First Light

Diane Ackerman, best-selling author of A Natural History of the Senses, offers a series of meditations on dawn and decay, koans and creation.

Diane Ackerman
1 November 2009
Austin Schmid

A Dawning Pleasure

At dawn, the world rises out of darkness, slowly, sense-grain by grain, as if from sleep. Life becomes visible once again. “When it is dark, it seems to me as if I were dying, and I can’t think anymore,” Claude Monet once lamented. “More light!” Goethe begged from his deathbed. Dawn is the wellspring of more light, the origin of our first to last days as we roll in space, over 6.684 billion of us in one global petri dish, shot through with sunlight, in our cells, in our minds, in our myriad metaphors of rebirth, in all the extensions to our senses that we create to enlighten our days and navigate our nights.

Thanks to electricity, night doesn’t last as long now, nor is it as dark as it used to be, so it’s hard to imagine the terror of our ancestors waiting for daybreak. On starless nights, one can feel like a loose array of limbs and purpose, and seem smaller, limited to what one can touch. In the dark, it’s hard to tell friend from foe. Night-roaming predators may stalk us. Reminded of all our delectable frailties, we become vulnerable as prey. What courage it must have taken our ancestors to lie down in darkness and become helpless, invisible, and delusional for eight hours. Graceful animals stole through the forest shadows by night, but few people were awake to see them, in twilight or moonlight, when creatures might well have burst forth, forbidding, distorted, maybe even ghoulish or magical. Small wonder we personalized the night with demons. Eventually, people were willing to sacrifice anything—wealth, power, even children—to ransom the sun, immense with life, a one-eyed god who fed their crops, led their travels, chased the demons from their dark, rekindled their lives.

Whatever else it is, dawn is always a rebirth, a fresh start, even if familiar routines and worries charge in clamoring for attention. While waking, we veer between dreamy and lucid (from the Latin lux, light). Crossing that threshold each morning, we step across worlds, half a mind turned inward, the other half growing aware. “I’m still a little groggy,” we say, the eighteenth-century word for being drunk on rum. It’s a time of epic uncertainty and vulnerability, as we surface from disorienting dreams and the blindness of keeping eyes shut for many hours. As the eyelids rise to flickering light and the dimly visible, it’s easy to forget where we are, even what we are. Then everything shines. Paths grow easier to see, food easier to spot, jobs easier to tackle with renewed vigor. In rising light, doors and bridges become eye-catching, the peninsulas of arms and legs lead to one another. We may use all our other senses in the dark, but to see we need the sun spilling over the horizon, highlighting everything and pouring a thick yellow vitamin into our eyes. It’s as survivors that we greet each day, though we’re usually too hurried to savor the elemental in our lives: the reeling sun, moon, and stars; prophecy of clouds; ruckus of birdsong; moss brightly blooming; moon shadows and dew; omens of autumn in late summer; fizzy air before a storm; wind-chime of leaves; fellowship of dawn and dusk. Yet we abide by forces so old we’ve lost the taste of their spell.

When the sun fades in winter, we’re instinctively driven to heights of craft and ingenuity. In the Northeast, rising humans slip from their quilted night-nests and keep warm in heat gusted by fires trapped in metal boxes. Sometimes they venture out wearing a medley of other life-forms: sap from rubber trees attached to the feet; soft belly hair from mideastern goats wrapped around the head; pummeled cow skin fitted over the fingers; and, padding chest and torso, layers of long thick-walled plant cells humans find indigestible but insulating and that plants use to buttress their delicate tissues. That is, galoshes, wool, leather gloves, and cotton underwear. Some humans go walking, jogging, or biking—to suck more oxygen from the air—which lubricates their joints, shovels fuel into their cells, and rouses their dozy senses. Some of us migrate south like elk or hummingbirds.

Right around Charleston, South Carolina, morning begins to change its mood, winter brings a chill but doesn’t roll up your socks, and the sun boils over the horizon a moment sooner, because the planet swells a smidgeon there, just enough for pecan light at dawn, snapdragons and camellias too dew-sodden to float scent, and birds tuning their pipes, right on schedule, for a chatterbox chorale.

By January, the northern bird chorus has flown to cucharacha-ville—or, if you prefer it anglicized, palmetto-bug-ville—where swarming insects and other low life feed flocks of avian visitors. There they join many of the upright apes they left behind: “snow birds” who also migrate to the land of broiling noons. We may travel far in winter, but our birds travel with us.

