Thursday, November 30, 2023

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 TealeCircle Of The Seasons



Noon October light illuminates a panel of stained glass inside 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. But within the garden's confines, despite all our efforts at ordering this space, change remains the norm. Change in a garden takes many forms: growth and decay, additions and deletions, our deliberate plans skewed by nature's hidden operations. But beyond these elemental forces another agent of change is always at work, adding transient touches from moment to moment, varying the way objects appear to our eye and the impressions they leave. Time of day, season of the year and, above all, atmospheric conditions modify the light we see things through, affecting how gardens look and feel at any given moment. The sun's mobility, itself varying along a continually changing arc, modifies the light-yield of day and season, lengthening or shortening the shadows cast or dispensing with them entirely when the sky is overcast.


Light varies by day and season, constantly changing our impressions of nature


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 mood in the garden. The simple act of watching turns out to be an enjoyable experience that can be cultivated, even as our hands are busy with seasonal garden 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 on us, ultimately revealing itself as a practical way to live in the moment (as opposed to always living towards the future, so not being in the present at all - which many now seem to do). What better way to live in the moment than to observe its particular qualities as manifested by our immediate surroundings? 


"The garden is never fully under human control. However one may strive after a finished perfect 'product', it must always be illusory – or at the best, ephemeral. The garden resists reification, insists upon process. It is always unfinished. A fixed result may be desirable, but it is always elusive." The Garden As An Art, Mara Miller, 1993


One key to living in the moment 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 such things, remaining still long enough for an impression to register. If we can do this, then certain conditions will command our attention, and at special moments perhaps lead us to experience feelings of awe and delight. This way of approaching light's effects mimics the turn taken by the school of painting known as Impressionism - recognizing that it's the light of the moment that renders a scene memorable. Viewed from this angle, daylight offers a living theatre for garden viewing, one that can absolutely captivate the eye on 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 for us. On one such magical day in October 2016, I decided to try and capture a succession of the light's changing effects throughout the course of the day.


Strawberry Tree (arbutus unedo) berries


Changing impressions caused by evolving daylight are there to be enjoyed during all seasons, but fall is a very special time. Certainly not every day is evocative in the way this one would be (some days display an enervating sameness of effect that drains much of the magic, especially say in a dreary November). But other days, and those not infrequently with October's mood swings, generate absolutely memorable effects all day long. The photos below are taken during the third week of October in Victoria, in conditions that were ideal for this form of garden watching: the observer available to the day, a variety of changing atmospheric effects on offer, the day ultimately inducing a glow in everything light fell on. I happened to be working from home that day, so could witness the developing moments. As a result, the scene was always visible and immediately observable whenever I looked up and out. I hope the photos and text capture some of the engaging spectacle on display that magical day.



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


The day dawned through a light mist, after a night of sustained rainfall. The shot above catches the scene just before nine o'clock in the morning. I'm working inside and looking out through the kitchen windows now and then. One effect of mist is a general softening of things, as it diffuses available light while rendering the air itself visible. I had a feeling this mist would dissolve fairly quickly into open sunlight and was intrigued to watch the transition play out. I decided to record these early conditions, so I leaned out a kitchen window and brought the garden up closer using a telephoto lens. The mist in the shot below, while still thick enough to render the background details hazily, is already being infiltrated by October'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 our small peninsula. Mists and fogs are usually associated with an air mass that's come to a standstill, which we experience essentially as a motionless cloud perched above the land. This stillness and the shrouding effect of mist adds an air of mystery to the surroundings (that is, if one doesn't have to travel in it!). Apparently the physical phenomenon of mist is caused by temperature differentials that trigger evaporation of moisture from land (or sea) to air, concentrated and compressed by atmospheric inversion caused by an air mass above holding it stationary. When this happens, especially during 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 combined with inversion can persist for days on end, enclosing the visible world to the point of claustrophobic unreality). The mists we see here sometimes blanket broad areas of land, but at other times are limited to lower-lying pockets or sequester over the straits where they complicate navigation. To someone on land, settled in a secure location, the presence of mist adds ethereal effect to landscape, especially as it gradually thins 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', 1915



At this point I was busy working and only occasionally glancing at the day's sights through the windows. Light-wise however, things 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 began to make a stronger impression. Bright sunlight falling on a garden drenched with rain adds a kind of pulsing resplendence to the scene, at points making it appear paradisical. Our fall sunshine can be brilliant, but not so intense as to quickly dry the landscape, which means Edenic impressions of verdure and vibrant colour are prolonged. Through the flow of moments the surroundings simply glow with radiant energy. Check below how the fall colours are beginning to smoulder as the sun's rays fully break through (there's only the faintest hint of lingering mist in the distant background now).


