January is finished. In Idaho it was a month of extremes - Siberian in its coldness, profligate with its snow, leaving drifts large enough to conceal cars, bringing the deer and moose down from their high hilltops to feed. The icicles resemble the bared teeth of a feral beast, long and scalpel sharp, glinting. And then there's the light - blinding in its brightness, ricocheting off large patches of white. Even the air glitters. Despite the sun's enthusiastic presence, it offers no respite from the snapping cold, and then suddenly it's night. The sun is gone, dropped on the other side of the hills, the light is snuffed, the temperatures plummet. While I could weave an essay about weather, it's really the light I want to talk about, our beloved photons.
One might say light is requisite, for without it we'd perish. Yet it doesn't nourish us or slake our thirst. While it does allow our food to grow - our bodies don't require it in great quantities to live. It's our souls that need the light. We have found clever ways to replace sunlight - we have fire and electricity to allow us to see, or cook our food, or keep us warm. While we need darkness to refuel and to rest, it's more a lessening of light we seek. Light is the prom queen, darkness her handmaiden.
Light draws us in. Our eyes seek out the pinpoints of light in the night sky. They're drawn to a lighted window on a dark street, they follow the full moon's course, they stare into fires. Light and our eyes - a relationship we take for granted, but while our eyes were made for light and long for it, light can take us or leave us. It's a lopsided relationship. We offer light nothing, but we pay obeisance to it.
Artists, especially, are slaves to light. We are acutely aware of her tricks and fickleness. We pay homage to light in every photo and painting we create. We record light's passing like sycophants following the queen. Many a photographer and painter arises at first light to capture light's fine and subtle moods. The sun strolls the horizon, ticking off the shadows, lifting the mist, pulling out the birdsong of a million birds. We artists are smitten beings, taking great care to faithfully record her resplendent passage. Nothing is quite so holy as that first light of dawn. Unless of course it's dusk's sweet light. Here is gold and geometry, oblique shadows and the spangled air adrift with pollen and insects. It's so lovely, it makes our hearts ache and we grab our paper, our canvas, our paints, or our lenses and we stride out and greedily seek to harvest the perfect image that light lays on our retinas, a golden gift that's too soon gone. Soon the sun takes it leave and drags the moon (an inadequate surrogate) up over the horizon. But wait, we'll take the moonlight too! Though the colors go gray in the dark, our brains have evolved to insert the missing colors. We think we see a red apple at night in the orchard, but not so, they're all gray delicious.
Science states that long ago in our species' evolution, we traded an acute sense of smell for color vision. Seeing color must have offered some sort of protection that allowed us to live long enough to pass it on through our genes and usurp the space in our brain that was originally owned by acute smell. There wasn't room for both apparently. I'm no scientist and don't want to delve too deeply into something that I have no expertise in, but I find it interesting that something as utilitarian as the ability to sniff out danger was diminished by the aesthetic of color vision. Obviously, color vision had its usefulness, red berries versus the poisonous green ones, for example, and maybe before color vision we reveled in the power of smell, but there was no good way to record a memorable scent the same way paintings record visual memories, so we'll never know. I believe dogs, whose sense of smell is thousands of times better than ours, are transported to a higher realm by the smell of grilling meat (if their trembling and drooling are any indication), just as some of us who are transfixed by the way the light plays on water. Perhaps the value of the tradeoff between smell and color was equivocal, if only in terms of aesthetics.
That being said, I think of light in all of its iterations, a lovely gift. Pure and simple. Even the stark light of January is not without its beauty. This is one of the reasons I paint, not the main one to be sure, for I'm not that kind of painter. Rather I use light as metaphor, a flashlight shone onto a thought. I add the shadows where they need to be for verisimilitude, but my paintings are only riffs on reality. Others' are more accurate portrayals, but in the end painters use light to record their own actualities, to put on paper how things appear to them. Next time you look at a piece of art, consider the light that had to first hit the retinas, which sent the image to the brain, which caused a thousand sparking neurons, which eventually resulted in that image . . . what you're seeing are the inner workings of someone else's mind. Art and literature and music are what allow us to step out of our solitary thoughts and transiently experience someone else's reality. That's illuminating on many levels.