Painting its own time zone, its own climate, dawn is a land of petrified forests and sleeping beauties, when dry leaves, hardened by frozen dew, become ghost hands, and deer slouch through the woods, waiting for their food to defrost. Part of the great parentheses of our lives, dawn summons us to a world alive and death-defying, when the deepest arcades of life and matter beckon. Then, as if a lamp were switched on in a dark room, nature grows crisply visible, including our own nature, ghostly hands, and fine sediment of days.

After Hours

Waiting for dawn, much is sensible, if not visible. To us, anyway. Some other creatures—bats, moths, fireflies, owls, raccoons, cicadas, spiders, mountain lions—get by just fine. For me, dawn begins before the sun and below the soil, and extends up through sky and weather to the canopy of stars. The visible stars that is. So much surrounds us that we can’t see. Life on other planets, but also the missing matter in the universe. Computations show that stars, planets, galaxies, and all the rest of the visible matter make up only four percent of what actually exists. Where is the rest, the so-called dark matter and, even stranger, dark energy? A yard or street is partly full of the invisible weight of the universe.

At the doorway of the senses, the self chances upon the world. Yet, for the most part, we live a life of surfaces; otherwise we’d buckle under an avalanche of sensations. When we turn on the radio in the morning and hear static or interference as we switch between channels, do we need to know we’re divining lightning strikes on other continents and the hissing death throes of galaxies? Probably not. But, when we do, the aperture of the mind widens as it travels to distant continents and galaxies and back again.

After the black dawn, the white dawn arrives laced with pink fire. Dawn light brings a clarity that’s missing from noon glare or smoggy sunset, however pretty their filters. Sitting on a rusty wrought-iron chair, I turn my thoughts to the beauty of rust, which dissects metal so meticulously, creating freeform bronzes, brown bubbling sandwiches, gritty red icons, supine statuettes, ragged perforations, flaking black-orange memorials to time. We underestimate rust, which may well have sponsored all of life on Earth. In the explicit light, rust declares its past.

Some think it’s easy for life to emerge, for primitive cells like bacteria to form anywhere in the universe. For instance, in the deep ocean trenches, several miles below the sunlit waves, hyperthermophiles bloom—hardy bacteria that breathe iron and thrive in water hot enough to sterilize surgery tools. Hugging the scalding vents, they reproduce in boiling water and can abide at 266 degrees Fahrenheit where minerals abound. Of the many heat-loving microbes haunting the deep ocean, Geobacter metallreducens can even generate its own electricity.

All you really need is rocks and water, and everything else happens by itself. When iron sulfide (rust) from Earth’s hot core meets cold water, the shock creates honeycombed chimneys where the first living cells could have grown. Subject oxygen and carbon dioxide—so plentiful on the young Earth—to heat and high pressure, with rust as a catalyst, and a metabolism naturally ensues. The earliest microbes would have left those cradles to colonize the land. We still carry some of that primordial iron in our cells today. Rust is a very slow fire, and like fire it releases energy as it devours. It also gains in size, prying apart steel in a process known as “iron smacking.” Iron corrodes especially fast when exposed to an electrolyte like water, and, for better and worse, the human body is awash with an electrolyte broth.

“Rust, I bow to you,” I say silently, not wanting to disturb the birds that have begun to pipe, trill, and bark, chasing each other at speed across the sky. My rusty, weathered chair is rich with the fetching poverty the Japanese call wabi sabi.

Wabi originally meant living miserably alone in nature, far from human society, and feeling gloomy, bleak, comfortless. And sabi, whose beauty comes from the patina of age, originally meant “chill,” “lean,” “withered.” But the phrase wabi sabi changed in the sixteenth century, when the hermit’s life of chosen isolation in the woods seemed to offer a spiritual richness society lacked, and the words came to mean an intimacy with nature and delight in the rustic details of daily life. The hermit’s eye turned toward the minute, the crude, the cracked, the incomplete, those objects with interesting crevices—especially if something were rusted, weathered, or worn, revealing the passage of time. It’s a nice felicity that the Japanese word for rust 錆 is also pronounced sabi, returning us once more to the rusty origins of life and the rust at the heart of the word “rustic.” Partly as a rebellion against the glory of the decorative arts, wabi sabi favored the purity of humble forms, but unlike European modernism’s ideal of smooth, streamlined, futuristic creations, wabi sabi valued the organic, imperfect, faded nature of earthy things that were handmade one at a time, not mass produced, and all the more appealing when worn through loving use. Wabi sabi relies on intuitive, right-here right-now observation, without any glance toward the future or even the idea of progress.

