May 20, 2016: The Radiant Night
This morning Emme and I set off on foot at 6:50 for walk to school day. It was chilly and sunny and breathtakingly beautiful. The world was silent, raked with sunshine, green on every side, We were alone out there, and it had the feeling of a fresh start, a new adventure, the feeling I get when I set off early in the summer, alone, to climb a mountain I’ve never climbed before. A sense of possibility and novelty, as though the day could offer anything, and might. We are cold but in high spirits, talking and joking and marveling at the beauty of it all. We make our way down the hill and turn onto 132, heading toward South Strafford and the school. Still there are no cars. A mist across the valley is just starting to break and clear, and the sunlight is striking through it from the side, lighting it into a golden haze that hangs above the flat-bottomed river valley. Lush green fields and beyond them hills, the wandering S-curves of the Ompompanoosuc, black cattle grazing in clusters, the occasional farmhouse, all illuminated by morning sunlight. It looks like about as close as one can come to paradise.
We walk briskly, giving one another an occasional good-natured shove, talking and laughing. Bird song bursts from the hillsides to our right. About a mile along 132 we see a small deer, dead, down the side of a steep embankment to our left, probably hit by a car as it ran across the road. Some ways further along we see a dead tree with five enormous shapes in it. When we get closer we see that they are vultures, shoulders up and wings clasped to their bodies. When we approach the tree, and walk beneath it, they take heavy flight and glide back toward the deer.
The rest of the walk is jubilant and we determine to do it once every week until the end of the school year. When she is deposited at school I turn around and walk the two and a half miles back home, this time against a scattered tide of bikers, kids and parents, skimming along toward school.
I have a lot to do when I get back but first I climb the tree. I am inspired by the walk to have a bit more of this beautiful morning, and I take the Canon up with me. Sitting up there for a while in the shade–the shade! Leaves! After all those months of bare branches!–I hear a repeated burbling bird call from a neighboring tree, an endless, varied stream. Eventually the singer drops from a branch and flies to the ground. I watch it down there, dipping its head into leaves on the forest floor and flipping them aside in urgent, efficient movements. It must be looking for slugs or grubs or ants.
I take great pleasure in our reversed roles: the bird on the ground being watched, unknowing, by the human hidden up among the branches.
This evening is the semi-formal dance over in Tunbridge, and afterwards Emme and all the other girls in the seventh grade (all six of them) come back to the house for a post-mortem, copious quantities of sugar, and a sleepover. There is pasta and ice cream and gales of laughter that will not end until two or three in the morning.
Around 12:30 or 1:00 in the morning I slip out of the house, even though I have already climbed the tree today. The moon full and the night is irresistible. And I am up anyways.
I slip across the lawn marveling that all the world can be bright and dark at the same time; but this is how it is by moonlight. After the clamor of the house it is exquisitely quiet outside. I reach the ladder, climb to the treehouse, lift myself into the first branches, and stop. I just stand there and look around. I think to myself, there are no words to describe this.
Moonlight strikes down through the treetops and patches of it penetrate down to the lower levels, so that branches and clusters of leaves hang silver here and there in the darkness. Looking up, and around, the effect is striking vertical: patches of silver light scattered among the dense, enveloping shadows cast by trunks and branches and leaves. Tiers of illumination rising upwards in the night. I start to climb, slowly, most of my attention given to this world of light and shadows around me, to its utter stillness and silence. The higher I rise, the less darkness there is, with fewer trunks and branches to cast it; and the more moonlight there is, washing over branchfuls of leaves, over twigs and limbs and trunks. Still there are shadows, but now they are shadows of discrete objects, the shadow of a branch laying itself across the silvered length of another branch. And above it all, the luminous black sky.
Part of me meditates on this subtle shift in perspective: down below, it was all darkness and the moon cast light in patches among it; up here, it is all light, and it is the branches that do the casting, laying shadows across what lies beneath them. And how strange it is to think of darkness being cast at night at all. But mostly I gaze around in awe, silenced by the wonder of what I am seeing. The sky is bright with moonlight and full of stars, and the meadows are awash with silver. Shadows are everywhere, and they are sharply delineated and pitch black, cast by trees across the lawn, cast by the woods at my back into a dark mass beneath me. The prayer flags differ in shade, lighter to darker, but are of only one hue, a faint silver. All the mystery of the world when one is a child, the haunting sense of beauty, of living presence all around one–the world is vibrant and breathing with it again out here, in a treetop washed with moonlight. The palely radiant night is alive and I am haunted by it. I let a surge of gratitude and exhilaration wash through me.
I don’t throw the word sacred around lightly, but if ever I were to use it, it would be now.
I spend a long time just standing there, gazing on it all, not wanting to leave. At last I climb down and return to the house.