional. The meadow at this point was nonetheless a dark, flat shadow in front of the forest background.
Subsequently the sky seemed to morph into a kaleidoscope of shades of gray. No authentic color yet. It is in fact difficult to say when tangible colors become discernable. I don’t actually notice this happening, but am suddenly conscious of the hint of blue in the sky. The light is yet too faint to cast any color on the trees other than brownish gray. Even the evergreen needles are a funny shade of gray. The presence of clusters of needles is unquestionably emerging.
Recently I have been writing about sound in nature listening to the Earth speak. I have pointed out how our sense of hearing increases as our sight weakens from the dark. I believe the reverse crops up as daylight arrives. Just as our strong sense of sight dampens our hearing during the day, I trust our strengthened hearing diminishes our discernment of change from dark to light. This is another rationale for experiencing “first light” in the cold environment of winter. Not only do leaves mottle the crispness of our sight, but the delightful chorale of birds at dawn distracts our vision. Few birds remain during the winter and those who do linger are only interested in replenishing their energy from food, no time for warbling.
Yet in the dimness I often hear a moving object before I actually see it. This was true one morning when an owl, I believe a barred owl, swooped through the air right in front of me. I heard the whoosh before I saw its shadow disappearing into the trees.
At this moment the first rays of sun are reflecting the clouds. The sky has undeniably taken on its soft shade of blue. Trees are distinctive shades of brown and the discrete markings on their trunks are now evident. The meadow is no longer a shadow but a swath of green and yellow grasses and bushes. The well-defined depth and shape of my world has been born before me. Amazingly, however, this all transpires prior to any beam of sunlight has emerged through the trees. Though the sun rising over the Atlantic is dazzling, the idea that every daybreak we can experience the visual rebirth of our world, branch by branch, twig by twig, blade of grass by blade of grass, and color by color. Try this some time; it will slowly take your breath away.