A pastoral aesthetic, wabi sabi not only accepts nature as unruly and uncontrollable, it welcomes nature’s rule, beyond the scope of any technology we can create, however sleek and obedient. So, wabi sabi embraces the idea of corrosion, decay to the point of disintegration, and ambiguity, in warm fluid shapes and quietly resonating earth tones. Poetry, too, can be wabi sabi, if it arouses serene melancholy, an acceptance of reality at its most exquisitely mundane, a reality in which things and people break down, but are no less beautiful for that.

Japanese also has many names for beauty. One feels awaré while appreciating the ephemeral, say the transient beauty of decay in the luminous green moss spreading over rotting trees, the mushrooms and toadstools rising from the rich soil, the patches of brilliant gold and red lichen. After a bird has flown, one may feel yoin, silent reverberations that remain. It’s this sensation that poet Wallace Stevens writes of in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” when he celebrates both “The blackbird whistling / Or just after.” One may also experience the poignant beauty known as yugen, described in this way by thirteenth-century author Kamo no Chômei (in An Account of my Hut, 1212): “It is like an autumn evening under a colorless expanse of silent sky. Somehow, as if for some reason that we should be able to recall, tears well uncontrollably.” Or: “When looking at autumn mountains through mist, the view may be indistinct yet have great depth. Although few autumn leaves may be visible through the mist, the view is alluring. The limitless vista created in imagination far surpasses anything one can see more clearly.”

Solar energy lights our days and fuels the plants that prey animals eat before they’re eaten by predators. We eat the sunshine stored in those plants and animals, burning it for energy, which we spend to work, cook, make love, play music, pursue games. And so we’re connected to every other life form on Earth in a skein of interrelated victories of fire, including rust. The universe is most likely littered with planets as rusty as our own. Are they florid with life? If so, how well, and how long, have their life-forms survived?

That question almost qualifies as a koan. Koans are capsules of thought, psychic knots that resist unraveling. In some Buddhist sects, students are assigned phrases or situations to meditate upon, to focus the mind and free it from the bear-trap of reason. For example:

  1. “A man is sitting atop a hundred-foot pole. How does he get off it?”
  2. “A wheel maker makes two wheels, each with fifty spokes. Suppose you cut out the hubs. Would there still be wheels?”
  3. “On a windy day, two monks are arguing about a fluttering banner. The first says, “The banner is moving, not the wind.” The second says, “The wind is moving, not the banner.” Who is right?
  4. “Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?”
  5. “What is the straight within the bent?”
  6. “Pull a five-story pagoda out of a teapot.”

Inexhaustible, koans are intended for live practice between master and student, with illumination as a goal, not interpretation, because, as an old saying goes: “It’s easy to confuse the pointing finger with the moon.” As Zen teacher Norman Fischer explains: “This practice consists of living with and sitting with phrases, until they become very large and very strange, and reveal themselves to us. That is to say, through them we are revealed to ourselves.”

There’s no right answer to these puzzles designed to focus the mind, and I sometimes dwell on koans while waiting in the dark for first light. This morning, I’ve been thinking a little about mu, though I appreciate it’s not something understood by occasional thought. Mu, which translates inadequately as nothingness, often appears in Buddhist practice, and sometimes in this venerable koan: “What is mu?”

As I sit under a coliseum of stars, awaiting the dawn, mu is the everythingness of everything fed by and in time with the everythingness of everything else, except that its particles are too small to be captured in the net of words like “every” or “thing” or “net,” which, like life-forms and galaxies, are only temporary clumps of the stridently irrational mu, a mutable, ultimately manic, mute, munificent force that strings us together as it does the farthest stars. And I am only using the unwieldy symbol of “force” because we are the sort of beings who do, to communicate the shred of universe we homestead and can perceive, when of course there is no force, no we, no universe, not even mu-mesons; only these molecules, this energy pooling here for a short while as Diane, and never again in the same way.