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


The sun's appearance renders the world into blocks of contrasting light and shade. Periodically I look up and notice that the shade line running across the back garden is retreating slowly eastward as the sun gradually 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 on oaks, lilacs and shed front


From my seat at an island counter, generously sized kitchen windows play the role of framing views that appear astonishingly rich and vibrant. The thought occurs how fortunate we are to have such direct visual access to the garden from inside the building, and how rare and unusual this degree of wall-porosity actually is in a world of houses designed to face inwards. 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 ever having to leave my seat.


View-framing window with scenic ensemble

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

Come time for morning break, I stop working to make tea and then wander about to inspect the changing scenes framed through other windows. I am intrigued enough to continue recording 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 made.


Window scene looking south 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 registers as awe-inspiring autumn at its entrancing best: echoes of summer's forceful energy are tinged by the faintest hint of winter's approach in the sharpening plays of shadow and light. While the front garden (down slope in front of the house) is now fully illuminated by high sun from the south, the back garden still reveals broad areas locked in full shade. 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 fall equinox lengthens the shadows cast by objects. 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 leaves to stop manufacturing chlorophyll, in turn prompting their gradual turn from lush green towards the spectrum of fall colours. The sunlight however, while less intense, remains brilliant, but not in the blinding, colour-fading way of overhead summer sun. Look at the shadows cast by oak limbs on the bay tree in the next photo, imparting a slightly fanciful 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 glorious sunlight after soaking rains, the thought occurs that as gardeners we really should be cultivating this world of plants much more consciously for their subtle seasonal effects. While they may be a little lost in the colour-orgy of full-on autumn, by November their presence will assert itself in welcome ways. I'm reminded again what that canny garden-maker Francis Bacon counselled so long ago now (Of Gardens, 1625): "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 damp 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 as the leaves disappear.



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


Come mid-day, I'm briefly free to again 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 on a hill, parts of the scene do remain shaded through most of the day, emphatically so in the day's intense sunlight. These effects, akin to painter's chiaroscuro, are central to the magic and mystery of the season's changeable light.


Lilac's yellowing leaves through diamond-paned glass

Shadows contracting slowly, light intensifying elements of the composition

Fruiting cotoneasters displaying seasonal red and orange colours

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 gradual change of direction. Come mid-afternoon, the shifting direction of light causes the garden to appear quite differently. Specific combinations of elements within it 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 now

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

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


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

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

The sun is now fully in the southwest and descending rapidly 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 from recently moistened ground. This earthy redolence is perhaps amplified by our mucking about in flower beds at this time of year, digging out dwindling plants, mixing in fresh compost, and replanting grounds with renewed hope of good results next year. This distinctive scent is also conditioned by the exotic smell of caramel-toned oak leaves brought down by the night's rainfall, some now dried sufficiently to scrunch again under foot.


Neighbours' maple smoulders next to box and bay


Near the end of the day's direct overhead light, the remaining rays have the effect of liquid gold on the house. Now about to slip behind the tall fir trees of Marigold Park lying to the west and so become diffuse before the long twilight, the sun splashes a final play of this golden light across the south wall of the house.


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

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


"Our vision these days is attuned to the virtual rather than the visible, to images rather than appearances, and to representations rather than phenomena." Robert Pogue Harrison, On the Lost Art of Seeing, in Gardens: An Essay On The Human Condition. 

Making oneself available to being engaged by such effects is apparently becoming harder for people today (many now are indifferent to their actual physical surroundings, other than as contexts for the immediacy of selfies). There is a clear preference for the distractions of the virtual world over the actual physical 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 minute to minute. But I should acknowledge my own sleight of hand in this mode of presentation, as I am in fact using images (hence employing a tool of the virtuality I just lamented) to try and convey the potential of being present in person to precisely such effects. I leave it to you to judge whether that worked or not - my intention was only to share my home garden in a way that reflects the day's unique effects and encourages further observing. 



Books For Looks:

Circle of The Seasons - The Journal of a Naturalist's Year, Edwin Way Teale, 1953.

Of Gardens, Francis Bacon, 1625.

Gardens - An Essay on the Human Condition, Robert Pogue Harrison, 2008.

The Garden As An Art, Mara Miller, 1993.


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