I once read of a Zen master who became enlightened like this: “When I heard the temple bell ring, suddenly there was no bell and no I, just sound.” Imagine no distinction between yourself and the bell, the sound and the universe. Sometimes when I’m swimming, the waves don’t feel separate, the water’s history and my history melt together, and I sense my particles breaking apart and scattering, returning now and then like a school of fish to form what appears solid, pattern, thing, but happens only to be a temporary sack of cells turning together. As sunlight hits the prismatic water, the walls and floor of the pool become a luminous cage holding nothing but thought. Ever since I was a child, for whole minutes at a time, I have effervesced out of my self in an ecstasy of communion with the cosmos at the level of atom and leaf. And yet, I also spend most of each day not in that state, with my zaftig “I” sprawling all over the mind furniture, a slovenly and selfish guest. So, is enlightenment sustainable? Jack Kornfield, of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in northern California, explains that enlightenment isn’t continuous; one still has to do the laundry. But surely how one does the laundry is what matters? Fine, but one still has to go to work, not always with equanimity. Unless one lives in a monastery, it’s not easy to prolong a calm, serene, cheerful equilibrium, which one nerve-jangling phone call can quickly convert to anxiety. In the stir of the world, I’m glad to find slender moments of dawning, when the ephemeral cape of being simply fits.

In the end, life is the best koan—not the word, but the process of living. An endlessly mutating koan created by water, minerals, and heat in the cold furnace of the atom, without meaning or purpose. From that evolved creatures stricken by meaning, afflicted with purpose. But it has always been about rust, the ancient, unknowable, nearly unthinkable rust that created all life, and the rust that obliterates us, intimately, one by one.

Time Well Spent

So many marvels are bustling through this slender dawn: Lens-shaped clouds signaling high winds aloft. Roof shingles overlapping like dove feathers. A busily-sniffing dog reading its scent-version of the morning newspaper. On tree limbs and window ledges, birds facing upwind, to keep their feathers ironed shut, not ruffled up by the breeze. And several apes, walking down the street on their way to work, engaging in social pantomime. Such is the texture of life, the feel of being alive on this particular planet.

Most evenings, I think about the day’s experiences, and choose one that stands out. It may be as zesty as a bowl of great lemon sorbet, as eye-opening as a passage in a book, as peaceful as a lunchtime snooze, as unexpected as a quick slant of sunlight catching dust particles in the air, as pulse-revving as a long-awaited letter, or as smooth as a piece of Endangered Species 70 percent dark chocolate. Or maybe realizing for the first time that the blue butterfly on its wrapper is a Karner blue, named years ago by fellow Ithacan, Vladimir Nabokov, and that the last remaining Karner blues now live among the whooping cranes in Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. An odd synchronicity. Embellishing that realization with words helps to store it in memory. What was the best thing that happened? Reviewing the day’s delights often yields surprises, and serves as a reminder how full a life is, how lucky some days feel, and how even stressful days may contain glowing nuggets of peace, pleasure, or joy.

We can’t enchant the world, which makes its own magic; but we can enchant ourselves by paying deep attention. My life has been changing; I’ve been near death several times, experienced the illness and death of loved ones, and the simple details of being have become precious. But I also relish life’s sensory festival and the depot where nature and human nature meet. Everything that happens to us—from choosing the day’s shoes to warfare—shines at that crossroads.

To reflect the instantaneous takes time, and Monet achieved it through a sort of reverse weathering, like the build up of crystals. In increments barely visible to the naked eye, he layered one brush stroke upon the other, sometimes just skipping a dry brush across the surface to create a flickering quality. Other times, he mixed colors right on the canvas so that you can see the pigments meeting and blending. Or he painted in corrugations—heavy brush strokes applied perpendicular, touching only the ridges of the thinner layer underneath.

“Fat over thin” is basic to oil painting, and for a painting to dry properly, each layer should be thicker than the one below it, layer upon layer, and progressively oilier, or it risks cracking. Unlike thinner fluids, oil paints don’t evaporate as they dry but oxidize—they rust!—which can take months or years. Many art conservators regard an oil painting as truly dry only after eighty years. So, although he painted instants, it took them nearly a century to solidify. For years after Monet finished a painting, even while viewers admired it, the pigments were still in motion, changing invisibly before their eyes.

In his eighties, with failing eyesight, he once more painted the steeply-arched Japanese footbridge in his garden. This time he painted it in thick autumnal colors—brown, red, gold, orange, and green streaks—with only the merest suggestion of a bridge, its railing slabs of blue, the sun vertical brush strokes of ochre and white shining through the open panels. It doesn’t give the impression of a mist-clad morning softening the edges of things and veiling summer’s shrieking greens and florals. Instead it’s an abstraction seen by a deteriorating eye, in jagged edges, angles of paint, and heavy strokes of color declaring their relationship to one another, their strings to the world, their reflection of the rising sun, and their debt to Monet’s aging grip on the instantaneous.

It’s as if he were reaching a brush-wielding hand back on stage from the wings, waving to an audience whose rough whereabouts and clothes he remembers. A Monet still animated, creative, and alive, but declining, not fading but its opposite—becoming heavier-handed and more abstract. Even with most of its details gone, his world still existed as changing instants of color. “I only see blue,” he complained to a doctor at Giverny in June 1924, “I no longer see red… or yellow. I know these colors exist because I know that on my palette there is red, yellow, a special green, a certain violet; I no longer see them as I once did, and yet I remember very well the colors which they gave me.” His sunrises from this period look dark to us, and they did to him, too, but only after several operations to have cataracts removed. Then he looked at his recent paintings, dismayed by all the brown, and destroyed some. When the cataract scales fell from his eyes and he saw the world restored, he repainted some of the water lilies, making them brighter than before. To his friend and art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, he once wrote: “Everything is pigeon-throated and punch ablaze. It’s wonderful.”

As Monet chronicled, no time is more alive than the intimate now, where truths are eternal. Our sense of time changes as we grow, from the elongated days of childhood to the quickening years of old age. We pass through different time zones. Children digest more information, and faster, than adults, and since everything is new, and much of it flashy, there’s a bundle to slowly process. The elderly sense the world with a slower metabolism, and they find fewer surprises, so life seems to stream by. Increase anyone’s metabolism—with a shock for instance, and adrenaline pours to handle the emergency. Then the brain speeds through information, since any detail may count. Time slows down. This is also the world of predator and prey. It’s odd picturing other animals existing in their own private time zones, but I think they must. More than anything else, what we pay attention to helps define us.

With what do we choose to spend the irreplaceable hours of our life? That question comes painfully and late to some, to many only on their deathbeds, and to others, like me, repeatedly and deniably over the years (especially so if one is raising a family), and then repeatedly but less deniably. How one soothes oneself then takes different forms. Myself, I have been a restless sleeper, waking often through this dream, then plunging back into a death-denying sleep. With the death of parents, the looming death of a spouse, the death of younger friends, it’s hard to sleep quite as soundly. I wake, and when I do the beauty of the world, however fleeting, fills me with an incontestable joy that leaches right into my bloodstream. I need only allow it in. Born into a world of light, my senses mature and will decay. But until they do they are the gateways to the mysterious kingdom in which I find myself, one I could not have imagined, a land not really of hope and glory but their opposite, yet no less beautiful for that.

We exist as phantom, monster, miracle, each a theme park all one’s own, and mainly unknowable in the end, not just to others, but to ourselves as well. I often think about the charade of trying to capture a self in a mirror. One day we feel like the toast of the town, the next day the hoax, one moment flighty, the next fully present for and part of life’s contrapuntal fugue. Think about the lunacy of the moon landing, the lunatic fringe of wild loons on a lake in the Aleutians. A word is a kind of pebble in the hand, at once irritant, worry bead, reminder. Nothing surpasses the single suchness of this moment. Presence is always a present, a gift, intransitively given, in some stage of unwrap, waiting to be explored.

Just show up. That’s all we have to do, that’s all I do when I am fully present, for good or bad, right here, right now, without thinking about work or recess. A sleeper can wake and be lured out of bed by the sorcery of the sky as day is dawning. Time well spent. After all (or more accurately, during all), I may not live to the end of this sentence, to lift my felt-tipped pen and settle a tiny black dot on the page. I did. But that was then and this is now, the ripening dawn.

Reprinted with permission from Dawn Light: Dancing With Cranes and Other Ways to Start the Day, by Diane Ackerman. © 2009 by Diane Ackerman. Published by W.W. Norton & Co.